Fifth time the charm? Poised Parkhurst has elusive MLS Cup title within reach

Atlanta’s captain has been on the losing end of four MLS Cup finals and he will be key to his club’s chances of helping him end that drought

If you watch the highlights of the four MLS Cup finals Michael Parkhurst has appeared in during his career there are two things you won’t see. You won’t see Parkhurst beaten for any goals and you won’t see any footage of him lifting the trophy at the end.  

Parkhurst is part of a tortured fraternity of MLS players who have endured four MLS Cup final defeats without a win, with the defender joined in that group by former New England teammates Steve Ralston, Taylor Twellman and Jay Heaps. He will attempt to avoid becoming the first MLS player to suffer five MLS Cup defeats when he leads Atlanta United against the Portland Timbers on Saturday in the 2018 final. 

Parkhurst will be facing the same Timbers team he faced in his most recent MLS Cup final, a 2-1 loss in 2015 when he was captain of the Columbus Crew. At that time, there was a stinging disappointment and the fear that it could have been his last chance to lift the elusive trophy. 

“You never know when the next chance will come, so at that time it was tough to take,” Parkhurst told Goal. “That’s one message I have for this group now, to make the most of this opportunity because there is no guarantee there will be another.” 

Parkhurst has settled into a vital role for the second-year team, giving Atlanta United a calming presence and unflappable leadership that has helped a young club mature into a title favorite. 

“[Parkhurst] helps bring a balance when it comes to the South Americans on the team,” Atlanta teammate Leandro Gonzalez Pirez told Goal. “We live every play, in general, with passion and emotion, and he helps keep us grounded in those moments where we might feel like things are life and death and he can calm us down and show us that there are more important things to worry about.” 

Though his 14 professional seasons have helped refine his leadership qualities, the center back was showing the traits of a leader even as a rookie trying to simply get on the field for the New England Revolution.  

Parkhust won MLS rookie of the year in 2005, starting on a Revs team that lost in the final to the LA Galaxy, but before that season began he was just a skinny rookie who wasn’t expected to see much playing time. Veteran defender Carlos Llamosa was coming off major knee surgery and was expected back, but wound up being forced to retire, leaving the Revs scrambling for a replacement. 

“They brought in trialist after trialist. Four, five, six guys because they knew they needed a starting center back,” Parkhurst recalled. “I just kept training, kept working on it. They’d give me chances in between the trialists and seeing guys, and nobody worked out for them. I don’t know how confident they were going into the year with a 160-pound center back starting in a back three, but I had a good team around me.”

“He was always in the right spot at the right time defending,” former Revolution star Twellman told Goal. “So, whether or not I physically could overpower him, could find a half a yard or whatever, he was always there. He was never really under pressure and he never gave you the impression he was under pressure. His demeanor, the way he carried himself his rookie year, is the same way he carries himself today.” 

In an interesting twist of fate, Llamosa, the same player Parkhurst replaced as a starter in his first season as a professional, is now an assistant with the Timbers. Though he only spent three months with Parkhurst in his first professional preseason, Llamosa remembers coming away impressed then, knowing the skinny rookie had something special. 

“For his young age, he had a lot of leadership qualities, even as a rookie, and we’ve seen it the last couple of years in Columbus and Atlanta,” Llamosa told Goal. “He always had that leadership in his personality.” 

Parkhurst has forged an impressive career not only because of the maturity he displayed from an early age, but also because of the skills he developed since he started playing center back in his early teens. He was always small for the position, but his ability to read the game and understand defensive positioning came naturally, even without having the exposure to high-level soccer on a regular basis that young players today have. 

“I didn’t watch a ton of soccer growing up because there wasn’t a ton on TV,” Parkhurst said. “I watched [Paolo] Maldini whenever I could watch Maldini, [Fabio] Cannavaro, but really it was just using my strengths. I physically can’t outdo strikers, so you learn how to adapt along the away.” 

Standing under six feet tall and weighing in the 160-pound range, Parkhurst is anything but a prototypical center back, but that hasn’t stopped him from developing into one of the best defenders in MLS history and a player who has helped mold Atlanta United into a powerhouse. 

“When I first met him I thought he was [Atlanta coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s] assistant or something,” Gonzalez Pirez said with a laugh. “We’re always calling him the grandpa of the team, because when you look at him he looks like he works in the front office.  

“But when it’s time to play, he teaches us every day. We learn from him because he’s a player with excellent technical quality and very good concepts about how to defend, so I learn from him every day.” 

Parkhurst will don the captain’s armband on Saturday and lead Atlanta United out onto the field at a sold-out Mercedez-Benz Stadium for his fifth MLS Cup final. He has played well in his four previous finals, and as much as you might think the weight of those past losses might be a burden, Parkhurst is too poised and too experienced to let that faze him. He knows Atlanta United will need his calming presence more than ever.

He will give a pre-game speech, but he won’t need to remind his teammates how important the match is. Not just for a city desperate for a sports championship, but also for a captain who they will want to see lift the elusive MLS Cup he has already missed out on four times. 

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