As the Best of 2012 series continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 12 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We'll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 19 until Dec. 30, when we unveil what our panel of 20 editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2012.
Tragedy befell Major League Soccer in 2012, and Columbus Crew beat writer Craig Merz looks back at the lasting emotions surrounding story No. 5 on the countdown: the death of Kirk Urso. The passing of a current player was a first for the league, an emotional rallying point for the Crew and, months later, still one of the moments we won't soon forget.
There is no playbook on how to handle the tragedy that befell the Columbus Crew in the early hours of Aug. 5, when rookie midfielder Kirk Urso suddenly passed away from an undetected congenital heart defect at age 22.
More than four months later the emotions are still frayed as the organization, their fans and the entire soccer community come to grips with how a fit, personable and talented young man could be gone.
by Brian Bliss
Federico Higuaín's first MLS brace
I stand up in the radio booth with club president and general manager Mark McCullers during the games, and we watch from up there. When Higuaín hit the first one, Mark and I were doing the full, two hands above our heads, touchdown-type thing with high-fives and everything. Fifteen minutes later, he hits the second one and Mark is dancing a jig. I might not have been dancing a jig, but I was pretty excited to see it. Then you get down to the locker room and it’s the same thing from the coaching staff and all the way around.
Everyone was pretty excited about it. It was his coming out party, and he had a whole lot of hype coming in. He delivered and showed that he could be a force in the league.
Kirk’s death took the wind out of our sails for sure, and I think it would have taken the wind out of anyone’s sails. But the guys rallied around that and Federico came right when that incident occurred with Kirk, and I think Federico was actually a catalyst to raise the spirits of the group. People were believing in him as a player and they knew he could take a little on his back and relieve some of that pressure the guys were dealing with on the field and with everything with Kirk. It was heaven-sent that he came when he did.
"I think about him every day," Crew coach Robert Warzycha told MLSsoccer.com earlier this month.
Urso's death resonated far beyond the city limits as former teammates and coaches expressed their grief. Urso grew up near Chicago, played for the Fire's developmental league team and in the US youth national team system. He went to the University of North Carolina, captaining the Tar Heels to the national championship in 2011.
He made an impression at every stop.
Former Crew midfielder Brian Maisonneuve, Urso's U-17 assistant coach, spent several minutes reminiscing with an interviewer about his former pupil a few hours after learning of the death.
Later in the day, Maisonneuve called back and made a request: "I've been talking to a lot of people today about Kirk and one thing bothered me. I told you earlier Kirk did almost everything right.
"That's not accurate. Please say he did everything right."
The ensuing days were a fog. In the first practice open to the media after Urso's passing the players were like zombies, answering questions but not really being there.
Others struggled as well. This was the first time MLS had to deal with an in-season death of one of its active players, and the league supported the Crew organization by providing counseling and, more importantly, worked with them and Toronto FC to postpone their match on Aug. 11 so the Crew players and staff could attend the funeral in Illinois that day.
With the memories of a rainbow appearing at the graveside at the conclusion of the service still fresh, Columbus took to the field again five days later in Crew Stadium against the LA Galaxy.
In a moving tribute in the 15th minute (commemorating Urso's uniform number) the stadium fell silent before the sounds of mournful tones of "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes were heard from the Nordecke supporters section (video above).
Properly inspired, the Crew played to a 1-1 tie, then with the debut of Designated Player Federico Higuaín the next match, reeled off a tie and four straight wins to put themselves in playoff position.
Alas, this was no Hollywood ending with Columbus hoisting the MLS Cup at the end of remarkably trying season: They stumbled down the stretch and missed the postseason by a point.
"The team did very well under the circumstances, but maybe Kirk's death affected us at the end of the season a little bit," Warzycha said. "It affected each player differently but it had a huge impact on everybody."