It was going to take a special kind of goalkeeper to replace Kasey Keller. Lucky for the Sounders, that's exactly what they found in Austrian Michael Gspurning.
SEATTLE: His name is Michael Gspurning, not Kasey Keller, and he has worked hard to imprint the distinction.
At the end of his first Major League Soccer season, the Seattle Sounders goalkeeper no longer toils in the shadow of one of the best goalkeepers in U.S. history. The 31-year-old has quickly established himself as one of the league's top goalkeepers, posting the third lowest goals-against average in league history and finishing third in MLS Goalkeeper of the Year voting. He also led the Sounders to a 14-5-6 record in MLS matches he started, the best winning percentage in the league.
From the time Keller announced his impending retirement in 2011, everybody was eager to know who the new Sounders goalkeeper would be — who would dare to aspire to replace a local legend the likes of Keller.
"I knew that Kasey is here, but somebody has to take the job. If it's not me, somebody else would have taken it," Gspurning said over a cup of coffee at Starbucks in late November. "I saw it as a big chance to play here, and I was just hoping that the fans accepted that now, Kasey's playing career is over, and hopefully ... when I take the spot, they give me the possibility."
At 6 feet, 5 inches, it is difficult for Gspurning to hide. Add in the fact that he took over from Keller, and there was no doubt he would draw a lot of attention. Luckily for the gregarious Gspurning, his personality is as big as he is.
In Seattle, having a foreign accent is a good start toward making friends. Embracing the quirky culture and reflecting the Pacific Northwest's laid-back-yet-outgoing mentality also helps. Finally, throw in the fact that he is one of the best in the country at his job — headquarters of Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks, Seattle loves its winners — and Gspurning fit right in.
On Dec. 7, 2011, Gspurning officially signed with the Sounders, coming off four seasons and 89 appearances for Skoda Xanthi in the Greek Superleague. Since then, he has left his own stamp on the rabid Seattle soccer supporters and the league.
His goalkeeping style reflects his long frame. He uses every inch of his body to stretch out for shots and crosses. Gspurning finished third in both 2012 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and Newcomer of the Year voting despite missing a good chunk of the season due to a hip injury. While players such as Thierry Henry and David Beckham needed some transition time after leaving Europe for the United States, Gspurning's learning curve was noticeably shorter.
Of course, this isn't the first time the Austrian has made the most of a similar situation. In Greece — a place Gspurning describes as having soccer media that is "not so friendly" — he won the league over with his skill, receiving honors as Foreign Goalkeeper of the Year twice in the Superleague.
He earned the nickname "Cerberus" from the media after saving the first three penalties he faced one season. Cerberus is a three-headed dog that protects the entrance to the Underworld in Greek mythology. The nickname represents the lanky goalkeeper's ability to be everywhere inside his six-yard box at the same time.
Michael Gspurning's unique character is built on years playing in Austria and Greece, two of the lesser known Central European leagues. Gspurning's career started in the youth teams at FK Austria Wien, 125 miles away from his birthplace in Graz.
A 17-year-old Gspurning broke into the Wien first team at the turn of the millennium. He spent a season as the third-choice goalkeeper, but he did not make a league appearance before moving on to DSV Leoben in the Regional League Central, the third level in the Austrian pyramid.
He turned enough heads there to move on to ASKÖ Pasching in the Austrian Bundesliga, where he mainly served as the No. 2 goalkeeper, and finally to Xanthi in Greece, where his career took off.
"Especially in Austria, because we are a small country and a small league, everybody says, ‘I want to go to a foreign country to play,'" Gspurning said. "In the end of the day, if they have the chance, most of them don't do it, or they are waiting, and then the chance is gone. I was always, ‘Yeah, if I have the chance, then I do it.'"
It was that same willingness to travel to unknown lands that led Gspurning to Seattle. First, it would lead him to four seasons of progress at Skoda Xanthi, which is where he was playing when he earned his three caps with Austria.
When he fell out of favor with Xanthi management in 2011, the Sounders put in an offer to bring Gspurning to MLS. He accepted, choosing to play for a relatively new American club instead of Greek giant Panathinaikos, the most successful Greek club in terms of continental achievements.
"There was much more money in this offer (from Panathinaikos)," Gspurning said. "As a professional athlete, you have just a short period to make money, and in this case, they have to make a decision. But in the end, I knew that Seattle is much better for me and for my family, and I am happy to make it here."
