By Ridge Mahoney
There wasn’t lot of buzz generated by news this week that former New England defender Michael Parkhurst had left Danish club FC Nordsjaelland for Augsburg of the German Bundesliga, and that’s a shame.
For Parkhurst, who earned All-America honors at Wake Forest before stepping straight into a New England team that played in three consecutive MLS Cups, has smoothly moved up the ladder at each phase of his playing career. He’s been a vivid confirmation that skill, instinct and poise can override the robust athleticism that most American players supposedly rely on.
But maybe because he’s earned only 15 caps, he’s drifted off the radar screens of those who track American players overseas. At 5-foot-11, he’s grappled with the rigors demanded of centerbacks yet has retained his sharp positional instincts and incisive passing skills to contribute impressively, especially at right back.
He played six times for the USA in 2012, the most appearances ever for him in a calendar year -- he had zero in 2011 -- and the team’s brutally heavy schedule in the next 10 months practically ensures he’ll be summoned fairly often. The USA plays a qualifier in February, two more in March, three more in June, then jumps right into the Gold Cup prior to qualifying double-dips again in September and October.
The U.S. back line is somewhat thin, and even though the right-back slot looks solid with Steve Cherundolo in good form and other candidates available, depth is critical for both the short-term and long-term. He might not be the prototypical international centerback but where there’s versatility, there’s value.
Parkhurst impressed sufficiently in college that the Revs’ head coach at the time, Steve Nicol, and then-assistant coach Paul Mariner decided that they would install him as the defensive fulcrum, as Parkhurst played for Wake, to maximize his abilities if they were able to draft him.
When he left Wake after his junior year -- he had started every one of his 62 collegiate games -- to sign an MLS Generation adidas contract, New England took him with the ninth overall pick. The Revs played much of the time in a 3-5-2 formation that mirrored the system at Wake and Parkhurst, the Rookie of the Year in 2005, consistently ranked among the league’s top central defenders.
Parkhurst left MLS after winning 2007 MLS Defender of the Year honors and playing in his third straight MLS Cup, all of which he and the Revs lost. He atoned for those disappointments – as well as a frustrating group elimination at the 2008 Summer Olympics -- by helping FC Nordsjaelland knock off much bigger clubs such as Brondby and FC Copenhagen to win the Danish title last spring and qualify automatically for the Champions League group phase.
FC Nordsjaelland was smothered, conceding 22 goals while managing just one point, yet Parkhurst’s play drew good reviews for his Champions League performances against heavy hitters Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Juventus. With his FC Nordsjaelland contract about to expire, he took a step up to the Bundesliga, albeit to play for a prime relegation candidate that currently languishes 17th in the 18-team league. Still, the steady diet of high-stakes competition should push him to further improvement.
That the Bundesliga has been a stepping stone to the U.S. national team under Jurgen Klinsmann can’t be disputed. Cherundolo (Hannover) has been a mainstay for a decade, Jermaine Jones (Schalke) is one of Klinsmann’s faves, and since Klinsmann took over Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams (both Hoffenheim) have emerged. Tim Chandler (Nuremberg) resurfaced in the friendly against Russia in November but has yet to be cap-tied. Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna) got his first U.S. cap while playing for Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team.
Parkhurst, who grew up a Revs fan in Providence, R.I. and attended their inaugural game in 1996, is a classic American success story. He joins FC Augsburg at the peak of his career -- he turns 29 next month -- and though a relegation struggle and possible demotion to the second division loom, this move signifies another step up for an ambitious athlete who’s excelled every step of the way and deserves plaudits, whether or not he makes the grade for Brazil 2014.