A New Jersey Soccer Story: Hunter Gorskie

IMAGE, NYCOSMOS.COM

Cosmos logoIf there is one picture that perfectly captures the Modern Era New York Cosmos at their height, it is the one of Hunter Gorskie celebrating with his arms stretched, a look of pure joy on his face, with a sea of dejected New York City FC supporters behind him after watching their team fall to the Cosmos in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup.

A New Yorker by birth, Gorskie grew up playing soccer alongside his older brother Jason in New Jersey once the family moved out of the city shortly after his arrival.

“Jason and I were always running around,” Gorskie said. “My mom always said she knew right away that we needed to move somewhere with more space. I was always competing with him in everything. We’re like a year and half or two years apart, so we were always playing together.”

Once in New Jersey, the future New York Cosmos defender quickly rose up the youth soccer ranks while playing club soccer for the state’s Player Development Academy and earning a spot on the region’s Olympic Development Program team.

As Marlboro High School’s assist leader, Gorskie led his school to the Shore Conference semifinals and final in his junior and senior seasons. After earning all-conference, all-county and all-state honors in his senior year, the youngster was on the radar as one of the top 30 recruits in the country.

One of the colleges that came calling was the University of Pennsylvania, where Gorskie’s brother had landed. Joining with his brother was enticing, but the pull of the West Coast and what Stanford offered was too good to pass up.

“I was pretty far along in talks with Penn,” he said. “I was kinda looking at the teams that are constantly in the final four. There are always teams that are always in the mix, but other than that you never know who’s going to be the next great team. Having that in mind, I wanted to go somewhere I could control my own destiny and train as much as I needed to. I came in with a really good group of guys that were of a similar mindset as me. We definitely put in our 10,000 hours.”

Gorskie earned the captain's armband in his senior season with the Stanford Cardinals. Photograph by Stanford

Gorskie earned the captain’s armband in his junior and senior seasons with the Stanford Cardinals. Photograph by Stanford University

The hard work at Stanford didn’t result in titles as the Cardinal only made the NCAA tournament in his freshman season. Undrafted by Major League Soccer yet undeterred, Gorskie joined the San Jose Earthquakes as a trialist and slowly made an impression.

“I knew that in college if your team does well, it goes a long way and gives you a better chance of being picked up in the draft. I wasn’t too fazed about it,” he said. “I knew no matter what my path was I knew I would make it. I knew I’d put the work in and it would eventually pay off. I’d be ready for any opportunity that came my way. I wasn’t too discouraged by it.”

While Gorskie was trying to crack MLS out west, the re-formed Cosmos were in the process of building their first roster and Frank Rizzi, a former trainer of Gorskie, was floating his name to Giovanni Savarese.

“Frank is really good friends with Gio. They have a long history together,” Gorskie said. “Frank’s a guy that I always consult for advice on my career. He helps me out whenever I need help. He’s a close friend still. He knew Gio, he knew me, he thought it’d be a really good fit.”

Returning to the East Coast, Gorskie was reunited with his family and found a new one with the Cosmos. The first few years of modern Cosmos had a certain alchemy that carried them to North American Soccer League titles and made the threats to any MLS competition in the Open Cup.

“That was an awesome part of coming home to the Cosmos. Not only was it an amazing organization, it really was like a family there,” he said. “Being in Cali for four years, I was able to come back and be close to my family, which I love. But the Cosmos in general did an incredible job with the locker room with the guys they took. That was really like a family. That was a unique couple years with the Cosmos.”

Despite recently signing with the Cosmos historic rival the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Gorskie will forever have folk-hero status with Cosmos supporters for his winning penalty over NYCFC. The universe was giving Gorskie hints of the big moment in the lead up to the game. A few days before the match, he brought up the idea of practicing penalties just in case, only to be dismissed by the coaching staff as too pessimistic.

Fortunately, Gorskie was ready when the time did come for penalties.

“Going into penalties, we already had our five guys who were gonna kick and then Gio told me I’d be sixth,” he recalled. “Something inside of me was just like this is gonna come down to me and I’m gonna hit the winner. I don’t even know why that popped in my head but it did and that’s exactly what happened.

“One thing about that Cosmos team in the time that I was there, we always had this belief that it was gonna work out, which I think all great teams have. As we were going through that game, I always felt that it was gonna come back around for us.”

Gorskie’s Polish roots had always kept his childhood dream of playing in Europe alive, but getting the necessary records was no easy task. While Gorskie was playing for the Cosmos, his mother Arlene was putting in the leg work to get it done.

“I’d always kinda be talking to my mom about it. It was always in the back of our minds, but it became more serious when I was finishing up college. I wanted her to get it,” he said. “The problem was that the records she had of her father were pretty scarce. He was Jewish during the time of the Holocaust and his whole family had been in concentration camps and the area in Poland that he lived in, he had told her that it was destroyed.”

As it turns out, his grandfather’s small hometown of Wlodawa on Poland’s northeastern border with Russia was still standing, including the records office. In one last ditch effort after years of unsuccessful attempts, Gorksies’s mother decided to go to Wlodawa and locate the birth certificate herself.

The leap of faith proved fruitful as she discovered a tiny clerical error was the culprit for all her frustrations.

“My father’s name was Lev Stal, but he was registered for Polish citizenship as Lebo,” said Gorskie’s mother. “When they wrote Lebo in script they put a little tail on the O. Who knew that 65 years later when we tried to find the documentation, that the little tail on the O made it look like an A, which indicated a female name. For two years over the phone communications we couldn’t find him. Found everyone in his family except him. Having the opportunity to go to Poland, I felt I might be on a fool’s run, but I thought it was worth a try. I listened to the registry officer say all the names in the Stal family. Again no luck.  As I had my hand on the door to leave I remembered that I had an aunt that used to call my father Lebo. I asked the officer to check the date of birth for this Leba and sure enough he said either your father had a twin sister or it’s him!”

With the whole odyssey his mother had to go on to get Polish citizenship, Gorskie was more than eager to follow through on his European dream. The Cosmos obliged, freeing him to sign with Miedź Legnica of Poland’s second division, where he made 27 appearances over the last two years.

“You definitely want to be a part of MLS. That’s what everyone in the U.S. is aiming to be a part of, but I knew that I did have this itch to go to Europe and get this life experience,” Gorskie said of his desire to leave the U.S. “I think it’s important to travel, be in different environments, be uncomfortable, learn new languages, play with new people, deal with new people. I think you as a person and a player with that.”

Gorskie living out his European dream with Miedź Legnica in Poland thanks to some help from his mom. Photgraph by Piotr Florek/lca.pl

Gorskie living out his European dream with Miedź Legnica in Poland thanks to some help from his mother. Photograph by Piotr Florek/lca.pl