Still, the decision was not that simple. Gspurning knew that if he came to Seattle, he would have a tough time breaking back into the Austrian national team.
"I knew that it's tough to come to the national team if I'm going to Seattle, and maybe because I was in that moment not in the national team, that made it easier to make the decision to (come to) Seattle," he said. "But it's now my performances and my standing are recognized in Austria, too."
If he stayed in Greece, Gspurning would be closer at hand for the Austrian technical staff to see. He is convinced that if he stayed, he would have at least been invited to some training camps.
"If I had signed with Panathinaikos, I would for sure be in the national team," he said. "It has nothing to do with the MLS or the Seattle Sounders, that here is not quality, it's just more about that you're looking for close solutions, and it's not easy for a player to fly around the world and play games. ... This was also a decision I had to make. I said, when I signed for the Sounders: OK, if I do this, and if I'm going to America, then I do it with 100 percent, and I don't regret anything, and that's also including with the national team."
Panathinaikos is a well-supported club, playing in 69,618-seat Athens Olympic Stadium. The Panathinaikos Alliance votes on club decisions. The Panathinaikos-Olympiacos rivalry, known as the "derby of eternal enemies" or the "mother of all battles," is the fiercest in Greece.
But that's where the similarities stop between the Athenian club and Seattle Sounders FC, which also draws large crowds, has a highly involved Sounders Alliance and plays in the most heated rivalry in the league with the Portland Timbers.
"Really, the only thing what was (advantageous about) Panathinaikos — except that I was playing in Greece already and everybody knew me — was the money," Gspurning said. "But at the end of the day, that's not all about it. We made the decision to come here."
In Greece, even the team's own fans can be problematic after a loss.
"It's better to stay at home. If you lose, it's better to avoid going out too much to the streets," he said. "It's OK that the fans are disappointed, but really, you give everything. You give everything, and sometimes, it's just not enough. Of course, we disappoint the people and our bosses and coaches, but at the end, we are just human beings. We all make mistakes. We all don't have our best days. It's quite a good thing that here, people understand this more, and they're supporting us in a positive way and not always with pressure or negative kind of stuff."
Quite the family man, Gspurning said the difference between the biggest rivalries in Greece and the biggest rivalry in MLS is stark.
"I remember when we go in Portland to the game, we're driving with the bus there, and you see the families and Portland jerseys and Seattle jerseys, and they're walking close together, and there's no (problem)," he said. "There's a rivalry, a really good one. In the stands, they are chanting to each other, and it looks really great, but you never feel uncomfortable to bring your child or bring your wife to the game. In Greece, you wouldn't go as a family. You wouldn't go to the game because something will happen, and a lot of riots (do happen). That has nothing to do with soccer or any sport. In general, what I really like here in the States is the fan culture. They really enjoy the game."
Gspurning speaks as frankly on this topic as all others, pausing momentarily just to get the right combination of words out in his second language. He speaks German, English and Greek, and he is not shy about taking questions in any of the three.
Gspurning comes across as genuine, not putting forward a perfectly manicured version of himself polished for the cameras and the papers, in contrast to some of his professional athlete contemporaries.
Keller, in contrast, always seemed destined for a career behind the microphone after his playing days, often giving carefully measured responses and rarely veering off script. Gspurning, on the other hand, would have more trouble with media vultures.
After his first MLS game, a 3-1 win on St. Patrick's Day over Toronto FC, writers crowded around his locker, eager for reaction. They asked him about the only goal he conceded, a Ryan Johnson strike into the top corner that would be up for Goal of the Year in any league.
Gspurning, dressed for the occasion, took a pointy, pastel-green fedora off his head.
"For this goal, I have to take my hat off. Congratulations to him," Gspurning said, smiling as he tossed the hat into his locker behind him and laughs echoed throughout the room from the other side of the voice recorders in his face.
From that point on, Gspurning became a media favorite. Rarely did a game go by where quotes from him didn't litter the papers and blogs, not just because he was the starting goalkeeper, but also because there was always a chance that Gspurning would drop another gem of a quote.
It is this other side of his personality, another of Cerberus' three heads, that fans quickly latched on to. Gspurning is always game for a laugh, even at his own expense, and he never takes himself too seriously.
