goalWA.net is very pleased to feature an ongoing column that allows writer Doug Thiel a forum to share his memories of our “Original Sounders,” the North American Soccer League (NASL) club that played in the Emerald City from 1974 through 1983. Doug is the author of the 1977 Sounders season highlight book “All the Best,” as well as two new books for youth soccer players, coaches and parents called “The Winners Way.” Click www.cowanparkpress.com to purchase one or both books.
by Doug Thiel
Tony smiles coyly as he hurries out on the pitch, waves to the crowd and trades quips with his fan club, Chursky’s Chicks. It’s a home game ritual.
His Chicks and other loyal fans give him dolls, bears and other mementos to carry onto the field and into the goal. How sweet it is.
This kindly show of affection lights up the Kingdome and Jimmy Gabriel’s face as he comments, “I’ve got the greatest admiration for Tony as a fellow, as a man, and as a goalkeeper. I’m his coach, but I’m also a fan of Tony Chursky.” Who isn’t?
Jimmy also affirmed that, “Tony Chursky (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Chursky) is very close to being the best goal keeper in the world right now. He works harder than anybody else at his game; he does things naturally now where before he had to think more about what he was doing. He is confident and knows his ability. He picks up on his mistakes and can explain what they are. He also takes the blame for what he does wrong, and that is unusual for a goalkeeper.”
In 1976 Tony replaced Barry Watling in goal. The crowd didn’t like it. Barry’s flying saves and spectacular, “Can he do it?” slight of hand moves lit up the crowd, and they roared back.
But what the fans didn’t know, John Best and Jimmy Gabriel did. Tony could do all that Barry did, do it better and would be a greater asset to the team.
That first year Tony’s acrobatic style of play earned him the league’s Leading Goalie of the Year honors. A righteous award for his superlative play.
Righteous it was but in 1977 he became even better. How good is Tony Chursky now? Jimmy said, “I believe within a year or two he’ll be the best goalie in the world.” Tony believes it will take longer.
During home games I usually spent the first half in the Press Box and the second on the floor, at times behind our own goal. My purpose was to watch Tony at work.
He was not tall, he was not broad. But he was lithe, he was quick and fascinating to watch: he of the uncanny sense of where to be before the ball was kicked.
September 1977: The Sounders exhibition match against Santos of Brazil became an exhilarating preview of what Tony was becoming. An outstanding goalie.
True, we were getting our butts bammed, but never mind that. Situated behind our own net, I stood mesmerized watching Tony during the last twenty minutes of the match.
His play was intense although at times the results were humorous. It was Tony twisting, leaping, showing his superb sense of where to be. And so frustrating for the world class Brazilians to deal with.
And here they come again: the Brazilian frontline charging the Sounder’s goal, maneuvering the ball for another shot. And there is Tony adeptly stopping the charge…again.
And again I saw frustrated Brazilians, agony on their faces, cursing each other and shaking their fists. Beat us they did, but not on Tony’s account.
Jimmy Gabriel, who has seen superbly played matches all over the world, had to grin as he commented, “It’s a performance that I’ll always remember, but I hope that the Sounders never get a shellacking like that again.”
“But we did lose that day even though Tony was answering every call. There was so much pressure on our defense that obviously he couldn’t make every save. They scored two goals that he could do nothing about. But he saved so many shots that had goal written all over them.”
So here’s the story behind that game. A number of our best players had returned to England before the match.
The Sounders; minus Mike England, our best defender, played poor defense. Santos, always an excellent team in top condition, played their typically fast game with quick forwards constantly rushing the Sounder net.
And thus Tony was faced with the impossibility of stopping too many hard shots too many times.
A crowd of over 21,000 watched a rare display of skill and courage, Tony’s trademarks in the game he loves.
Praise, cheers, and adulation struck Tony as odd. He didn’t feel he was that special. He did his job well and got, he claims, paid for it. He admired his fans but also liked his privacy and quiet.
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Born and raised in Delta, a suburb of Vancouver, BC, he began playing against opposition older, stronger, and bigger than he was.
Note this: his teammates thought that he wouldn’t get hurt as easily if he were to play goalie.
His self description is, “At that time I was a gutsy, little fellow, courageous, ready to dive at people’s feet. When I do that now, people think I’m crazy. When you do it as a small boy, you’re gutsy.”
He dabbled a bit in baseball and football, but soccer always came first. In high school he was the only 10th grader playing on the 9th grade basketball team. “That,” he laughs, “should give you some indication of my ability as a basketball player. I sat on the bench all of that season.”
“On my own initiative I took up gymnastics which I liked. That’s it for sports. Soccer is about the only game that I watch on TV.”
Professional soccer had been on his mind every waking hour of his life since he was seven. “I’d stand in the goal and make a save, get up and dust myself off and say, ‘That was pretty good, Tony,’ but not loud enough so anyone could hear.”
“Memories of those Sunday afternoons are so fond. But getting my friends to come out with me was like pulling teeth. They found it difficult to oblige my desire to have them stand there and kick balls at me.”
“It’s hard to practice the goalie position by yourself. That’s what friends are for if you’re young: if you play goalie, if you want to be a professional soccer player more than anything else in the world!”