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More U.S. defenders eye Europe
by Ridge Mahoney, December 9th, 2008 7AM

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American fans love to romanticize about players who find jobs with European clubs, yet the success record of them moving up the U.S. national team depth chart is spotty at best. With the news of the Columbus Crew's Chad Marshall testing the German market with Bundesliga 2 team Mainz 04 and New England's Michael Parkhurst set to follow Heath Pearce to Danish club Nordsjaelland, their prospects are in flux, yet neither has attained status as regular call-ups for U.S. matches.

Neither have Jay DeMerit, playing English League Championship ball with Watford, nor Danny Califf, who left Danish champion Aalborg earlier this year to sign with Midtjylland. Injuries have impaired the career of West Ham defender Jonathan Spector, but when healthy he's ahead of the MLS crop as well as several of the foreign-based group.

Their status can change over the next eight months, with a steady diet of qualifiers throughout the year sandwiched around two major competitions, the Confederations Cup in June and the Gold Cup in July. But the incumbent starters - Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo/Frankie Hejduk (at right back), and Pearce - are set in place for now.

By moving to Denmark, Califf said he hoped to emulate the path of Pearce, who left a year and a half ago to play for Hansa Rostock in the Bundesliga. Rostock, though, finished 17th last May and was relegated, and is struggling just above the relegation zone this season in Bundesliga 2.

Of the two MLS teams who are likely to lose defenders to Europe, New England seems better prepared for change, as its switch to a four-man back line helped Chris Tierney and Rob Valentino gain some experience as rookies while assimilating veterans Chris Albright and Jay Heaps with new teammates. Coach Steve Nicol and assistant coach Paul Mariner implemented a three-man back line after drafting Parkhurst out of Wake Forest in the 2005 SuperDraft - the Demon Deacons used that system primarily - to excellent effect.

New England has also cleared some cap space with the departure of Parkhurst ($135,382 base in 2008) and Khano Smith ($46,305) going to Seattle in the expansion draft.

Columbus has re-signed Danny O'Rourke, who struggled at first upon being moved from holding midfielder to central defender but played solidly as Columbus captured the regular season crown and won its first MLS Cup. Massive (6-foot-5) Andy Iro, like the Revs' rookies, gained some experience in his first MLS season, but if Marshall leaves Columbus will surely look for another option and might have just enough cap space to work with.

By switching Guillermo Barros Schelotto to a Designated Player, the Crew will absorb approximately $150,000 in additional salary-cap charge for the 2009 season. Marshall's departure would clear about the same amount of space, and solid MLS defenders - as in Jeff Parke, who has requested a salary of about $150,000 from expansion Seattle not to bolt for Europe - can be had for that price.

Many Scandanavian clubs pay about double that price for starting defenders, and offer guaranteed contracts as well, so Parkhurst not only can expect a big salary bump but also some security. He can showcase his play on a regular basis in a European setting with the hope of moving up, sooner or later, to a bigger club with an EU passport (Irish ancestry) at hand.

There are doubts as to whether Parkhurst, at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, can handle the rigors of playing central defense at a big club. He might be better suited at that level to outside back, or holding mid, and once said his smaller size forced him to develop the uncanny powers of anticipation and instinct he's displayed in his four MLS seasons.

Marshall (6-foot-3, 190) has the physical tools to man the middle. Winning Defender of the Year honors as well as MLS Cup has restored his confidence. Now he seeks a new challenge and experience in a tougher environment.

 



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