In August, he tweeted a short video entitled "Austrian for English natives lesson #1 name Gspurning," in which he tries to teach fans how to pronounce his last name. Wearing a straw hat and sunglasses fit for a cartoon character, he tries to convince fans that "it's easy to say the name ‘Gspurning.'"
In his time in the league, the visibility of MLS has increased exponentially in the Austrian media, due in no small part to Gspurning's willingness to collaborate with the press. He gives frequent interviews to Austrian outlets and even wrote a four-part column of his own for Im Netz Magazin to educate fans on MLS.
"People now learn more about how the league works, with the two conferences and everything," he said. "People definitely are more into the MLS now than before."
Despite Gspurning's newfound fame from the press in his native land, Marcel Koller, the Swiss head coach of the Austrian national team, hasn't made a call to the Emerald City just yet.
"I have articles in the newspapers now, but it's always the same way of business," Gspurning said. "Now, there is no No. 1 in Austria. The No. 1 is on the bench at his club, and so the whole thing starts."
Gspurning was referring to Robert Almer, who has made 13 appearances for Fortuna Düsseldorf of the German Bundesliga since signing in 2011. He hasn't started any of Düsseldorf's 17 matches this season, making just one substitute appearance.
"The newspapers are looking for other people, and then they come up with my name, and my performance and everything is OK," Gspurning said. "So, we will see."
None of the goalkeepers listed on the Austrian Football Association website's "current roster" have more than six caps to their name. With a strong first season in America, Gspurning put himself back in the picture for a call-up.
Austria's next match is a friendly at Wales on Feb. 6, which falls during Sounders FC's preseason.
Just three days before defeating Toronto in the first league game of 2012, the outlook was bleaker for the Sounders' new foreign goalkeeper. In Torreón, Mexico, Gspurning conceded six goals in a 6-1 loss to Santos Laguna that knocked Seattle out of the CONCACAF Champions League.
The goalkeeper's position is solitary by nature. They receive specialized training and are often separate from the rest of the team. They are always seen as the weird ones, players who would throw themselves in front of speeding soccer balls for a living rather than get out of the way.
But it's rarely a lonelier spot than after big losses. Conceding half a dozen goals leads to internal reflection and speculation, not to mention the published questions in the media and among fans. Players without the highest levels of confidence often fold under the pressure.
"I thought about it, and I saw, OK, I have to take it like this: there is not one goal you can tell me that I was guilty of a mistake or where I made a mistake," he said. "Don't think about things you can't change."
He needed that confidence on more than one occasion during the 2012 season, starting with the 6-1 loss in Mexico, through his injury, culminating in the signing of another local legend and his first MLS playoffs.
On Gspurning's 31st birthday, May 2 against the Los Angeles Galaxy at CenturyLink Field, he came out of the game after the first half with a right hip injury. It bothered him the week before, but he played through it for 90 minutes in Chicago.
After an MRI revealed some inflammation in a muscle that became irritated during any kicking motion, the club announced Gspurning would be out for two or three weeks with what was officially listed as a hip strain. Four weeks later, he traveled to California to get a second opinion on the injury.
Finally, in the 2-1 road win over the Colorado Rapids on July 28, Gspurning made his return. He missed 12 weeks and 13 MLS games.
"It was a long period of how many games I missed, but I have to say I'm also proud that in the end, it worked out so good for me, that I'm still nominated for best goalkeeper, I'm nominated for Newcomer of the Year, and that's with this injury," he said.
Gspurning finished first in the league in goals-against average, and his 0.73 in 1,845 minutes played marked the first time in MLS history that a goalkeeper from outside the CONCACAF region won the distinction.
What helped the most, Gspurning said, was the support he felt from the Sounders coaching staff. With that, he regained his form quickly after returning.
At his end-of-the-year media availability, Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid was unequivocal in his opinion that Gspurning was the right man to replace Keller.
"His performance, I think, speaks for itself. He's a quality goalkeeper," Schmid said. "He's pretty safe with his hands. His size helps out an awful lot. I know, as a central defender, when you look back and you see a big goalkeeper like that behind you, you say, ‘Hey, that's great. Bring over all the crosses you want. He's just going to come out and pick those off like apples off the top branch of a tree.'"
Gspurning said he felt the support from Schmid all season.
