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Jul 27, 2005

When league champions clash

When D.C. United was regularly reaching the MLS Cup final in the early years of the league, the system began working against the team. United's roster was defused by the MLS salary cap and the team was soon dethroned, a potential dynasty burned out almost before it could get started.

Quite the opposite is happening at Chelsea FC. The Blues' preseason tour of the U.S. indicates they are going from strength to strength. Coach Jose Mourinho used 23 players in Chelsea's 1-0 win over Milan in Foxboro Sunday night. The last starter to be substituted was Claude Makelele, indicating Mourinho's dependence on him and once again highlighting Real Madrid's lack of appreciation of the role of a defensive midfielder or any other defensive-oriented role.

Afterward, Mourinho noted Makelele will play about 70 percent of Chelsea's projected 70-game schedule. This will leave a minimum of 21 games for a young backup player, a sufficient amount of time for development when combined with high-level training sessions.

This is a great contrast with what has been happening in the MLS. As much as D.C. United appreciated Ryan Nelsen, there was little chance he could be persuaded to turn down a move to Blackburn Rovers. United played a 30-game regular-season schedule and did not have time to groom a successor for Nelsen. In preparing for this season, United found a replacement for Nelsen in Bobby Boswell, but had to suffer through a devastating Champions Cup defeat to America in Mexico City along the way.

League champions should not be losing their best players and sustaining 5-0 defeats. But such occurences are almost inevitable for MLS teams because of the league's structure. Instead of consistently producing high-level teams, D.C. United has been operating like a phoenix, going up in flames and rising from the ashes.

Chelsea, meanwhile, dominated the Premier League last season, rising from a contending team to one of the most powerful clubs in Europe during three years of investment by Roman Abramovich, who simply bought as many high-level players as possible.

Now that Chelsea has joined the elite, the spending sprees could be nearing an end and the long-term planning is starting. Chelsea is building a training center outside of London and accelerating its emphasis on developing young domestic talent.

"We are not going to keep throwing money around," Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon said. "Just because we've got some, we are not going to throw it around willy-nilly. You can't just keep buying talent. Our business model is based on becoming self-sufficient, so you can't just keep spending $50 million on players. "We are going to develop talent, identify talent earlier, bring one young player through for the first team every season."

There has been resistance to the emergence of Chelsea. During a press conference at a Boston hotel, Kenyon accused other clubs of attempting to sabotage Chelsea's plans by promoting unrealistic scenarios about player acquisitions. Kenyon denied Chelsea's interest in Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko and Juventus' David Trezeguet. A day later, European news reports said Abramovich himself had offered 80 million euros for Shevchenko, who refused the deal to stay with Milan. Shevchenko was so eager to quash rumors that he announced he would join Milan for the Chelsea rematch at Giants Stadium Sunday, July 31.

In fact, many of Chelsea's prospective dealings could have been embellished or fabricated. But there could be something substantive to Abramovich-Shevchenko connection. Abramovich was in Foxboro for Sunday's game, then returned to his yacht in Seattle, indicating he would return to the East Coast. Abramovich will also be at Giants Stadium Sunday.

"There have been two kids on the block and now there are three," Kenyon said of the Arsenal-Manchester United combination. "We are upsetting that club. So, they are trying to blow us off track. A lot of them are being disruptive and doing things that are time-consuming, but that is not going to stop us doing what we are doing."

Kenyon might be promoting fiscal responsibility, but someone at Chelsea is acting like the kid who wants just one more little piece of cake for dessert. Just before Chelsea arrived in the U.S., it purchased Shaun Wright-Phillips from Manchester City for $36.7 million, and will likely pay a price of more than $34 million for Michael Essien of Lyon.

There is some doubt about whether Chelsea can increase its fan base in Britain. But Chelsea is going to be anything but anonymous. "The reality is the awareness is not up with Real Madrid and Manchester United," Kenyon said. "We have less fans but we are growing our fan base quicker. Ultimately, it will be success on the field that will drive the commercial product and the fan base, and we are ahead of schedule on that."

The other reality is that success breeds success. And money attracts money. Chelsea might not overtake Manchester United in every way, but should Chelsea win the Champions League the equation could continue to change in its favor.

Abramovich could well use some sort of Russia-Ukraine connection to convince Shevchenko to join Chelsea, though he might need another year. If so, who could Malcolm Glazer possibly answer with?

In any case, Chelsea's ambition is not going to diminish soon. Chelsea at full strength (and the team appears to be nearing that point) is far ahead of any MLS team -- no matter what happens in the United-Chelsea match at FedEx Field Thursday night.

Chelsea is finding success because of its willingness to invest in players. MLS teams are improving despite their reluctance to spend. "It is a measure of where the sport is going in America, because three or four years ago we wouldn't have entertained the possibility of these games," Kenyon said after the press conference. "But it is the quality of the competition that we are interested in, and not just taking the club and touring. We want to connect with the soccer franchises and the fans."

Asked about the direction of the MLS, Kenyon replied: "It needs to evolve. I am not being critical of it, because every place has its own way of doing things -- the way things are doine in Brazil is different than somewhere else. The (MLS) needs to be less insular, because it is a global marketplace. Ultimately, you will see U.S. players being more free to do what they want to do."

Would Chelsea be interested in acquiring U.S. players? "There is the athletic quality of American players but I think we are a generation away from it being natural," Kenyon said. "I like to think we can find players here but the important thing is for them to receive the right training."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.