Parkhurst captains Atlanta United to title, ending MLS Cup drought

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After having suffered four MLS Cup final defeats, Michael Parkhurst finally experienced the joy of a championship, captaining Atlanta United to a win

Michael Parkhurst admitted to allowing himself to dream about the moment that had eluded him for the better part of 13 years. Dreams of one day lifting an MLS Cup stayed in his mind, even after loss after loss. The fourth of those losses, suffered three years ago, crushed him, mainly because of the fear that another chance to win a title might not come.

That fifth opportunity came on Saturday, and Parkhurst made the most of it, shaking off an ankle injury and turning in a standout performance to help Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers and lift an MLS Cup title in just the club's second year of existence.

After letting Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank be the first to lift the big silver trophy, Parkhurst grabbed it and joined his teammates on stage at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and lifted the trophy aloft, a moment that also helped lift the burden of those previous championship losses off his shoulders.

"It was everything I dreamed about and more," Parkhurst told Goal of the moment he lifted the trophy. "I can’t wait to relive it, see the pictures and party with these guys tonight. It was special."

Parkhurst came into Saturday's final one of four MLS players to ever lose four MLS Cup finals without ever winning one, and he went into Saturday determined to change that. He gave his pre-game captain's speech to the team, and didn't mention his past finals defeats. He didn't need to.

“I told them to control the emotions, go out there and play your best game under the biggest lights," Parkhurst said. "Step up like we have all season and go win a trophy for the city."

Parkhurst did his part, leading the Atlanta United defense to its third shutout in five matches during the playoffs, and making a key play to help start the sequence leading to Atlanta United's opening goal, which set the tone for Saturday's victory.

Michael Parkhurst, Diego Valeri

Nobody was happier for Parkhurst than central defense partner and long-time teammate Jeff Larentowicz, who was Parkhurst's collaborator on the New England Revolution team that lost three straight MLS Cup titles from 2005 to 2007. Larentowicz ended his own MLS Cup drought by helping the Colorado Rapids win the title in 2010, but on Saturday he played alongside Parkhurst on the way to a shutout victory 13 years after they endured their first loss.

"He deserves it. He's a champion in this league. No one can take that from him now. I'm so happy for him," Jeff Larentowicz told Goal. "He had an ankle injury. He's a guy that had trouble coming into the game. Nothing was going to stop him from playing. He's our leader, our captain, and he had a really good night. He put it all together tonight and he deserved it."

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The most unfair aspect of Parkhurst's legacy in cup finals before Saturday was what went often overlooked, the fact that Parkhurst actually played well in all of his past cup final appearances. He was never directly involved in allowing any of the goals his teams gave up, but that didn't make the losses any easier for him to take.

"Each one I think you take a little harder than the rest," Parkhurst said, admitting that the loss he suffered with the Columbus Crew in 2015 devastated him. "That one was tough because we were at home, it was an opportunity lost. It was crushing. You never know if you’re going to get a next one, but everything happens for a reason.

"I thought I’d play my career in Columbus, but I got shipped to Atlanta, thankfully," Parkhurst told Goal. "Getting another opportunity to close the deal was special, and tonight was everything I ever imagined winning MLS Cup would be.”

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