This is the second of a two-part series about the Sounders 11-0 loss to Cruz Azul in the 1997 CONCACAF Cup. You can read Part One here.
Guatemala City’s Estadio Mateo Flores is a classic, midsize, nondescript bowl, with the playing field surrounded by a running track. The participants enter through a tunnel at one end.
In October 1996, Estadio Flores had drawn world attention for all the wrong reasons. Counterfeit tickets and breached entrances resulted in an estimated 60,000 fans jamming into the facility for a World Cup qualifying match between Guatemala and Costa Rica. Mateo Flores capacity was listed at 45,800. The crowd surge began one hour before kickoff; eventually the stampede resulted in 83 dead and 180 seriously injured.
By the time the 1997 Champions’ Cup was held, further security and crowd control measures were in place, and pale blue plastic seats had replaced the concrete terraces, reducing capacity to 26,000.
Awaiting the Seattle Sounders at Estadio Flores on this hot, muggy, summer Sunday afternoon was Mexico’s star-studded Cruz Azul, seeking its fourth CONCACAF Champions’ Cup title but the first in 25 years. La Maquina (The Machine) needed a victory versus Seattle to secure first place in the group, and thus, lift the trophy.
For anyone associated with the already mathematically eliminated Sounders, a sense of foreboding would be understandable. Yet as Preston Burpo and his teammates made their way through the tunnel entrance, their spirits were lifted.
“I’m a big believer that any game you walk into, you can get a result,” Burpo says. “When we’re walking out the tunnel, all the local fans were rooting for us because if we got a result against Cruz Azul, then (host Comunicaciones, playing Necaxa afterward) had a real chance to win.”
Positive Thoughts at First
“So, it was pretty amazing as you’re walking out, and you’ve got all these Guatemalans shouting, ‘U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A!’ You think this is going to be amazing; we’re going to make a run at this thing.”
Acting coach Chance Fry’s pregame speech had also been positive.
“I said, ‘I don’t care who these guys are; let’s go at ‘em. Let’s see what happens and measure ourselves,’” remembers Fry with a chuckle. “That obviously was not the day to do that, because we were playing against a team that was quite good. We were not ready for that, to go head-to-head.”
Before leaving the hotel that morning, captain Peter Hattrup was approached by a stranger. “He offered me cash to beat Cruz Azul,” he reveals. “I wasn’t going to start taking money. I just said, ‘We’re going to try to do our best.’”
Hattrup and Fry had surveyed the Cruz Azul roster. It was stacked.
“At the time they had Carlos Hermosillo and a good Argentine guy (Héctor Adomaitis),” notes Hattrup. Hermosillo was the career scoring king for the Mexican National Team. Aside from Hattrup and Fry, both 33 and coming back from serious injuries, the Sounders were fielding a team whose average age was 24.
Adds Fry: “My memory tells me there were 10-11 national team players on their roster. It was a good team, and we played them wrong.”
The Rout was On
There was precious little suspense, aside from how many times Cruz Azul would score, and La Machine wasted no time getting started. Following a weak Burpo punch-out, Francisco Palencia opened the scoring in the 3rd minute, and the rout was on. Hermosillo and Paraguyan international Julio César Yegros then scored less than two minutes apart.
“They scored early, and they would sprint into the net and go get the ball because they wanted to score as many as possible for goal difference,” remarks Burpo. “It just quickly became a disaster.”
This was about when Sounders skipper Neil Megson arrived home from coaching the Western Conference in the A-League All-Star Game (Note: Megson’s West won, 5-3, thanks to a pair of second-half goals by Seattle’s Mike Gailey). Univision was carrying the Sounders-Cruz Azul match live. He promptly flipped on the TV.
“We switched it on after it had started, and it was already 3-nil,” reports Megson. “So, my dad and I sat down and watched in silence. It was not pretty.”
Just after the half-hour mark came another barrage. Hermosillo ignited a spree of three goals in less than four minutes. Cruz Azul was cruising, up 6-0.
“They were tearing us apart,” says Hattrup. “I remember vividly after they scored the sixth goal, one of their guys picked the ball out of the net and ran it back to midfield. They had a lot of firepower, but it was as if they wanted to break a record. We weren’t good enough to start with, and between being dispirited and tired, the wheels came off.”
It was not unheard-of in Champions’ Cup to see beatings of this magnitude. Nine years before, Cruz Azul had swamped a Belizean side, 14-2. Coincidentally, they next pummeled a Seattle amateur team, Mitre Eagles (featuring Hattrup), 9-0. Those and other annihilations occurred in preliminary rounds.
While Megson contemplated the possibility of being fired the next morning, Fry and Hattrup went into the locker room, hoping to find the right words to staunch the bleeding.
“They did a great job of trying to calm us down,” Burpo defends. “Pete and Chance said, Hey, we’re not going to win this game, but let’s try to stay compact, not go crazy, and let’s be respectable in the second half. It was a good job. But the second half was just about as bad as the first.”
