Monday, August 5, 2013

KIRK URSO: A life celebrated

THE words were reflective but didn't come easily and everyone I talked to last weekend ended their interviews the same way - with an incomplete thought that trailed off into silence.

That's not surprising because Kirk Urso, the Columbus Crew rookie midfielder who died suddenly one awful morning exactly one year ago today, led an unfinished life before it was cut short at the age of 22 by an undetected congenital heart defect.

His time was brief but he left an impression wherever he went, whether it was the U.S. Under-17 program, captaining North Carolina to the 2011 College Cup title or proving critics wrong by earning starts for the Crew last season as a rookie after not being selected in the MLS SuperDraft.

Today, his Crew brethren, including his roommate last season, Ethan Finlay, will gather to share stories.

"We have a little something planned to try and honor him, a memorial thing," he said. "It's an open invite for the guys on the team who want to come. Some of these guys didn't know him. We'll do something then maybe go out and have a drink, think about him and talk about him."

Midfielder Ben Speas, a teammate of Urso's for one season at North Carolina, knows people around the country will have Urso on their minds today.

"I'll talk to some people from UNC that Kirk and I both knew," Speas said. "I think about him a lot regardless. It's probably going to be an emotional day. You remember him a little extra, our relationship."

Urso had an uncanny ability to make friends out of strangers and do so quickly. He also was a master prankster who left his "victims" smiling. And, oh, yes, he was just starting to develop as a professional player when an adductor injury sent him under the knife in June 2012. 

Because he was still rehabbing from the surgery he was not with the team Aug. 4 for the match at D.C. United but that day he sent from Columbus to his teammates what would be his final words on Twitter: 

After watching the match, Urso was at  a Columbus club when he collapsed. He was transported unconscious to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. on Aug. 5.  Seven weeks later an autopsy revealed he died of died of arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy — a rare, genetic condition that can cause sudden death in athletes and young people. Today, the Kirk Urso Memorial Fund raises funds in hopes that someday others don’t have to experience the heartbreak his family and friends have endured the past 365 days.

"It doesn't seem like a year," Speas told me. "It seems like he's still here practicing with us. I haven't really thought about that part much. I think about Kirk…"

There was nothing more to say. Urso was funny and introspective. He would catch you off guard with a quip but also catch you if you were falling. That's what made him such a great leader and an unforgettable person.

So, while today is one of sorrow, Urso would want those who knew and loved him not to grieve. 

"We'll remember what he did here in a short time and the memories we have of him," Finlay said. 

"It's weird to think that's it's only been a year because at times, I don’t want to say you forget, but you lose track of time because it does seem like he was just here yesterday."

Crew coach Robert Warzycha once told me he thinks of Urso's passing every day but today will be different for him and everyone associated with the Crew:   

"We're going to laugh and celebrate his life, not his death."

Warzycha also said dealing with the loss of Urso has been the hardest thing he's gone through in his long professional career.

"He was a nice player, an even nicer person. It's a tough one…"

Finlay knows that as well as anybody on the Crew. He and Urso were teammates on a youth team and with the Chicago Fire Premier Developmental League team in 2010 when Urso would fool people with his fake British accent.

Then, they were reunited in Columbus last year and decided to room together. They talked soccer occasionally but mostly about what they wanted to accomplish in life and dreams that were within reach - if only they had the time. 

Finlay misses those conversations. Shortly after Urso's death he moved to a different apartment but admitted recently the past year has not been easy for him. He realizes that things will never be the same, only different. But life must go on.

"It changed my everyday life. That's what I had to adjust to mostly outside of soccer," he said. "But it's been okay. It's been nice my girlfriend is here. It's nice to have a support system outside of the team. There's days you come here (to practice) and battle and you just want to get away.

"I always had that with Kirk. That was kind of the thing that was missing. So when you have that with someone else now it's really nice."

This season has not been an easy one on the field for Finlay and the struggling Crew but he hopes today will serve as a reminder through Urso how much fun life can be. Relax and enjoy the ride.

I have my ups and downs," Finlay said. "Hopefully, I can get consistently playing again and go from there. It's been a rocky season for everyone.
                                                                                     "We'll see what happens but…"

[Photo from @EthanFinlay13 Twitter account today. Kirk (left) and Ethan a day before their first Crew home game on March 23, 2012.]

Sunday, August 4, 2013

CREW VIEW: Fall from grace

Numbers don't lie

THERE are times when X's and O's analysis of a singular match don't do justice to the big picture.
This is one of those occasions where just presenting the facts and letting readers draw their own conclusions is paramount, so here they are:

After beating Philadelphia on Aug 20, 2011, the Columbus Crew was feeling darn good about the direction of the franchise. With a 11-7-7 record, the 40 points were good enough for first in the Eastern Conference, six points ahead of the Union.
The players, staff, management and fans had no way of knowing then that the being on the summit would lead to a backslide that has continued for nearly two full years. It began a week after the win over Philly when the Crew went to Seattle and was humbled 6-2.

Starting with that match against the Sounders, the Crew has played 65 regular-season games, including Saturday's 3-1 loss at Houston, and won just over a third of them (23-29-13). The Crew also lost its one playoff game in 2011 to Colorado to cap 2-7-1 stretch to finish the year.

