Michael Parkhurst, One-on-One: Playing for Tata, Atlanta's huge ambitions and fighting relegation in Europe
Michael Parkhurst is one of the most respected players in Major League Soccer, and his presence as Atlanta United's captain and backline leader has played a significant role as the club has positioned itself as a contender in its first season.
Parkhurst previously starred for the New England Revolution, winning top rookie and best defender honors as the Revs reached three successive MLS Cup finals. He has also featured for the Columbus Crew, spent five years in Europe, and played for nearly a decade with the U.S. national team.
FourFourTwo caught up with Parkhurst to discuss Atlanta’s early success, the pluses and minuses of playing abroad, and how MLS changed while he was in Europe.
FourFourTwo: Has Atlanta’s debut exceeded your expectations?
MP: Before the season started, it was announced we would have 30,000 season-ticket holders, but we had no idea the atmosphere at our home games would be what it is. I honestly think it's the best environment in MLS. Maybe I'm being slightly a homer, but, honestly, I don't think so.
My conversations with Carlos Bocanegra. He told me about Tata ... It just seemed that this was a club that players are going to want to play for.
The atmosphere there at Bobby Dodd Stadium has been amazing. We've had 40,000 standing the whole game. The chants were loud. It was just an awesome atmosphere. Definitely, I think, it exceeded everyone's expectations. The way the city has embraced us and how popular we've become down here, it's been awesome to be a part of.
I think also the training ground. We knew it was going to be fantastic, but to actually be at it everyday and enjoy it, to work here and use the facilities, it's been awesome. We're very fortunate in that aspect.
FFT: How is Tata Martino's English coming along?
MP: It's coming along. If at the beginning of the season it was 95/5 as far as Spanish to English, maybe now it’s 80/20. Maybe even 75/25. So it's coming along.
I think he understands when we speak to him, and most of us have a decent enough background in Spanish that we can understand what he's saying through a little Spanglish, so we're making it work.
FFT: What are the difficulties in playing for a coach who isn't fluent in your language?
MP: It's a challenge. You just want to make sure you're not missing anything. That everything is getting translated, and you're not missing any key points.
A lot of the stuff out on the field, you can sort of get a grasp on, based on hand motions and moving pieces throughout the field. Obviously, little things like passing drills, you can pick up on pretty quick. But when we do tactical work, we talk about opponents and weekly strategies, you just have to make sure you're 100 percent focused. You can't just half-pay attention, because you really don't want to miss any important aspects of it.
Our meetings are a little bit longer,. It takes a little bit of patience. But we’re used to it, at this point in the season.
FFT: What does it mean to you to be chosen this team's captain?
MP: It is a special honor, for sure. To know that I'm the first captain in this club's history will be a cool thing to look back on, when my career's over, when my kids are playing, or a long time from now to look back on a club that's hopefully had a lot of success.
For the present moment, it's a bigger responsibility than I think a captain on a normal team [has], just in that early on in the season, trying to get everyone on the same page and making sure that we know the task in front of us. We've got a lot of guys on the team that are new to MLS, which can be a good thing. Maybe they take some of the things for granted and just go out there and play. But for other aspects, it's difficult.
I think that I'm always trying to learn and grow as a captain. I can always try to be a little bit more vocal, but I think the good captains are vocal when they need to be, but more importantly, I think they go out there and lead by example.
FFT: Atlanta is averaging about two goals per game. How is to see the kind of explosiveness you guys have going forward?
MP: I could tell early on in preseason, when teams are mixed and the defense is going against the offense, that, wow, these guys are talented. They are a handful to defend, especially when they're moving all over the place, combining with each other, [and they're] explosive one-on-one, as well.
They just are fearless on attack, and they just go after you, relentless, and they work hard as well. It's a challenge for me defensively, because when we're attacking, I'm supposed to be organizing things in the back, and sometimes you just get caught watching, just because you don't want to miss it.
You don't want to miss Miguel [Almiron] do something special and stick a ball in the upper corner, or Josef [Martinez] as well. They're some of the most talented guys that I've played with, and it's impressive.
FFT: What is Atlanta United capable of achieving this year?
MP: I don't know yet. I think we're still growing. We definitely view ours as a playoff team. We always have.
We had that expectation at the beginning of the season, that we weren't going to use the excuse of, “Oh, we're an expansion team, we're going to need a year or two.” We just have different expectations [than that]. The ownership does, the front office, the coaching staff, the players. We all know what's been invested into this first year and the money spent and the talent that this group has. We're not taking it for granted. And once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen.
From my experience, it's tougher for a team with little playoff experience to do well and go far, but I'm not discounting this team, because we've gotten some results that you would say beforehand, “Let's chalk this one up [as a loss or draw].” But this team just doesn't believe in the ordinary, and, like I said earlier, we've just got guys that are fearless, or they're blind to it, or who knows what it is. We just go out there and play, we work hard, and it's working out for us, right now.
I honestly think we can not only make the playoffs but get a good seed, set ourselves up well, try to get a home game or two in the playoffs and take it from there. But this team's capable.
FFT: You were happy in Columbus. What told you that a move to Atlanta would be good for you, that this is where you'd want to be?
MP: My conversations with [technical director and former U.S. teammate] Carlos Bocanegra. He told me about Tata and the style of play they want to play, the facilities that they're building, the culture of the team they wanted to have. Just their vision of the club, the support they had from ownership. It just seemed that this was a club that players are going to want to play for. They're going to do the right things on and off the field, and it's come into fruition.
FFT: You started your pro career with the New England Revolution, close to home for a Rhode Island guy. What was it like playing in three MLS Cups under a coaching staff of Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner?
MP: Talk about the ultimate players' coaches. Those guys were fantastic. It was awesome to play there. Guys went in there, they played free, didn't have the pressure. Just went in there and worked hard for each other.
There was very little tactical work, very little scouting of other teams. We just went about our business. I don't know if it was just a different era or just their style, but it worked for us. We went out there, we battled hard for each other, we had a lot of fun doing it, and the success obviously showed itself.