The Columbus Crew took a small and painful step toward starting the healing process in the aftermath of midfielder Kirk Urso’s death Sunday from an as-yet undetermined cause.
Players and staff gathered Tuesday morning at the Obetz training facility for the first time since returning from Washington two days earlier after a loss to D.C. United on Saturday night.
Urso, 22, was recovering from surgery in June for an adductor strain and not with the team. He collapsed early Sunday morning at a Columbus bar/restaurant and was pronounced dead an hour later at a hospital.
The practice was closed to the media and players were not made available afterward, although several contacted later in the day by MLSsoccer.com said they were still too upset to talk.
“It was tough to go in and see Kirk’s locker,” goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum told MLSsoccer.com by phone. “Some of the guys obviously knew Kirk better than others. It’s a devastating for everyone, but especially for the ones who were extremely close to him.”
Urso, a rookie from the University of North Carolina, was particularly tight with many of the first- and second-year players who shared similar collegiate experiences such as roommate Ethan Finlay and defender Eric Gehrig who, like Urso, hails from the Chicago area.
“Everybody is taking it differently,” coach Robert Warzycha said in a phone interview. “For some players it might take longer.”
Team president and general manager Mark McCullers addressed the team prior to training and ways of memorializing Urso were discussed. Details are expected soon.
Gruenebaum said the team is considering leaving Urso’s locker as is. A health and wellness professional also talked to the team and coaches.
“He said as much as you can, keep normalcy in your life,” said Gruenebaum. "It’s best for everyone."
That includes getting back on the field. Ohio State men’s soccer coach John Bluem went through a similar situation in September 2001 when freshman Connor Senn collapsed during a game and later died of a congenital heart defect.
OSU postponed their next match and cancelled several practices.
“Within a couple of days, the guys were ready to go,” Bluem said. “We asked them about it and they wanted to get back to the practice field and work out and play the game they loved.”
Warzycha said consideration had been given to postponing Saturday’s match against Toronto FC, but as of now, it is scheduled to be played.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m faced with this for the first time. I’m not sure what’s best, to be honest with you. I think probably we should play as soon as possible. Why wait?”
Gruenebaum agrees: “Playing is the best thing we can do. That’s just my opinion, but it’s a really tough time and everyone has a different way of moving forward.”
It’s apparent that preparing for the match won’t be easy.
Captain Chad Marshall in a text message to MLSsoccer.com said the coaches just wanted the players to work up a sweat Tuesday by jogging, doing shooting drills or small-sided games.
And, yes, there was some laughter according to Gruenebaum.
“In times like these, you need to try laugh and smile as much as you can, especially in a depressing time,” he said. “It’s natural that if Kirk we’re here, he’d be out there kicking the ball around with us and having a good time. It’s really weird that he’s not. You realize that when you go in and see his locker.”
Warzycha is not sure how the players will respond to Wednesday’s practice, the second half of which will be open to the media and public.
“Obviously, we’re going to talk about the game on Saturday but we have to understand the circumstances,” he said.
Gruenebaum feels putting the training gear on every day can be a brief respite.
“I’ll speak for everyone,” he said. “You’ll be sitting around for five minutes being distracted with something fun then all of sudden you’ll think of something that reminds you of Kirk. It will always be there.”