Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst isn’t appearing in his fifth MLS Cup because of luck.
Though not as fast as Red Bulls’ Aaron Long, or as big as Seattle’s Chad Marshall, the two players who finished ahead of him in voting for MLS Defender of the year, Parkhurst has one skill that may be unmatched by any other in the league - his ability to read the game.
“It’s just been a gift of mine I guess, thankfully because I’m not strong,” he said. “I’m not super-fast. You have to make due with what you got and thankfully I have a decent brain.”
To say Parkhurst is slight is complimenting slight. The 34-year-old is listed as 5-foot-9, 169 pounds. The height seems accurate. The weight may be generous. He threw himself before a close-range shot in the Eastern Conference finals against Red Bulls that appeared to send shockwaves through his upper body as he staggered around before finding his footing.
He has an ability to be where he needs to be just the tip of a shoelace before whoever he is marking.
“He probably reads it better than any other player I’ve seen,” Atlanta United fullback Greg Garza said. “His margin of error is so low. Might be difficult to see from outside, but inside it’s obvious how much he knows the game.”
As an example, teammate Kevin Kratz talked about how often Parkhurst was the first to reach to passes that the Red Bulls tried to chip or cross into space between Atlanta United’s defensive midfielders and the centerbacks in the second leg of the conference finals. Parkhurst was typically the first to see the danger, first to move and first to eliminate, finishing with 16 of the team’s 57 clearances. Parkhurst led the team during the regular season with 169 clearances, fourth-most in the league.
“He’s reading the game so good for us from the back and organizing everything in front and around him that it’s very difficult to find pockets when he’s on the field and you’re facing him,” Kratz said.
Parkhurst doesn’t know how he developed the skill. He said he didn’t pick it up by watching a lot of soccer on TV growing up, mostly because it wasn’t on too often.
He credited a high school coach at IMG, as well as other coaches, for honing his ability to identify and typically eliminate trouble.
With Parkhurst leading the line as the team’s captain, Atlanta United has the most points MLS the past two seasons and on Saturday will play for its first championship.
Most credit for the team’s success goes to an offense led by league MVP Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, who finished second in the voting.
But Atlanta United’s defense, anchored by Parkhurst, centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and goalkeeper Brad Guzan, has been underrated and among the league’s best. It allowed just 44 goals during the regular season, second-fewest in the Eastern Conference. It allowed just 40 in 2017, which was also the second-fewest in the conference. Their goal difference margins of plus-26 this season and plus-30 last year are among the top seven in league history.
“I think we make a great combination playing together,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “He’s more of a cerebral player who covers less ground but he’s so smart that he knows where to be. I’m more of the physical and passionate. I think together we make a great combo.”
But none of that will provide much comfort should Atlanta United not reward itself for its work by defeating the Timbers and winning the MLS Cup.
Parkhurst, more than anyone else on the team, or currently in the league, knows the anguish that comes with losing a championship because he has done so four times, three with New England and one with Columbus.
“After the fourth one, I thought man I don’t know if I will ever get another one,” he said.
When he was traded from the Crew to Atlanta United in Dec. 2016, he said he briefly thought if playing for an expansion franchise, which typically struggles no matter the sport or league, would mean that he would never make it back to the title game.
It only took a few conversations with Atlanta United President Darren Eales and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra for Parkhurst to realize that he wasn’t joining a typical expansion franchise.
“Everything’s been top class around here,” he said. “So, pretty quickly, you realize we have a good team.”
So, here Parkhurst is, ready for what may be his last chance in is 27th league playoff game.
His teammates have had a little bit of fun with him about his luck in title games. Julian Gressel said he has listened to Parkhurst’s advice throughout the playoffs. This week, not so much.
“I thought he’s probably right,” Parkhurst said.
Parkhurst doesn’t seem to mind. Blessed with his ability to read the game, he wants to take advantage of this fifth opportunity to win the MLS Cup.
“Here I am, an opportunity to get a fifth,” he said.