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Michael Parkhurst Gearing Up for World Cup Push

Will the 30-year-old Rhode Island secure one of the 23 seats on the plane to Brazil? ASN's Brian Sciaretta sat down with the Columbus Crew fullback to talk about his time abroad, MLS, and his ambitions.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
April 01, 2014
5:45 PM
MICHAEL PARKHURST has checked a lot of boxes in his soccer career.

The Wake Forest graduate was a second-team All-American twice during his college years, and in 2004 he signed a prestigious Generation Adidas contract with Major League Soccer. New England selected him ninth overall in the 2005 MLS SuperDraft, and he went on to win the MLS Rookie of the Year award that season. In 2007, Parkhurst was named MLS Defender of the Year.

He represented the United States in the 2008 Olympics and was part of two Gold Cup championship teams—in 2007 and in 2013.

Parkhurst also has played in the group stages of the Champions League. He won the Danish Superliga with Nordsjaelland, a small team usually never thought to compete with the traditional powers like Copenhagen and Brondby. During his time there, he was one of the league’s best fullbacks despite converting to the position late in his career.

And now, after a difficult year with Augsburg in the Bundesliga, Parkhurst is back in MLS. He's off to a strong start with the Columbus Crew, which has won its first three games after failing to qualify for the playoffs since 2011.

Will Parkhurst add to his impressive list of accomplishments by making the United States World Cup roster? Brian Sciaretta spoke with the affable fullback about his resume, his return to MLS, and his goal of playing on the big stage.

American Soccer Now: It’s coming down to the wire here with the U.S. national team as the World Cup fast approaches. It would seem that this game against Mexico is more than just a friendly.

Michael Parkhurst: Absolutely. It’s a great opportunity for all of us. These opportunities are few and far between now. They’re very limited and we’re all in the same boat in looking to take advantage of this opportunity against a very good and formidable opponent. With the rivalry, it’s always awesome when we play them as far as the atmosphere. We’re hoping to put on a good performance.

ASN: With DaMarcus Beasley denied his release by Puebla, you may be asked to play left back again. You've done this before in World Cup qualifying in 2012 and most recently in January in the win over South Korea. How do you feel about this position?

Parkhurst: I don’t see too big of a difference between playing on the left side and the right side. Of course crossing the ball is more on your left foot than right foot but I feel confident with my left foot. So I think it can be more of just an “in a pinch” type of thing. I think that I can play there if need be and if Jurgen thinks I can help the team in that way then I have no problems playing on the left.

ASN: You’ve played fullback for the U.S. national team for a few years now and you were converted to that position in Denmark at Nordsjaelland. Growing up, did you ever have any fullback experience?

Parkhurst: No. It was always pretty much centerback. Youth—youth I was a striker but I think we all were [laughs]. But ever since we got serious about it in high school or college, it was always centerback. A couple of d-mid games here and there both with the Revs and in Denmark, but I was pretty set in centerback until the switch to right back.

ASN: I know your time Augsburg didn’t quite work out in terms of playing time, but when you were in Denmark you played for a strong Nordsjaelland team that won the Danish Superliga and participated in the group stages of the Champions League. How did that experience change you as a player?

Parkhurst: I think that any time you get the experience of playing in those big games, whether you’re playing for a championship winning team or in top-level tournaments like the Champions League, it’s just going to increase your exposure. All those games are just going to help you gain experience in playing against the best opponents there are and to witness firsthand how they’re able to do what they do and what makes them so special. And also to gain the knowledge that, "Hey, I can play with these guys." All of us can play with teams like that and with players like that. It gives you the confidence to know that. Of course they do it at a more consistent level than the rest of us, that’s why they’re the best of the best, but we can all play at that level.

ASN: Do you feel that in having these experiences you are more mature now than you would have been if you stayed in MLS? And do you feel as if it allows you to take on more of a leadership role on the Crew team?

Parkhurst: Absolutely. I think I gained a lot of knowledge going over to Europe. Not only tactically but also game experience. I think I’ve been through some big competitions like the Olympics and the Champions League that a lot of guys don’t get the opportunity to do. I’m thankful for those opportunities. I gained a lot of experience from that. I do think that I’m able to use some of that in the day-to-day events on the field±whether in trainings or games with the team. That’s why I do have a little bit more of a leadership role with the Columbus Crew.

ASN: You have just begun your second tenure in MLS after being away since 2008. What are you initial impressions in how much things have changed?

