The CONCACAF Champions League has provided a wealth of new opportunities for MLS teams to cut their teeth on the international stage since its 2008 inception, but as fans of teams lucky enough to be in the tournament will tell you, those opportunities are not the only benefits North America’s premier club competition offers.
Along with the added exposure for the teams, the greatly expanded competition (from eight to 24 teams, including preliminary rounds), has offered MLS fans a new way to travel to places they might otherwise never consider going.
“Upon arriving, the first thing I remember was wondering, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’” Sounders fan John Neuharth recalled after arriving in El Salvador. “I had spent the last couple weeks convincing my friends and family that no, I was not crazy for traveling to a third-world country with a history of unrest in order to watch a Sounders match. In reality, the country was a wonderful experience.”
By virtue of three straight US Open Cup wins, the Seattle Sounders have been regular participants in the competition since 2010. To book their debut appearance in the competition, the Sounders had to travel to El Salvador holding a slender 1-0 lead over Isidro Metapán in the preliminary round, and a small group of fans made the trip to Central America along with the team.
“Once we deplaned, we stayed at the airport for about an hour because we'd heard the team flight was right behind us and we wanted to welcome them with scarves up and some songs,” Sounders fan Aaron Reed told to MLSsoccer.com. “The looks on their faces were priceless when they realized that we were there.”
Though Metapán are based in the northwestern Santa Ana province of El Salvador, their stadium did not meet CONCACAF standards, meaning the game was played in San Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlán, El Salvador’s national stadium and the largest venue in Central Ameica.
Once in the stadium, though the Sounders fans encountered something completely unlike what they’d seen in away venues across MLS.
“We got some light heckling when we first arrived at the stadium, but most people just looked at us like we were from another planet,” Reed recalled.
“The security guard [who was carrying a gun] led us through three empty sections, each separated from each other with a chain link fence and barbed wire, until we got to our section for the match,” he continued. “We were in a true terrace. It was large concrete slabs with no seats. There was a moat, a chain link fence and an armed guard between us and the pitch.”
Having come from Seattle, the ECS members were no strangers to wet weather, yet they were still shocked at the conditions presented by Central America’s rainy season, where torrential rain is the norm throughout the summer.
“It was raining that night,” said Reed. "Hard. I live in Seattle, and I've never been as soaked by rain as we were down there.”
The match went ahead in the pouring rain, and Metapán quickly took the lead in the 17th minute. However, just as it was looking like the Sounders’ CCL fate might be decided in extra time, recently signed Álvaro Fernández came through with the goal that would put the Sounders through to the group stage.
“We always sing 'Sounders 'Til I Die' in the 74th minute in honor of the club's founding in 1974,” Reed remembered. “In the 74th minute in San Salvador, in a Noah's Ark rainstorm, Álvaro Fernández scored the greatest goal I ever saw. It was pandemonium. Laughing, singing, screaming, crying, hugging.”
The Sounders held onto their slender aggregate advantage and qualified for their first-ever CCL group stage.
Though the trip offered plenty of opportunities to experience a country many would consider to be out of the way, even off the map, such was the experience of seeing the Sounders in El Salvador, Reed was certain that it was the highlight of the week.
“We spent the rest of the week sightseeing at Mayan ruins, a volcano and relaxing on the beach,” he said. "But even while lounging on the hammock and drinking rum out of a fresh coconut, we were never quite as happy as we were when we were shivering and drenched to the skin while standing on a concrete slab in the 74th minute of a game I'll never forget.”
While the opportunity to see the Sounders make history was certainly the impetus for the small group’s trip to El Salvador, Neuharth was quick to appreciate the other unique opportunities simply traveling to support his team had afforded him.
“Before this trip I never would have thought of going to El Salvador, and afterward I was ready to go back,” he said. “Others said the same thing, and that's one of the main things I took away from the CCL travel – it's an amazing way to get a new unique view of the world, your friends and your club.”