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Looking back on the Sounders’ first, and worst, CONCACAF appearance

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A series of missteps leading to the Seattle Sounders’ first Concacaf competition left an indelible mark. Part 1 of 2.

Sitting in his living room, watching the catastrophic match unfold on the TV, Neil Megson had a growing feeling this would be his last day as head coach of the Seattle Sounders.

This was his team being shredded, gutted and embarrassed before its biggest audience and on the greatest stage to date.

Megson’s father, a former coach himself, sat with him, staring at the screen in shock. Neil broke the silence.

“Holy s***. Holy s***,” he repeated. “I think I’m going to get fired in the morning.”

His father, Don Megson, went further, stating, “You deserve to get fired.”

If Sounders lore could bury a single score line from the past 44 years, certainly this selection would be weighted heavily. There are many reasons, the 11-0 beating being first and foremost. However, there’s more to it.

In some ways it was Exhibit A of where American professional soccer existed in the mid-90s; the scarce resources, skewed values and naiveté. It’s also a story of the Concacaf Champions League’s past and Seattle’s first encounters with Mexican powers and playing abroad. Stir it all together and it’s one hot mess, even if some failed to recognize it at the time.

And today? Today it remains lavish fodder for hearty laughter, even for those who endured its most painful aspects. That is to say, nowadays Neil Megson can not only laugh about it, it’s actually difficult to stop.

Ten Goals to the Good

In 1997, Megson was serving his second season as player/coach of the Sounders. In his first year as a manager, Seattle repeated as A-League champion, and one of the spoils was the sole U.S. automatic entry into Concacaf’s Champions’ Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League.

At that juncture in Sounders 2.0, the Champions’ Cup registered a collective meh among A-League leaders and Sounders upper management, and the first outing did nothing to change that. In order to reach the tournament’s final stage, Seattle would host Caribbean Zone winner SV Transvaal of Suriname. Rather than rent their usual venue, Memorial Stadium, the Sounders hosted it at a site worthy of a preseason scrimmage, suburban Federal Way High School.

It was no contest. Transvaal, once a Concacaf power with a pair of Champions’ Cup championships, was on the wane regionally. The Sounders were then essentially a semi-pro outfit. Still, they manhandled the Surinamese, 10-0.

Twenty years on, Megson says he still receives abusive emails from Transvaal supporters. “They call me every name under the sun, and some even demand a rematch,” he quips. “Well, if we beat ‘em 10-nil, (Sounders FC) will beat ‘em 25-nil.”

It’s No Big Deal

While the win secured Seattle passage to the finals, to be held in Guatemala a month later, it also created a false impression of the tournament field as well as a serious scheduling conflict.

Megson, who had been raised near Sheffield and Bristol before his dad became Portland Timbers coach in 1977, was fully aware of the Champions’ Cup stature as confederation club championship. However, within the front office he was in the minority.

See, the A-League All-Star Game was set for July 15, the same day the finals began in Guatemala City. Furthermore, the league named Megson as coach of the Western Conference all-stars while the Sounders’ top two scorers, Mike Gailey and Geoff Aunger, were selected to play.

“At the time, the owners and office staff didn’t have a clue what (Champions’ Cup) was. They really, really did think the all-star game was a bigger event,” remembers Megson. “The GM couldn’t understand it whatsoever. We’d just played (Transvaal) and beat them badly, so he thought it was a joke of an event, and I got sent to the all-star game with our all-stars.”

While the Sounders had won seven of eight and stood 14-5 in league play, it would be a vastly different cast in Guatemala. Altogether, six regular starters would not be traveling. In addition to Megson, Aunger and Gailey, venerable veterans Bernie James, Mark Watson and David Hoggan stayed behind in Seattle.

“We took down a skeleton crew,” admits Peter Hattrup, who had recently returned to Seattle after being released by the MLS Dallas Burn. Since his A-League MVP season two years earlier, Hattrup had torn his MCL and ACL.

