UNC Tar Heels and Columbus Crew to meet this Sunday in Kirk Urso Memorial Match

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When Kirk Urso died at the age 22 last August, his abrupt passing shook the the national soccer community. But, the sense of shock was most acute at two particular places. First was the North Carolina Tar Heels Men’s Soccer program, where Urso appeared in 90 matches from 2008-11—a school record—and captained the 2011 NCAA College Cup champion. The other was the Columbus Crew, the Major League Soccer club that drafted Urso in January 2012 and made him an opening day started, and where he was rehabbing from an injury the night he collapsed and died of arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, a rare, genetic heart condition.

This Sunday, Feb. 24 at 1 p.m., those two teams will face off in the Kirk Urso Memorial Match at Macpherson Stadium near Greensboro, N.C. All proceeds from ticket sales and a charity auction during the match will go to the newly established Kirk Urso Memorial Fund to support heart health research. The fund operates under the auspices of the Crew Soccer Foundation, the club’s charitable arm, and Sunday’s match is the fund’s initial fundraising event.

According to Crew president and general manager Mark McCullers, the Foundation redefined its focus in 2010 to concentrate on three specific areas: soccer field development in underserved communities, education and literacy programs, and heart health, particularly congenital heart defects and sudden cardiac death.

Urso’s death approximately eighteen months later came as a tragic irony.

“That hit home,” McCullers said, “and we knew creating a fund to ensure Kirk’s legacy around our existing heart health initiatives was the direction we wanted to go.”

The originator of Sunday’s memorial match was actually the Crew’s players, particularly former goalkeeper Will Hesmer, a native of Wilson, N.C. who played college soccer at Wake Forest.

“We have a player seat on the Board of the Directors for the Crew Soccer Foundation, and William was the player representative,” McCullers recalls. “He said this was something that was being discussed [by the players].”

Hesmer, who announced his retirement from professional soccer this week and is now living in Raleigh, is expected to attend Sunday’s match, along with Urso’s parents, who McCullers says gave their blessing for the Crew to establish this fund in memory of their son.

Tickets are available for purchase online until Friday, Feb. 22 at 5 p.m. for $10 each. After that time, match-day tickets will be available at Macpherson Stadium for $15 for adults and $10 for youth.

In conjunction with the match, the club will hold a silent auction to raise further proceeds for the Urso Fund. Some of the more notable items donated to the auction include a Landon Donovan USMNT autographed jersey, a Mia Hamm autographed ball, 2012 MLS Cup team jerseys signed by the Houston Dynamo and L.A. Galaxy, and—perhaps most most coveted in the N.C. area—two tickets to the upcoming UNC vs. Duke men’s basketball game in Chapel Hill. The auction will run throughout the match, and bids may be placed both at the stadium and online.

The Crew face the Montreal Impact in a friendly this Saturday as part of the finale to the Disney Soccer Classic in Florida. Consequently, McCullers says roughly half their squad will travel to North Carolina in advance to prepare for Sunday’s match against the Tar Heels, while the remainder of the team will fly up following the Impact game.

Coincidentally, at the same time as the Urso Memorial Match, the Carolina RailHawks will take on another MLS club, the Vancouver Whitecaps, in a preseason friendly down I-40 in Cary. For cost, marketing and revenue purposes, it’s worth wondering why a joint, double-header event could not be coordinated between the parties. Such a combined effort would have afforded all area fans and supporters the opportunity to not only watch both games and enjoy a grand soccer gala, but also contribute to the Urso charity and honor his memory in the process.

McCullers will only say that there were early, initial discussions about such an event.

“But at the end of the day it didn’t come together,” he continued, “so we wanted to focus on this aspect of it.”

Another recent event that affected the Crew family was former Columbus and USMNT player Robbie Rogers revealing he is gay and stepping away from soccer. Rogers played for the Crew from 2007-11, including the 2008 MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield winning team.

McCullers says he and the Crew stand with Rogers and his decision.

“He was a member of the Crew family, always will be, and that’s unconditional,” McCullers says. “I was surprised, probably more focused on the fact that he’s stepping away from the game, because he’s a very talented player.

“I guess my reaction is that [hopefully] someday this won’t be newsworthy, and guys like Robbie won’t have to make announcements.”

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