By Ridge Mahoney
The last addition to the U.S. national team roster is the first one to admit that his future looked murky until about a month ago.
Marooned on the bench with German club FC Augsburg, defender Michael Parkhurstfelt liberated earlier this month when MLS reached an agreement for his transfer to Columbus. About a week later, as he was about to arrive in Ohio to take a physical and clear up the paperwork, came news of his recall to the national team.
“It’s exciting for MLS to have him back because he has tremendous experience, an amazing attitude,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann Friday in a press conference prior to the team’s final training session for its match against South Korea Saturday (live on ESPN2, UniMas, 5 p.m. ET). “In our group, he’s a role model. We also timed it that way because going into the camp we had three left back and three right backs, because we wanted to see some youngsters. So he joined us when we came back to L.A.”
Parkhurst wasn’t surprised. The callup had been expected. Still, it necessitated a frantic re-booking of flights to get him out to Southern California last weekend.
“Those guys have a few weeks of training on me so I’ve got to catch up quick, real quick,” he said before arriving in Southern California. “The World Cup’s not far away and the World Cup is a real big opportunity for me.
He knows the importance of Saturday's game.
"Every chance could be the last chance," he added.
Multiple factors prompted his return to MLS. Five solid seasons in the Danish league with FC Nordsjaelland led to the Augsburg move a year ago, but he played just two Bundesliga games last season as Augsburg narrowly avoided relegation. A good start this season was good news for the fans and coach Markus Weinzierl, who received a contract extension just before Christmas, but bad news for Parkhurst. He make the squad of 18 for only one Bundesliga game, and he didn’t play a single minute for the first team.
“I had some opportunities to move on in the summer, but nothing really jumped out at me, so I thought I would say and fight it out,” he recalls. “I still felt I could have an impact on the team, but after a few weeks of the season I could tell the coach had absolutely no plans for me. I knew I had to move in the winter, but I wasn’t sure if that was MLS or somewhere else in Europe.”
There were opportunities to sign a short-term contract back in Denmark, but that would mean hauling his wife and two children back there, or perhaps living apart. He’d also have to ponder another possible move during the summer. He began researching a move back to MLS; his rights were still held by New England, where he won Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 and the Defender of the Year award in 2007 while helping the Revs reach three straight MLS Cups. New England retained his rights by making an offer that he rejected after his contract expired.
He informed Revs head coach Jay Heaps he’d prefer going somewhere else, which turned out to be Columbus, which recently hired another American with playing experience in Europe, Gregg Berhalter, as head coach.
“It pretty much came down to I wanted to experience something new and I didn’t want to play on turf,” he says. “The Revolution were up for trading me and it worked out for everybody. I’m fortunate that it did.
“It was probably mid-December, the latter half of December, that we really started looking at MLS and Columbus. Gregg called and said they were interested, but there were a lot of hurdles from there on out, dealing with Augsburg and with the Revolution. I’m just happy it all worked out in the end.”
When he left, even countries like Denmark paid salaries double or triple of those of many MLS regulars. Financial terms of his return haven’t been disclosed but he’s no doubt in much better shape.
For his rights the Revs got the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft, which it used on forward Steve Neumann, and allocation money. For Parkhurst, the move meant stability for his family, a return home, and two unattained achievements.
“I’ve had a good career but the two things I still haven’t achieved yet are the World Cup and winning an MLS championship, “ he admits. “That’s something I want to do before I retire.”
Parkhurst has played on both corners in his career as well as at centerback, which is where he played for the Revs. Berhalter has expressed the idea of playing three in the back, which might affect Parkhurst’s chances to make the World Cup roster; the U.S. is relatively deep in centerbacks and a bit thin on the outside. Yet Klinsmann’s preference for versatile players can tip the scales in Parkhurst’s favor, and at 29, he’s right in those peak years for most professional soccer players.
“You might be seeing him in the left-back role,” said Klinsmann of where DaMarcus Beasley has been lining up the past two years. “He was fit already when the transfer was done, he was working on his own, and we know him since, obviously, over the past few years that he’s a very, very serious professional player.
“Mike has very good technique, he’s very calm on the ball, and his vision on the field is really good. He can see between people. So he’s not getting nervous when he’s getting attacked maybe by a winger or he gets high-pressured by a team like South Korea’s doing. They’re often playing a high-pressure system, so you’ve got to stay calm and work your way through that.
“But it’s also based on his experience, many years playing in Europe. He played Champions League before, he didn’t make it the way he wanted in the Bundesliga now. But that’s certainly something that his on his plus side. That’s why we are glad to have him in this group.”
Unlike his coach in Germany, Parkhurst believes his German-born U.S. coach is offering a viable opportunity.
“I’ve been speaking with Jurgen for a few weeks now and he told me all along that he was bringing me in when I got things settled with MLS,” says Parkhurst.
In Denmark, he won a Danish Cup and went through a relegation battle. Though he played little in Germany, the intensity of training sessions and raucous atmosphere at matches impressed him. For the USA, he played five of six Gold Cup matches last summer and he played -- at left back -- in the deciding game of the semifinal round of qualifying against Guatemala, so Klinsmann knows what he brings in a competitive setting. He’s been capped 23 times dating back to his debut in 2007.
Parkhurst hopes his time in Europe has elevated his game sufficiently to earn a ticket to Brazil but in any case, he’s glad he went. “We had a great experience and we’ll definitely be back to visit show the kids where they grew up, he says. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing and not a lot of people get to live abroad and experience the things we experienced. I’ll look back fondly on my five years in Europe.”