Parkhurst: I think the biggest difference and the one that is easiest for me to see is that the level of training is better. When I left [New England], you had maybe 14 or 15 guys and after that the level of play was significantly dropping. It’s totally different now. I think we have 23-25 guys that are consistently battling to be in the 18. It wasn’t like that when I was with the Revolution. We had our starting 11 and maybe there were one or two guys that could step in. Now it’s different. We could add 5-6 guys into the starting lineup and the level wouldn’t drop as much. The intensity and the level of training is much different than it was before. It’s a very good thing for the league.

ASN: The Columbus Crew is the talk of the league at the moment with a 3-0-0 start, including a recent away win over Seattle. The mood must be pretty good right now with coach Gregg Berhalter and among the team.

Parkhurst: We’re on a roll right now and it’s fun. Of course winning is always fun but we know that it is a work in progress. Gregg and [Anthony] Precourt have totally changed everything around the club—new facilities, new way of going about everything from what I’ve heard. I wasn’t here last year but I’ve heard that things are much, much different as far as professionalism around the club. We’re trying to implement everything that Gregg is bringing to training out onto the field. And it’s a process. The way that we play is very open. We’re attacking a lot. Of course you could see in the first half against Seattle, we opened ourselves up to the counter attack. That’s something we are consistently working on.

By no means do we think we’re a finished product yet even though we’ve started off the season well. There’s a lot of work left and we don’t want to become complacent because three wins doesn’t get us into the playoffs. We all know that. It’s a long season. But overall we’re thrilled with the start and it gives us a lot of confidence because we’re a young group.

ASN: While you were in the Danish Superliga and the Bundesliga, what did you notice was the perception of MLS and soccer in the United States from European players? Was it skepticism, curiosity, or a combination of both?

Parkhurst: There’s a lot of curiosity and a lot of questions. Everyone is aware of the league and how it works. They’re asking us a lot of questions about salary and how we’re owned by the league, not teams. They don’t understand and to a degree I don’t even understand how all the contracts work. They’re all intrigued, they’re all interested. They all know it’s growing. They all understand that the level is getting better every year.

I think more and more guys are taking it seriously where it’s not just a retirement league. You can’t come over here when you’re 36 and think you’re just going to trot around and collect a paycheck. It doesn’t work like that. They’re understanding that now and I think soon we’ll see younger players in their prime come over here.

ASN: MLS commissioner Don Garber has been very vocal in his ambition to have MLS become one of the best leagues in the world in 10 years. Do you think this is attainable?

Parkhurst: I think to be one of the top leagues is attainable. No doubt in my mind that it will get there one day. Within 10 years? I don’t know. That’s soon because those leagues and those teams are so established for so long and MLS is so young comparatively—even compared to the other sports here in the U.S. We have a generation right now that is growing up watching MLS and becoming those die-hard fans, but it’s a ways until we’re at that level where European soccer is. But every year we’re getting closer. It’s a process but we’re getting there especially with the establishment of the home-grown players and the youth systems. It’s all progressing in the right way.

I think more and more players will be by-passing college and turning professional. I wasn’t one of those players, I went to college and I had a great time. I think I improved myself by going to college but in the end when you’re coming out of college at 22 or 23, you’re not young anymore. By European standards, you’re not young. Those guys have been pro for five or six years. It’s totally different when you’re getting your first taste of professionalism at 22 rather than 17. It puts us a big gap behind.

ASN: You’ve played in the UEFA Champions League and here there is the CONCACAF Champions League. I know you haven’t participated in this league yet but once again MLS teams came up short and were eliminated against Liga Mx clubs. We talk about the rivalry between the U.S. and Mexican national teams but how important is it at the club level? How much is this a priority around the league and are MLS team’s really aiming to overtake Liga MX in this competitions?

Parkhurst: I think so. I think we see it that we don’t think that we’re behind Mexico. We think we can compete with their teams. So we need to prove it. So far we haven’t. Whatever the reasons may be and I haven’t been involved in one of those games so I can’t speak to the degree of difficulty but it’s a tournament we definitely need to get better at. Hopefully in the near future we can win it.

ASN: You’ve played against Mexico before, including the last win in Columbus to qualify for the World Cup. What does this rivalry mean and where does it rank compared with what you witnessed in Europe?

Parkhurst: We all look forward to it because we know whether we’re playing there or here, if it’s 70,000 Americans or 70,000 Mexicans, it doesn’t matter. The crowd is going to be fantastic. It’s going to be loud and there’s going to be a lot of pride in the stands and on the field. Nobody wants to lose to the team on the border. Especially to Mexico because we’re CONCACAF battlers to be the top team. That’s ongoing and every year it’s going to be changing. It’s never set in stone and we’re always playing for bragging rights. It’s a fantastic rivalry and I think the players on the field have mutual respect for each other. At the same time, it’s a fight and a battle. We like that.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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