COLUMBUS – Kirk Urso was good at sports and a good sport.
And now he’s gone too soon at age 22.
The Crew’s rookie midfielder died early Sunday morning after paramedics transported him from a Columbus club to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. The team through a statement said no cause was determined. The Franklin County Coroner is expected to do an autopsy Monday.
“He had a great sense of humor, one that could brighten even the saddest of days,” his Columbus roommate, rookie forward Ethan Finlay told MLSsoccer.com via e-mail. “He was a one of a kind and that’s why I’m going to miss him.”
Urso reached the College Cup three straight seasons before captaining North Carolina to the national championship in December but despite leading the Tar Heels’ program in several career categories he was not picked in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, falling to the Crew in the first round of the Supplemental Draft.
Yet, the talk the first few days of the preseason camp was the good-natured jabs he took for his poufy hair. Former UNC teammate and fellow Crew first-year player Ben Speas even let it be known that Urso kept a purple hair pick in his car.
A few days later the hair was neatly trimmed and while Urso didn’t offer an explanation it was clear he didn’t want it to be a distraction in his attempt to make the team.
“He respected the coaches, respected his teammates and respected the game,” said Brian Maisonneuve, an assistant coach with the U.S. Under-17 residency program who had Urso under his tutelage for 18 months.
“He was a wonderful kid,” the former Crew midfielder and current assistant men’s soccer coach at Indiana University told MLSsoccer.com in a phone interview. “He was one of my favorites. He came to training every single day with a smile on his face and showed up on the field wanting to get better and wanting the team to get better.”
Finlay spent the summer of 2010 with Urso on the Chicago Fire’s Premier Developmental League team and recalled the fun they had as Urso fooled people with his fake British accent.
“He was a great friend and a great teammate. Full of life and laughter,” Finlay said.
But Urso was serious when it was time to play soccer.
He used the SuperDraft snub as motivation and earned starts in the Crew’s first five matches in place of injured holding midfielder Danny O’Rourke.
“It’s disappointing when you think you’ve had a good college career and you don’t get picked up earlier,” Urso said of the SuperDraft in March. “There’s a bit of a chip but I don’t think about it when I’m playing.”
He even won the trust of head coach Robert Warzycha to take free kicks, a rarity for a rookie, and earned his only point in the fourth match with a corner-kick assist on goal by Chad Marshall vs. New York on April 7.
Urso started the next match but went to the bench a week later when O’Rourke returned and his last appearance was three minutes off the bench against Vancouver on April 28.
Shortly thereafter it was determined an adductor strain would require surgery, which he had in mid-June, and he had not resumed training with the club. He was not with the Crew for their match Saturday at D.C. United.
The timing of his injury was unfortunate. With O’Rourke in and out of the lineup because of injuries Urso might have been able to seal the starting berth. Instead, rookie Kevan George, second-year midfielder Cole Grossman and Tony Tchani, in his third season, have taken turns at the position.
Urso was regarded as a good passer with excellent vision and composure who was adjusting well to the faster-paced pro game.
“I will never forget his fight, leadership, jokes and smile,” Speas wrote in an e-mail to MLSsoccer.com. “He’ll forever be remembered in my heart as one of my best friends and teammates I’ve had the privilege to play alongside.”
Moment of Silence for Urso in Portland
Crew president/general manager Mark McCullers was preparing to fly back to Columbus from a family trip with his family in Florida when he was informed Sunday morning of Urso’s death.
He arranged for Crew assistant coach Duncan Oughton to meet Urso’s family at Port Columbus airport upon their arrival from Illinois and get them settled in a hotel.
“It’s a shocker,” McCullers said in a phone interview with MLSsoccer.com. “My immediate priority right now is to try and support the Ursos and do what we can for them.”
He added that grief counselors will be available for the team and staff and that, while Urso will be honored by the team, discussions of what to do have not started.
McCullers is not surprised by the messages of sadness and support that have been on Twitter all day.
“It says a lot about his reputation,” he said. “He was known as a leader for an NCAA championship team. He was known as a kid with a lot of character.”
Philadelphia Union coach John Hackworth, Urso’s U-17 coach, said in a statement, “Kirk was one of the best kids that I have ever had the pleasure of working with (and I am not only talking about his soccer skills). He was just a great person. I truly respected the way Kirk went about his life. I was so proud of what he accomplished after he left Residency.”
Speas’ will never forget the way Urso embraced him after he transferred from Akron University, where he won the College Cup in 2010, to North Carolina. The coaches planned to put Speas and another player in a hotel room until the dorms opened.
Urso would have none of it.
“He welcomed me, someone he didn’t even know, to live in his room for two-and-a-half weeks,” Speas said. “[That’s] the way a captain would do it, put us teammates before himself so we could grow a bond, one that would raise the trophy four months later.”
McCullers has heard others share similar stories today about Urso.
“He was an unbelievable kid,” he said. “He was a kid that I would certainly point to and tell my son, ‘That’s the kind of person I want you to be.’
“I have no hesitation with that.”