During this sad and sudden MLS break, I’ve decided to start a rainy day mini-series highlighting some of my favorite unsung Sounders heroes. My hope is to fill the rave green void in my heart with enough fond memories to get me, and maybe some of you, to the other side.
The criteria is simple and also completely subjective: any player I feel is either underappreciated or overlooked in Sounders lore. As a fan who consistently attaches himself to role players (perhaps due to my own very lackluster playing history), there will be many such players eligible for selection. First up is Michael Gspurning.
Gspurning joined the Sounders to fill the massive gloves of hometown hero, Kasey Keller. Despite stepping into the unenviable position of replacing the 2011 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year who was also just happened to be a USMNT legend and also also the team captain and also also also from the Pacific Northwest, Gspurning quickly solidified his starting status with his steady play between the sticks. Barring a few summer injuries and one poor run of form late in 2013, Gspurning was a lock in the 11 during his Seattle stint, even with a highly accomplished Marcus Hahnemann waiting in the wings.
There are a handful of reasons why Gspurning is often overlooked in Sounders history. One is that he only played for two seasons during which the team failed to collect any major trophies. Another is that he is sandwiched between a guy with all the pedigree listed in the paragraph above and another guy who made “The Save” en route to the club’s first MLS Cup (and then won another MLS Cup just for good measure). But the third, and in my opinion most important, reason Gspurning doesn’t always get the love he deserves is that he was too damn smooth.
Cycle through Gspurning’s Save of the Week nominations and rarely will you find the cat-like reflexes or full-stretch dives of a traditional highlight save. Instead you’ll find a litany of strikers squandering great chances by kicking the ball straight at the Austrian big man. Juan Agudelo suffered that fate in the late summer of 2012, and then the Rapids topped him by doing it twice in a matter of seconds just a few months later. Even Gspurning’s lone Save of the Week winner, which does feature a very dexterous right hand, resulted more from brilliant angle closing than any supreme feat of athleticism.
But why did strikers fire at the 6-foot-5 Gspurning like he had a magnet on his chest? Because the cerebral keeper had great footwork and ability to the read the game. That he now applies his knowledge as the goalkeeper coach in a league higher than anywhere he got minutes as a player (he’s with in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin) says a lot about his mental prowess.
Highlights and Trophies
Sadly, Gspurning played for the Sounders over the only two-year stretch where the team didn’t win a major trophy or play in a cup final. Still, he played a huge role in helping the Sounders shake the first-round-exit monkey off their back. That series also serves as his top moment in rave green as he held RSL scoreless over two legs (with a stellar nine saves in the second leg) to help the team eek out a 1-0 aggregate win.
Why he’s underrated
Playing style aside, Gspurning’s excellence is overlooked for the same reason many Sounders are overlooked — the club is spoiled (in the best way) by success. The fact that we haven’t had a true goalkeeper controversy in 11 years of existence is remarkable. Moreover, each of the three starting keepers have finished top three in MLS Goalkeeper of the Year at least once during their time with the club. And by the way, the year Gspurning was nominated, he had the best goals against average in the league (which stands at the fourth best in MLS history) and finished fifth in shutouts while only playing 21 games … and this was pre-Chad Marshall. His career goals against average of 1.04 would rank as the second best in MLS history if he didn’t fall about 200 minutes short of the cutoff for the record book.
But the reason Gspurning is underrated is also the reason he is great. The 2012 and 2013 Sounders get lost in the mix simply for failing to win trophies for a club that is accustomed to doing exactly that. (And to be fair, 2013’s playoff faceplant against the Timbers was pretty depressing). But just as Gspurning had to replace Keller, so to did the 2012 and 2013 Sounders have to forge an identity as many original stars and stalwarts (Keller, Steve Zakuani, Tyrone Marshall, Freddie Ljungberg, James Riley, Nate Jaqua) had fallen by the wayside over the years. Gspurning and the early 2010s Sounders showed that the team reloads more than they rebuild and that missing the playoffs is unacceptable. Their success set the standard for one of the most consistent franchises in all of American sports.
For all that, I give a shoutout to the man whose bright yellow jersey and tall frame made him look like Big Bird but who played with the grace of a blue heron. Cheers to you, Michael Gspurning.