Replacing legend Kasey Keller as Sounders FC's No. 1 goalkeeper is a daunting task, but the 6-foot-5 Austrian is up to it.
Michael Gspurning isn’t afraid of the challenge.
He knows the man he is replacing as Sounders FC’s starting goalkeeper, the retired Kasey Keller, is revered across the country — and no more so than in his home state. Gspurning knows the expectations of him will weigh heavily.
There are big cleats to fill in goal. Thankfully for the Sounders, the 6-foot-5 Austrian wears size 13.
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“I am not a rookie, so I can handle the situation,” said Gspurning, who has played professionally in Europe since 2000.
“I only hope the guys understand that I am not Kasey. I’m a foreign player. I’ll be different, but I will help the team in my way. Everybody in the team knows this and has made it easy for me to feel comfortable.”
The Sounders don’t play their first game for another six weeks, and until then it’ll be hard to judge Gspurning’s merits in the net, but team officials think they have their guy and like what they’ve seen so far. The 30-year-old has unique physical tools, a vibrant personality and a drive that will serve him well as he tries to continue the club’s legacy of great goalkeeping.
And now it’s time to take ownership of the position.
“He has to get out there and play games and build a style and personality and persona of his own once the games start and the fans see him out there,” said general manager Adrian Hanauer.
An instant fit
Easygoing and open, Gspurning (pronounced guh-SHPURN-ing) is already a hit in the locker room.
“He’s 30 years old, but he acts like he’s 15,” said second-year goalkeeper Bryan Meredith. “He’s a jokester.”
Coach Sigi Schmid said he was glad to see Gspurning go out of his way to get to know his teammates. It’s a formula that worked well with another international signing.
“I’d compare it probably to Mauro Rosales, where Rosales came in and had a great personality,” said Schmid. “It’s about what they do on the field, but it’s also about what they do off the field.”
For Gspurning, that appreciation cuts both ways. He said coaches and teammates have been more than welcoming and he’s glad to be on a team with “a good spirit.”
Much of the Sounders organization and MLS has impressed Gspurning, who played the past five seasons for Skoda Xanthi in debt-stricken Greece. The economy there had gotten so bad that the team had trouble paying its players; Gspurning said he’s still owed wages from six months ago.
“I love the country and I love the people there, but here is more professional,” said Gspurning. “It’s much easier to feel comfortable here than it was in Greece.”
Gspurning, whose hometown of Graz is about 120 miles southwest of Vienna, had visited Seattle last summer to meet team officials and check out the facilities. Eager to experience the American lifestyle, his wife and young daughter are scheduled to arrive in a couple weeks.
Gspurning’s imposing stature is hard to miss, and it’s where the scouting report always starts.
“Sometimes you can be that tall and it doesn’t help you, but it’s helped him,” said Sounders goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra. “He can get to things that certain goalkeepers can’t. Sometimes when you’re that big it’s harder to get down, and he’s able to get down quite well. When he takes a good angle, it’s very tough to beat him.”
Schmid likes Gspurning’s competitiveness, which the coach thinks is Keller-esque.
Such attributes could have Gspurning back on international duty this year. He has played three games for the Austrian national team — including two qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup — but none since 2009. After signing with the Sounders, however, he received a call from the federation hoping to reconnect.
Gspurning’s priority is the Sounders.
“Of course it’s great to play for your country, but first of all, for me it’s important that we do well here — that I have success with the Sounders and that we have success as a team, not only in MLS but in Champions League,” he said.
Gspurning could play a large role in that success, especially if he provides stability at a position that saw plenty of offseason turnover. Not only did Seattle lose its three-year starter and captain in Keller, but veteran backup goalie Terry Boss was forced to retire because of repeated concussions.
Behind Gspurning on the roster are Meredith and Josh Ford, two 2011 draftees who have scant playing time. The team has invited Andrew Weber, formerly a backup for the San Jose Earthquakes, and Tyrel Lacey to camp.
Competition will be good for the group, but the standard will have to be set by the hardworking Gspurning.
Consider it another challenge he’s ready for.
“Let’s start the season,” he said. “It’s good to feel the ball again, and it’s time to work.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @joshuamayers