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Trying to understand the frustration around Sounders new announcers

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Ross Fletcher was very much the non-playing face of the franchise.
Ross Fletcher was very much the non-playing face of the franchise.
Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

If you were to create the perfect local play-by-play announcer in a lab, they'd probably look a lot like this: A fan at heart, but not an overt homer; Local, but worldly; Experienced, but still ready to learn. Of course, they'd have the pipes, the vocabulary and the personality, too.

And truth be told, the Seattle Sounders hit a lot of those marks when they announced Ross Fletcher's replacement on Wednesday. It's just that they were kinda split between two people.

In Keith Costigan, the Sounders found someone who has tons of TV experience. He's been working for Fox for over a decade and has worked as a color analyst, studio presenter, interviewer and play-by-play man. No one should question his professional chops.

In Matt Johnson, the Sounders have hired a familiar voice who has worked in radio for over 20 years. Johnson was a soccer fan way before it was cool, has supported the Sounders as long as they've been around and is literally that dude at the pub holding court and talking shop. He's not so different from the average season-ticket holder, he just so happens to be in position to be getting behind the mic.

What's not to like?

Well, plenty if the reaction on this site and social media is to be taken at face value.

Without recapping all the vitriol, angst and, frankly, anger it's possibly best summed up by this poll which as of this writing has over 950 votes.

There's a lot of options on there and the fact that about a third of people have basically said they are perfectly happy to wait and see how this works out, speaks to possibly overstating how angry fans really are. But the option that most jumps out for me is that just 3 percent of people were apparently itching for a change, presumably meaning that a whopping 97 percent of readers of this site would have been happy to bring Fletcher back.

It's important to recognize that as the underlying issue when discussing the reaction to the new announcers. Fletcher was well liked, at least among a very vocal portion of the fan base.

Putting that aside, though, why is the public sentiment so against seemingly qualified candidates?

Let's look at Johnson first, especially since this should be pretty simple. For all Johnson's experience, none of it is play-by-play. Johnson gives every indication that he's going to be working overtime to make sure no one notices.

"I’ve been in radio for 20 years behind the scenes and producing, to make that next step and have it on this platform I find exhilarating," Johnson said. "I think it’s going to be a great challenge, I have some great people around me here that I’m going to learn from and then people in my past that I’ve talked to.

"Eventually it comes down to me, I need to be myself. We’ll have fun. There will be some sarcasm in there because I am that type. I think I believe in my ability to call what I see and be true to Sounders fans. I’m a Sounders fan. I won’t be a homer but I will be. I’m excited about the challenge. The Sounders' fans deserve a high level of study and I think I know the game and I know the league."

In case he wasn't already, Johnson will soon become a familiar character to Sounders fans. Not only will he be doing play-by-play, but he'll be involved in the pregame, halftime and postgame shows; he'll be doing video segments on TV and SoundersFC.com; he'll be on KIRO's weekly show; he'll be on ROOT's biweekly Sounders Insider show; he'll probably be available to MC Sounders-themed bar mitzvahs.

Yes, he's "only" the radio play-by-play man, but he very well may become the face fans most associate with the non-playing component of the team, the way they did with Arlo White and Fletcher.

But really, most of the frustration so far has been focused at the decision to hire Costigan, if not necessarily at the man himself.

The reason has very little to do with his experience, but his background. Costigan didn't just spend two years playing for the Portland Timbers well over a decade ago. No, he's openly admitted the fact that he has continued to root for them and even calls himself a fan. He may or may not be a literal card-carrying member of Timbers Army, but he may as well be in the eyes of many. Not only that, but Costigan will continue to live in Los Angeles and call games for Fox when he's not otherwise engaged with Sounders work.

This is in stark contrast to Fletcher, who not only relocated to Seattle from England, but had started to build a life here and actually still lives here several months after he stopped working for the Sounders.

Costigan's decision to remain in Southern California is perfectly understandable, especially since he's only calling 20 games (the other 14 are nationally televised and Johnson will handle U.S. Open Cup games that are only livestreamed) and is likely not a full-time employee.

But he also seems committed to waylaying anyone's fears that any of this will lead to a diminished call.

"During this process I made the decision to sign with Seattle," Costigan said when asked about his Timbers ties. "I’ve had other opportunities to sign with MLS teams to add on what I do with Fox and I’ve turned it down. I wanted to be part of Seattle.

"Not to compare myself on a grander level but Jamie Carragher was a Everton fan, but the minute he signed with Liverpool he was Liverpool through and through. Same with Robbie Fowler. Kenny Dalglish was a Rangers fan, signed with Celtic and no one gave more to the club than him. Now, the minute you sign with Seattle of course my heart and my allegiance lies with this club. I want us to do well. And I say ‘us’ because I’m part of it now. I’m not going to hide away from the fact that I played for Portland. When I was there, I put my heart and soul into it and I gave everything I could. That will be the same going forward and now that I’m with Seattle I’m excited for this part of my life."

It should also be said that by all appearances this was not Plan A. Shortly after Fletcher's dismissal, it was strongly implied that the Sounders knew who they wanted to hire. Whether or not that's true, Costigan said he was first contacted in December, about two months after it became public that Fletcher was not returning. It seems unlikely that Costigan was the first choice.

Bart Wiley, the Sounders Chief Operating Officer and the man who was effectively in charge of the search for Fletcher's replacement, made it clear there was a massive search and that it was during the process that the team decided to split the radio and TV into separate teams. This at least provides evidence that Costigan was not the first guy the team immediately had in mind when they started their search.

"We talked to a lot of different people, many different agents," Wiley said. "We talked to people whose names you’d instantly recognize and to people who no one had ever heard of who were just needing their big break. We talked to the league office, we talked to other teams."

It will come as no surprise that Wiley is highly confident that he chose the right people and that this will all prove to be a good decision. The team loves Johnson's local ties; he's a known commodity in a lot of ways and they trust he'll put in the time to become a top-notch play-by-play. Similarly, they considered Costigan's Timbers ties and ultimately decided his past allegiance was less important than his current competence and new commitments.

Wiley surely hopes the uproar is temporary, and he's at least trying to say the right things when it comes to managing it.

"The passion our fanbase has never surprises me, whether it’s positive or negative," he said. "That’s why we love working for the organization. I think that's one of the reasons that Keith and Matt are here. They are well aware of the passionate fanbase that we have. We’re excited about the fact that our fans have opinions and I think it’s cool that they voice them."

Whether all of this turns out to be a good move on the whole will be hard to really assess from the outside. But it does seem like, taking our feelings for Fletcher out the equation, these hires have all the ingredients you'd need for a perfect announcer. In time, they might even become one.