COLUMBUS, Ohio – As a child growing to love soccer and blossoming in his command of the sport, Michael Parkhurst did not dream of playing in the World Cup. As he is now on the pitch, nearly a decade into a professional career, he was pragmatic. He was analytical. He was insightful.
He wondered: “Should I continue to play soccer? Because in order to play professionally I’d have to go over to Europe. Is that something I want to do? It wasn’t like a deep thought I had for months and months, but I remember thinking about it. I’d had to have been about 11, because I was 12 when MLS started. It’s crazy to think how far everything has come since then.”
The World Cup still is not a dream for Parkhurst. Now it is a goal. It is an attainable goal, but as it approaches he does not enjoy the same degree of certainty as Tim Howard of Everton or Michael Bradley of Toronto FC or Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders. If they stay healthy, they’re going to Brazil in June, and they’re starting for the United States.
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In his first season with the Columbus Crew, Parkhurst still is not entirely certain he will be on the list of 30 players invited to the U.S. national team training camp that opens next week in California, of whom 23 will make the squad. He hopes to be, even expects it, but it helps that the Crew have three games in a seven-day span this week to occupy his thoughts as he awaits an invitation.
“I hope I’ve done enough throughout these last couple years and these recent performances so they know what I’m capable of,” Parkhurst told Sporting News. “It’s just proving you’re in good form, you’re fit enough, that mentally you’re focused and ready. If I get the opportunity, it’s just to go out and have confidence in what I do, not to continually think about, ‘Am I going to make the 23?’ Keep those negative thoughts out of the head as much as possible and focus on playing and having fun. I think that’s when you always play your best.”
There is much in Parkhurst’s favor as the 2014 World Cup looms. In his return to Major League Soccer this season, he has been installed as a starting central defender and team captain for the Crew, and as such he serves as the fulcrum of a defense that has been among the most effective in the league. Following consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, Columbus has been near the top of the Eastern Conference since the season began in March.
Teammates such as right back Josh Williams praise his leadership, communication and understanding of the game. “The little subtle things he does, the way his mind works – there’s no wasted energy with him.” First-year coach Gregg Berhalter, a member of two U.S. World Cup teams, made the decision to rebuild the Crew around Parkhurst. Asked why, Berhalter answers simply: “He’s a very intelligent player.”
And yet this circumstance is not what it might have been. With better timing, better fortune, Parkhurst might have been approaching the U.S. camp as the leading contender to fill the enormous vacancy created by veteran right back Steve Cherundolo’s injury and eventual retirement. Cherundolo started at that position in three consecutive World Cups and might have been the team’s most reliable regular through that stretch.
Parkhurst hasn’t known much other than success throughout his soccer career: star youth player, All-American at Wake Forest, MLS defender of the year with the New England Revolution. After signing a contract with FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark’s Superliga, he helped the team avoid relegation in his first season and, in his third year, started as the team won its first-ever league championship. That victory put the club into the UEFA Champions League, and Parkhurst was a 90-minute man in each of the team’s six games.
When Augsburg of Germany’s Bundesliga approached at the conclusion of that run and expressed a compelling interest in having him join their squad, Parkhurst believed the move would be right for him. And it was not.
“That was an opportunity of a lifetime. I thought it was a situation that was going to be good. They really wanted me, they were all about me coming in. And it didn’t work out,” Parkhurst said.
“I felt like I could have played there. I felt like I could have been the starter. I didn’t fail so much as I wasn’t given the opportunity. For whatever reason, the coaches see the game differently, favor some players over others, and this guy wasn’t on my side. It didn’t matter what I was doing in training; I just wasn’t going to get the opportunity again.”
Parkhurst played only two games in 2013 for Augsburg, precisely when Cherundolo’s status engendered a crisis of sorts in the U.S. side. At first it appeared young German-American Tim Chandler would easily grab the position, but after a disappointing performance in a February World Cup qualifier in Honduras he never was called in again. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wound up using five different starters at right back during the qualifying campaign, though converted Seattle midfielder Brad Evans got most of the chances and made the strongest impression.
Parkhurst was pleased to get the opportunity to be called into the Gold Cup during the summer. It was almost the only competition he got to enter all year, and he was a significant part of the team winning the title. But he recognizes the opportunity missed because of his one tough year.
“I felt like if I was playing somewhere regularly – if it was Denmark, if it was MLS – that I could have maybe seized that opportunity. That was frustrating,” Parkhurst said. “I always felt, ‘Shoot, if I was playing right now, because that spot is open...‘
“No offense to Brad, because I think he did really well with that opportunity. But I still feel like if I was playing at that point maybe I would have gotten the opportunity before him.”
For most of his advanced soccer career, Parkhurst has been a central defender – even though he stands just 5-11 and weighs 159 pounds. Height has always been an issue for him at his position, though not always a hindrance. Most great center backs are considerably taller: Gerard Pique of Barcelona and Vincent Kompany of Manchester City are 6-4; Bayern Munich’s Dante is 6-2. This has led Parkhurst sometimes to fight to prove he can make it there.
Upon moving to Denmark, he initially resisted a coach’s encouragement to try playing right back. Eventually, he relented and excelled. Now, he admits, his experience at the position has given him a greater opportunity with the national team.
When he was negotiating his return to MLS, he initially expressed to Berhalter his preference to play on the outside, at least in advance of the World Cup, to help solidify his chances to be invited to camp and to make the team. That was the plan at first, until Berhalter became convinced Williams fit the right back position well and Parkhurst could better improve the team in the middle.
“We had a long conversation about it. I told him I’m fine with that. It’s better for me, for my national team chances, if the team’s doing well rather than in last place losing every game. I’m not a selfish person,” Parkhurst said. “I asked him: Can you do me one thing and call Jurgen and say, ‘This is what we’re thinking; is it going to hurt his chances or not?’ Greg spoke to Jurgen and he was OK with me playing in the middle. It was more about me getting game time, repetition.”
Over the past few months, Parkhurst has spent extra time following the Crew’s regular training sessions preparing for the World Cup camp. He does extra running because a different level of fitness is required to be able to move up the flanks and retreat to cover opponent’s forward moves; he practices crossing the ball with his right and left foot because he wonders if there might be a need for him at left back as well as on the right.
Berhalter believes Parkhurst’s experience playing in the middle for the Crew helps him to continue to develop his superior understanding of how a game develops and also with one-on-one defending. The Crew play an aggressive offensive style, which often leaves Parkhurst in those situations. Every defender has to make decisions on how to play in the box, whether in live play or set pieces. Playing centrally for the Crew, Parkhurst must make even more.
“If you look at some of the guys in the national pool now, they’re not necessarily playing the position they’d be playing in the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “You look at Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Michael is another example. If you have quality players, you’re comfortable with where they fit in. It would take him a game to get used to playing right back or left back.”
If Parkhurst could wear the U.S. crest as he tries, it might not take that long.