Hermosillo resumed the onslaught in the 49th minute, completing his hat trick. Yegros bagged his second and third goals by the 62nd minute.
“There were several 2- and 3-on-1s with Preston,” Fry laments. “Literally, they got past everybody. He would come out, they would slot the ball over and shoot at an open goal. It was pretty hot, and with the fitness level of our guys and quality of Cruz Azul, we just got run into the ground.”
Barely an hour after thinking anything was possible, Burpo’s exasperation was evident to everyone as he began throwing his cap in disgust after each successive score.
“My frustration level was pretty high,” he confirms, “and I was disenchanted with the way things were going. I probably threw my hat a couple times in the latter stages. I was just boiling over. Anyone who would’ve been wearing a hat would’ve done the same thing.”
An own goal and penalty two minutes apart made it 11-0 in the 74th minute, but that wasn’t the end of the bad news. Forward Chugger Adair suffered a torn ACL and would miss the Sounders’ remaining nine league games.
A Monumental Beatdown
Eleven-nil. It was historic. And effective. Cruz Azul, with a plus-12 tournament goal differential, had all but clinched the championship (Necaxa and Comunicaciones would draw, 3-3). At the other end of the spectrum, no professional club from Seattle or Tacoma had ever lost by more than six goals.
“I was never on the losing end, the downside of a beating like that,” offers Hattrup, whose pro career spanned 15 years. “When the teams I coach get smashed, I know how it feels.”
Thankfully, there was scarcely an inch of mention in The Seattle Times. Still, of all the Sounders games played that season, this was beamed to the biggest live audience by far. Fry was told 20 million viewers tuned in, from Central and North America. During an LAX layover on their way back home, Hattrup encountered an acquaintance who had witnessed it.
“They said they saw the game; it was 6-0. I say, No, that was halftime,” states Hattrup. “They were watching it live on Univision, and thought it was a condensed highlights of the game because there was a goal every few minutes. They were just watching the first half.”
To this day, Fry says he takes full blame for electing to play Cruz Azul straight up. “Even if we had packed it in, it might’ve still been 7-8 goals.” All are in agreement that one or two more first-team players would not have had much impact; a full team, including all-stars, would still have been huge underdogs. However, they might have beaten a team like Comunicaciones.
Within a week of returning home, matters grew far worse for Fry. He was running a day camp on a particularly hot afternoon yet began to shiver. His body ached all over. He was unable to train that night, wisely opting to go home instead. Hours later, Fry’s father, a former firefighter, took one look at his son and called 9-1-1.
“It was like the flu times 10,” remembers Fry. “I was laying in Overlake (Hospital), wondering if I was dying.” A disease specialist was notified, and he quickly determined the diagnosis: Fry had been bitten by a mosquito in Guatemala and contracted Dengue fever.
It turned out to be Fry’s final season of play. Hattrup stayed with the Sounders and indoor Milwaukee Wave through 2001. Burpo would soon become Seattle’s starter in goal and finish as the career leader in shutouts during the A-League/USL era. Afterwards, he played five years in MLS. Now goalkeeper coach for the New York Red Bulls, Burpo is seeing firsthand how 20 years has changed American professional soccer’s approach to CONCACAF competitions.
“I’ve been so lucky to see what it was like back in ’97, to where we take it seriously now,” attests Burpo. “We put a lot of time and investment into Champions League, and we travel properly. It’s amazing how it’s changed and changed for the best. It’s cool to be a part of it.”
Megson had expected to be looking for work following the Cruz Azul crushing. It was an absolute embarrassment and ultimately, whether he had traveled to Guatemala or not, it was his team. He walked into the Sounders office that next day, and there was the GM.
Actually, Well Done
“He smiled and said, ‘Great result at the all-star game,’” Megson recalls. “I said, ‘Well, we didn’t do too well down in Guatemala,’ and he said, ‘No, we didn’t.’
“So, I went in my office and sat down and thought, ‘OK, I’m not getting fired.’ It was the low point of my career, but no one noticed. Actually, I’d gotten congratulated. I called my dad, and he was shocked. It was fricking hilarious. It was a bizarre thing.
”In Brazil I would’ve gotten hung. If that happened nowadays, I think Schmetz would find himself on the unemployment line. It was a bizarre event where no one knew what the hell (Champions’ Cup) was, and it was all soon forgotten.”
Of course, every once in a while — such as when the Sounders are back in Champions League action — someone comes across that aberration of a scoreline. And if they do, so be it. Time may not have healed the wound, but surely, it’s applied plenty of salve.
“It’s kind of fun; a footnote in history,” says Fry. “If we had lost by 3-4 goals, nobody would be talking about it. But periodically we laugh about it, because it was such an ass-kicking live on TV.”
In summary, Megson puts it this way: “I avoided getting fired and instead got a pat on the head. So now, luckily we can all piss ourselves laughing about it.”
Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.