We’re Just Going on a Trip

Chance Fry, like Hattrup, had been voted 1995 Best XI. But after scoring six goals in the first seven games of ’96, he suffered a fracture of his tibia and fibula, each in two places. Thirteen months later, he had played in only one game.

“If they called it Champions League, nobody really knew,” says Fry. “We were going on this trip, and I was in the office with Neil Megson and he said, I’m not going. They go, OK, Chance, you’re in charge. And I’m like, Whatever.” Hattrup would serve as captain, in place of James.

Prior to the Sounders’ first Champions League trip in 2010, each member of the travel party received a series of vaccinations. Opponents were scouted. Only recently-signed striker Blaise Nkufo was absent.

The ’97 Sounders Champions’ Cup squad was so thin that Megson arranged for Doug Morrill, a former Seattle player then studying law at Stanford, to join the team en route. Four members of the roster had yet to play in a game, including back-up goalkeeper Preston Burpo, a rookie.

“It was my first chance to play,” Burpo says, “so I was excited. I thought this was going to be awesome.”

Joining Seattle in the four-team group was the host club, Guatemalan champion Comunicaciones, plus Mexican league and cup winners Necaxa and Cruz Azul. Burpo was well aware of the latter, and he knew if it was a Concacaf tournament, it would be hotly contested.

“At first, I thought there’s obviously no way they would send the coach and players to the all-star game because we were going to be facing these awesome teams in Guatemala,” Burpo observes. “It was always going to be tough, and then knowing a few key people didn’t make the trip made it just that much harder and challenging.”

Dude, What’s Going On?

Fry had never coached professionals previously, and the stature of the competition hit him full-on upon touchdown in Guatemala City.

“We’re being greeted (by officials), we don’t have to go through customs, and I’m told we’re being taken to the press conference,” he shares. “I’m looking at Pete and we’re wondering, What the hell is going on? Back then no one had cell phones, so it wasn’t like I could just call Neil and say, Hey, dude, what’s going on?”

Burpo’s professional baptism was the tournament opener and, by virtue of elimination, was considered the most winnable for Seattle. Apart from the fact it was played before 17,000 unreceptive fans, that is.

Fry had played in the same stadium 15 years earlier, in a Youth World Cup qualifier. “Anytime you travel in Concacaf, it’s going to be tough,” says Fry. “Anytime you play in those countries, you’re playing on s*** fields, with referees that are different, and hostile crowds with batteries and bags of piss flying at you. Even if the teams are ranked below you, it’s not easy.”

Comunicaciones broke a scoreless deadlock just before halftime, then added another goal late as the Sounders pressed for an equalizer. Burpo, facing 29 shots, acquitted himself by making eight saves.

Next up was Necaxa, Mexico’s defending champion, featuring a young Cuauhtémoc Blanco, two days later. Dusty Hudock spelled Burpo in goal. Again, Seattle was down only 1-nil at half.

About to be Overrun

“We were in that game,” asserts Hattrup, “and to be fair, we should’ve had two penalties in the first half.” Hattrup finally got his penalty call in added time, but it was a consolation goal. Necaxa had overrun the Sounders in the final 20 minutes for a 4-1 final.

Seattle had been eliminated from contention, but the third round of games would determine the championship. There would be two days off, and so some of the younger players found the nightlife irresistible.

“Some broke curfew, but that’s what happens when you send a bunch of semi-pro kids to a competition like that,” reasons Megson. “We only had so many players down there, and you can’t bench them. So, you get your ass handed to you.”

It was the morning of July 20, 1997, date that would lilve in Seattle soccer ignominy. Comunicaciones and Necaxa would meet in the other half of the doubleheader, preceded by the Sounders and Cruz Azul just as the daytime heat reached its zenith. An inexperienced, unfit, semi-pro team would be pitted against seasoned pros of great pedigree with plenty to play for under a blazing sun. It truly was a recipe for disaster.

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission. The second part will appear soon.