To be fair, it hasn't been all doom and gloom for the past 24 months because, yes, the Crew did have a winning record last year (15-12-7) and is the only team in MLS to play .500 or better every season since the start of 2008; although with the current 6-11-5 mark that streak is likely to end. (Seattle has posted a winning mark each season since debuting in 2009).

There are many franchises (paging D.C. United, Toronto FC and Chivas USA) who'd love to have anything near the wins accumulated by the Crew over the past five-plus seasons. But expectations in Columbus are massive and the perception is that 2012 was a lost cause because the Crew did not make the playoffs and spent most of the season being a below average team.

Adding to the sense among loyalists that the team is in a spiral is that the much of the success over the past two years came and went quickly. Take out an 18-day span from Aug. 15-Sept. 1, 2012, when the Crew went 4-0-2 and the club has a 19-29-11 mark for the other 59 matches.

So, other than a brief resurgence in the aftermath of the death of rookie midfielder Kirk Urso followed by the Aug. 19 debut of Federico Higuain, Crew supporters have seen far more lows than highs on the field.

And speaking of Higuain, the arrival of the Designated Player from Argentina provided an immediate but ultimately unsustainable boost.

In his 35 games the Crew is 13-16-6, and that's with four wins and a tie in his first five appearances. Since that sizzling start the team is 9-16-5 in 30 games. No wonder angst bathes his face following most every match.

A few final numbers to ponder. The Crew is 10 points out of the last postseason spot and have just 12 matches to make up the difference. It's going to take a prolonged winning streak to avoid the first consecutive seasons out of the playoffs since the 2005-07 era but that will not be easy:

Through 22 matches the Crew has yet to win back-to-back games. No Crew team has failed to win at least two in row in a season since its inception in 1996.

Since you didn't ask

NOW that Anthony Precourt has had a few days to digest his purchase of the Crew and Crew Stadium I'm sure he's eager for suggestions on how to spend some of the whatever millions of dollars he has lying around. ( A classy move, by the way, of former owners Hunt Sports Group to buy a full-page ad in Sunday's Columbus Dispatch to thank the fans but, then again, you'd expect nothing less from the Hunts).

* It wouldn't hurt to occasionally get the team out of a traveling predicament by chartering a flight, especially if and when the Crew returns to CONCACAF Champions League play and has to make arrangements to and from Mexico and Central America during a packed MLS schedule. Players talk and those who are lucky enough to have choices of where they play know who's going to take care of them.

* Get together with Fox Sport Ohio and pay for the extra time if necessary in order to extend the match broadcast slot. Fans in Columbus have come to expect 30-minute shows before and after Blue Jackets' games. That's what major league teams do. It doesn't have to be an additional hour but adding 30 minutes to the normal two-hour block for some pre- and post-game chatter would be appreciated.

* I know, Mr. Precourt, that your first match at Crew Stadium was April 27 when the speaker cabinets in the scoreboard caught fire. If - a very big if - you are planning to stay at Crew Stadium for the foreseeable future could you see to it that a video board from this century be in the plans? And if you're thinking big, how about going massive with one that is shaped in the great state of Ohio that can stand as a landmark for the millions of drivers up and down I-71? I think Ohio State would be jealous.

* Here's a cheap fix needing a few gallons of paint. The visiting locker at Crew Stadium with its white walls and tiles is barebones and sterile compared to those in newer facilities. It's already among the least favorite in the league. Why not making it even more unwelcoming? Everything from the floor to the ceiling should match the black lockers to create a claustrophobic feeling. You could add a gold border or the Crew logo on the wall, anything as a reminder of where they are and who they are about to play.

* Finally, on a more serious note. Lamar Hunt was a humble man who didn't take to the limelight and his sons followed in his footsteps. That's why even after his death in December 2006 they resisted calls to put his name on the stadium that he built.

Now that Precourt Sports Ventures is in charge the first action should be - with the Hunt's blessing - to quickly make a simple gesture that won’t affect future naming rights but still honor an American sports icon: Lamar Hunt Field at Crew Stadium
Come on down!

WHILE most Crew fans were busy fretting over the Crew's numerous missed chances at Houston, the Seattle Sounders were welcoming their newest player.

Of course, a simple introduction in front of 40,000 fans at CenturyLink Field wouldn’t do. The tension could be cut with a plastic knife as U.S. National Team star Clint Dempsey stood at midfield in a Belichick Collection hoodie, waiting to announce which MLS team he was about to join.
As he unzipped the sweatshirt to reveal a Sounders jersey I was absolutely stunned like everyone else. I mean, it was such a secret. Boy, was I fooled. I thought right up to last the last second he was headed to Columbus.

The production got me thinking about the synergy of reality TV and adding drama to every MLS match.

From now on when a substitution is about to be made, all available players should line up by the fourth official in hoodies as fans text vote who they think has been selected. With much fanfare the intended choice of the coach will then discard his top to unveil his game jersey before taking the field.

It could be part of a new marketing campaign: MLS, come for the theatrics. Stay for the soccer.

Friday, July 26, 2013

What lies ahead for the Crew?

A season up in smoke?

Or a is there a fantastic finish coming?
Maybe there's still a little...