"I knew through the whole year that I am No. 1 and that people trust me," he said. "Coach Sigi Schmid or Tommy Dutra, they spoke with me. I knew that it doesn't matter how long I'm injured, but I knew that they trust me to be still No. 1. It was a great part that I got the support. It makes it, of course, easier for the player to bring the performance."
That knowledge didn't waver when the club signed Marcus Hahnemann, the Seattle native who spent nearly a dozen successful years in the English Premier League and on U.S. World Cup squads in 2006 and 2010.
If anything, Gspurning saw the move as beneficial because of the team's multiple competitions in 2013.
"We have next year also many, many games," he said. "We have the Champions League, hopefully we will come far with the U.S. Open Cup, so there will be enough games where we need more than two keepers."
After Gspurning's performance in the MLS playoffs, it's hard to argue that his position is in danger, even if his main challenger is Hahnemann. Gspurning's play in the second round carried Seattle through a nail-biting 180 minutes of soccer that ended 1-0 in its favor.
It was a goalkeeping battle with two contrasting combatants: the 6'5" Austrian in one goal and 5'10" Nick Rimando at the other end. The two traded acrobatics until Mario Martinez's 81st-minute unstoppable strike finally hit the back of the net in the second leg.
"It was a really high-class duel," Gspurning said of the encounter. "We both made our saves, and it was great. So necessarily not just one keeper has to be a winner. Maybe also both keepers can be winners, and this was shown in these two games. Both keepers played phenomenal games, and it's good to see."
One positive of his independent position is the bond that forms between goalkeepers not just on the same side, but also those wearing opposite colors. It is a respect that boils down to simple empathy.
"We goalkeepers, we understand each other," he said. "So if the other guy has a good save, I'm for sure one guy who is coming after the game to him and say congratulations on this save. On the other hand, I know how tough our position is. If the other guy makes a mistake, I can also exactly know what it's like. It's one special connection what one keeper with the other has together at the same position. The field players are not so separated from the team like the goalkeepers, so it's a special position."
In the competitive arena of a soccer game, one player is responsible for protecting the 192-square-foot rectangle at either end. It's an unappreciable position for those who have never tried it, and it's a capricious one at that.
The next game after the most satisfying goalkeeping battle of the Sounders FC season, the team dug itself an insurmountable hole in losing 3-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy. Even with a valiant effort in the home leg, Seattle couldn't overturn the deficit.
Similar to the defeat in Torreón at the start of the season, Gspurning didn't dwell on the playoff loss any longer than he had to.
"We will start to think about next year," he said. "The highest point (of my career), I think, is still ahead of me."
The big Austrian is more than satisfied with his American experience. It has been an eventful year, ending in him receiving his green card during the Salt Lake playoff series and his announcement that he and his wife will be having their second child, a boy, in February.
Gspurning and his wife, Katharina, already have a 3-year-old daughter, Melia.
"Seattle is our home. It will be definitely the home of our boy. It's nice that my wife and me, we are both Austrians, and my daughter is born in Greece, and the boy will be born now here in Seattle," Gspurning said. "It's a nice feeling because it marks every step in our career and as a family, and that's really nice."
Family, both literal and symbolic, is often on Gspurning's mind. He uses the word when he discusses the Sounders' fan base, as well as his wife and children.
"I see how the club is here, and this whole city is like a family," he said. "It's amazing, and we can't imagine what's going on if we really make the next step (and win MLS Cup). We will really try everything to make it happen."
His appreciation of Seattle, his adopted home, goes beyond Pearl Jam and Nirvana, stereotypes he admits exist rampantly in his native land.
"I know there's a big history of the music and the grunge here, and that's one of the first impressions for the Austrians is always Kurt Cobain or Nirvana and Grey's Anatomy, like every American to me, the first impression is The Sound of Music," he said. "So it's normal that you define something like Seattle, first of all, with Nirvana and Grey's Anatomy and the Space Needle."
If the people of Seattle are as Gspurning describes them, they mirror the man himself, who always seems to be smiling and joking about something.
"I really like the mentality of the people here - the friendly mentality, the always-positive mentality," he said. "That's also one reason that my family is feeling so good here."
Gspurning's contract runs out after next season, but he hopes to sign a new deal that will keep his family in Seattle for a long time.
"At the moment, everything looks like we will spend next year (here), and then hoping for a new contract again here," he said.
In a place that loves its goalkeepers and has a selection of world-class options in its past, an outgoing Austrian has found a new home.