Hackworth reflects on former U-17 Residency player Urso

CHESTER, Pa. – Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth remembers the bird.

He remembers Kirk Urso saying his recently deceased grandmother told him she was going to come back in the form of a bird and watch him play. He remembers a bird “literally sitting at the end of our bench” during his team’s final group-stage game of the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup.

And he remembers Urso – who didn’t even make it on the roster for qualifying and failed to get any playing time during their first two World Cup games – score the game-winning goal against Belgium to propel the Americans into the knockout stage of the tournament. Hackworth has been thinking a lot about that story recently – and many others – since hearing the tragic news that Urso, a rookie with the Columbus Crew, died Sunday.

“There are lots of memories,” Hackworth told MLSsoccer.com. “That’s why it hurts so bad.”

As Urso’s former U-17 coach, Hackworth had a deep connection to the Crew midfielder – a bond he shared with many of his current Union players. Among them were Sheanon Williams, Zac MacMath, Amobi Okugo, Michael Farfan and Gabriel Farfan, all of whom knew Urso from the U-17 Residency program. Williams and Michael Farfan were also teammates of Urso’s at the University of North Carolina.

The Union are planning on wearing black armbands for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Fire at PPL Park (7 pm ET, Galavision) and will observe a moment of silence. They will also show a tribute video on the big screen before the game, as well as on Comcast SportsNet’s pregame show.

“I was just shocked obviously,” said Williams, who heard the news from the Montreal airport Sunday morning. “I spent a lot of time with Kirk at Residency and at North Carolina. It’s a huge loss and I feel sorry for anyone that knew him because he was such a great guy.”

Like Hackworth, Williams fondly recalled Urso’s goal against Belgium – a goal that was as unlikely as it was dramatic because he said “Kirk wasn’t necessarily one of the starters going in.” But it was also fitting in many ways because Urso worked tirelessly to make his way onto the field, even when it looked like impossible.

“As a coach, I can’t remember the number of times I told him he wasn’t good enough to make the 11 and he just never accepted that answer,” Hackworth said. “He would always just ask me, ‘What do I need to do?’ And then he would turn around and work so hard that he would do it.”

Following his time at Residency, Urso enjoyed a successful four-year career at North Carolina, enrolling the same year as Williams and getting to the 2008 national finals when they were both freshmen. Williams left school after that season and watched from afar as his good friend and former teammate led the Tar Heels to the national championship three years later.

“When I saw him this year, I was happy for him and told him congrats,” Williams said. “He was doing well. Kirk was just a good and genuine person. It’s so sad.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.