Speas on Urso: “It’s not normal ... our leader is gone”

Kirk Urso, 1990-2012

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OBETZ, Ohio – Three Columbus Crew players particularly close to Kirk Urso took time following Wednesday’s practice to discuss their feelings with MLSsoccer.com following the sudden death of  the rookie midfielder early Sunday morning.

The club announced Wednesday that it will honor Urso before a home game against Toronto FC on Saturday (7:30 pm ET, MLS Live) and that Crew players and coaches will wear a No. 15 armband, which will be replaced by a commemorative uniform patch for the remainder of the season.

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Ben Speas was Urso’s teammate for only one season at the University of North Carolina, but they won a national championship together in December 2011. It was the second title for Speas, who had transferred after winning his first at the University of Akron the season before.

Urso, meanwhile, captained the Tar Heels to the crown after his team had failed in three previous attempts College Cup appearances.

Speas (right) signed a Homegrown Player contract with the Crew in early January and was surprised that Urso was not chosen in the MLS SuperDraft that month, but was thrilled when Urso joined the team via the ensuing Supplemental Draft.

They dreamed of being on the field together again, but that never happened. Speas spent the early part of the season recovering from sports hernia surgery, a similar procedure that kept Urso sidelined for 10 weeks before he passed away.

“I feel bad I didn’t play with him in a Crew uniform,” Speas said. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t do anything about our injuries. I wish I would have seen him more and been around him more.”

Speas said he’s been overwhelmed by the tributes pouring in for Urso, especially from those who played with him in Chapel Hill.

“I’ve been talking to my UNC teammates. This hits them hard,” Speas said. “They know Kirk very well. Obviously, they’ve been with him for four years. He was our captain. He was the leader and everyone followed him.

“It’s not normal,”Speas said. “It’s weird. Our leader is gone.”

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Eric Gehrig, 24, is about two-and-a-half years older than Urso, but they shared an Illinois heritage and some of the same soccer paths – including a stint for the Chicago Fire PDL team.

“It was pretty numbing to be honest,” he said of Urso’s death. “You almost couldn’t believe it. It doesn’t seem real. When you get some alone time it starts to sink in and you start to think why or what happened then it really hits you.”

The second-year defender (right) remembers Urso winning the starting spot for the season opener and just starting to shine when he was felled by injuries.

“Guys rehabbing at the orthopedic center don’t have to be [at the training facility], but Kirk still came and made it a point to be around us at training,” Gehrig said. “That really went a long way with me and the other players, too.

“He always came to practice with a smile on his face,” Gehrig added. “He genuinely loved what he was doing. He genuinely loved being with us.”

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Wisconsin native Ethan Finlay played on the same regional Olympic Development Program team as Urso when they were 15. They also shared a college coach, as Elmer Bolowich came to Creighton for Finlay’s senior season in 2011 after years with Urso at North Carolina. Finlay and Urso had an apartment together in Columbus, but Finlay (right) is in the process of moving elsewhere now because too many memories – good and bad – would be there if he stayed.

Seeing Urso’s empty locker at Obetz for the first time Tuesday was gut-wrenching for Finlay.

“Yesterday was pretty tough,” Finlay said. “I didn’t really like it at first, but now it’s nice. I can sit there. I’ll talk to him because I know he’s there.”

While much of the talk around the Crew is of winning games to honor Urso’s memory, Finlay’s tribute will be everlasting.

“I want to live my life like his,” he said. “Me and Kirk had the same values. There were a couple of things he wanted to do and things he wanted to be remembered for. I’m going to try to have those same things in my life and do some of the things he wanted to do that he never got to do, and even things we wanted to do together, I’ll make sure and do them and honor him in that way.

“I’ll play the rest of my career for him,” Finlay added. “We came into this league together and we’re going to end it together at some point.”