On Monday, the Sounders FC touched down in Guatemala City, Guatemala, for their Tuesday Champions League match against Comunicaciones.
It’s the middle leg in a three-game, nine-day quest that will take them to three corners of North America, starting with a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps and concluding with a road match against the New England Revolution on Saturday.
However, the trip isn’t near as rigorous as it was in 1997 when the Sounders, then of the A-League, went to Guatemala for three matches in the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
After winning the A-League title in 1996, the Sounders were entered into the regional championship tournament. However, the group stage matches, set over a six day stretch with one of the club’s acting as host city, fell at the same time as the league’s All-Star game. Unlike either of the past two seasons, though, that meant the Sounders would be without key players as they met Comunicaciones, Necaxa and Cruz Azul.
With three players away at the All-Star game, including player/coach Neil Megson, the Sounders were also hit with injuries to three other starters and were left with just four regular starters on the pitch when they opened the tournament against Comunicaciones. Adding to the difficulties of the travel, the team’s interpreter had to cancel plans to join them at the last minute.
Recently retired goalkeeper Preston Burpo was making his Sounders debut in goal and was excited about taking the field with 25,000 fans in attendance.
“I was stoked,” Burpo said last week, noting the chainlink fence surrounding the field that added to the atmosphere.
The Sounders asserted themselves well in the match, but could not handle the home side and fell 2-0.
Their next match was just two days later and Mexico’s Necaxa took the game to the Sounders early and Seattle only managed a stoppage-time penalty for their only goal in a 4-1 defeat.
That brought them to the final match against Mexico’s Cruz Azul.
A Sounders win would put the home-standing Comunicaciones through to the next round, so the crowd showed up in bunches to cheer for the American side to shock Cruz Azul and help their club.
Burpo warmed up to chants of “USA! USA!” from the crowd on hand.
“They wanted us to win and they didn’t know anything about Seattle – they just knew we were from the United States,” he smiled. “It was sweet.”
Lifted by the crowd support and knowing that the match was being televised back in Seattle on a Spanish language channel, Burpo’s excitement bubbled over.
However, it wouldn’t last long.
Cruz Azul scored in the third minute, but the crowd continued to chant for the Sounders.
In the 13th minute, they added another and in the 16th minute it was 3-0.
“A goal comes pretty early and the chants are still there, but are starting to wane a little bit,” Burpo recalled. “Another goal comes, soon thereafter. Then the chants were more like, “USA?”
By halftime, the Sounders were trailing 6-0, but were still looking to put up a fight in the second half.
They made a better effort to control possession, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Cruz Azul attack. In the end, Seattle went home with an 11-0 loss, wanting more than anything to return to the confines of the A-League.
“I wasn’t horrible, but I didn’t do anything to help the cause,” Burpo said. “In the A-League, we were great. But on that stage, we couldn’t compare. The atmosphere was fun and for me, it was a great experience.”
The Sounders FC, leading Group D with nine points through four matches in the group stage, can clinch advancement to the quarterfinals with a win on Tuesday. They are hoping for a much different feeling when they board the plane on Wednesday than the one those Sounders in 1997 felt.