The Seattle Sounders FC started the 2011 season this week with a record crowd and some unwelcome controversy.
At the nationally-televised home opener at Qwest Field in Seattle Tuesday, the Sounders played before a crowd of 36,443 (a record for a Major League Soccer regular season game). The drenched and disappointed fans watched their team lose to their rivals, the L.A. Galaxy, 1-0.
KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says there were two controversies plaguing the Sounders even before they set foot on the field.
Blaise Nkufo Let Go
Right before the start of Tuesday's game, the Sounders announced they were cutting ties with designated player Blaise Nkufo, the Switzerland National Soccer Team member the Sounders acquired last year. The Sounders said it was a mutual decision.
Art says Nkufo was earning $480,000 a year - a very good salary by Major League Soccer standards. But he's 35 years old and apparently wasn't happy with his role as a target forward - a physically demanding position that often had him feeding the ball to Sounders star Freddy Montero to score.
Art says, by letting Nkufo go before the start of the season, they avoid paying his salary this year and can look for another player to fill the void.
"The problem was that they did it right on the eve of the game. They kind of mismanaged that and I think they regret having it come at the time it did and who knows if Nkufo could've been a difference maker in that game. He's a goal scorer and his experience may have paid off in that, but apparently this was a long-term call."
Sounders Put a Damper on Pacific Northwest Rivalry
The other controversy has to do with this season's new Pacific Northwest rivalry. Major League Soccer has expanded to Portland and Vancouver, B.C. The Sounders want to limit the number of tickets for Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps fans to 500 when their teams play at Qwest Field.
Art says the goal of having a rivalry like this is to do what they do in Europe - have fans travel by train or bus to a nearby city to cheer on their team. The Sounders say they limited the ticket sales in the name of security. Art says it was a bad call.
"I think opening up the stadium to embrace this rivalry is a lot better way to go than closing it down."
You can find Art Thiel's work at the website Sportspress Northwest.