Monday, March 09, 2009

Missing Michael Parkhurst

(*I was originally going to title this piece "Forgetting David Beckham." And all was going quite swell until I developed a sudden aneuryism about halfway through my first sentence. Darn. Therefore, here's what I hope proves to be a more enlightening piece.)

Michael Parkhurst was special. And not in a demeaning, saracastic kind of way. I mean special in a good way.

It wasn't just the fact that he accumulated league awards - Rookie of the Year, Defender of the Year, MLS All-Star - the way a former child actor accumulates hours in therapy. Nor was it the amazing storyline of a local kid who attended the very first Revolution match and went on to excel on his hometown club. Heck, it wasn't even that wonder strike from center circle during the 2007 season finale.

All of those ideas are relevant and compelling, yes. Anecdotal, sure. But none of those little factoids are sole reason why Michael Parkhurst was such a talent to behold.

What made Parkurst special was that his uncanny knack for being in the right playce at the right time. He understood the ebb and flow of the game better than all but a few of his peers. He knew when to give space, and when to go in for the kill. He was cerebral to nth power.

I know it's difficult, if not darn near impossible, to quantify this aspect of his game. However, we can look toward some statistical evidence that Parky was a supremely gifted center back.

The first statistic is the fouls committed category. It took him nearly three years to blemish to fouls committed category. Three years for his first foul. Did I mention that he was a center back? That's like Amy Winehouse being clean for an entire week.

And Parky never shied away from contact. Rarely was he caught out of position. In fact, he was often in the precise position when an attack pressed forward. He was like a cat ready to pounce on a ball of yarn. A cat with a double-doctorate in geometry and spatial studies.

Another statistic that goes hand in hand with the fouls created category is the card accumulation. Although he finally proved to be human and committed his first MLS foul in 2008, he never picked up a card. In fact, his club was awarded the fair play prize from MLS, as the Revolution squad as a whole committed the fewest yellow/red card transgressions. Although the entire roster deserves kudos for that distinction, the zero cards for Parky is an accurate reflection of his remarkable discipline in such a crucial spot on the pitch.

But like I said, his "specialness" - and yes, we are all special in some way - cannot be accurately measured via statistics. Rather, I think the best indication of how important he was to the Revolution is that his Steve Nicol, his former manager, may have to overhaul his club's tactics to address Parky's absence.

The weight placed on shoulders of a sole center back can is heavier than two Ronaldos. The margin for error of a lone CB is slimmer than Lindsay Lohan. A shift of weight ten degrees the wrong way, and the punishment can be a back-breaking goal. And while the crowd may unjustifiably jeer the keeper, a stand up center back will carry that guilt for the remainder of the evening.

And Nicol, one of the league's most brilliant managers, saw that Parkhurst's time on Route One was running out. He drafted a convalescing, yet promising, center back named Rob Valentino from San Francisco in the first round of last year's SuperDraft. Later in the year, Nicol brought in Gabriel Badilla from Costa Rica, a pretty high-profile signing for a club that rarely entertains such deals.

While Valentino recuperated, he never saw first team action. And Badilla's arrival was less than stellar, to say the least. In only six matches, he nearly rivaled Parky's nine fouls with seven of his own.

Of course, Parky played 23 more matches than the Costa Rican. More importantly, the normally stalwart Revolution back line disintegrated, as the club fluctuated between the 3-5-2 and the 4-4-2. Injuries, call-ups (including that of Parkhurst himself for the Summer Olympics) and a flood of fixtures made the defending third appear circus-like down the stretch. All the while, Parky kept his end of the bargain, and never seemed to waver from his responsibilities.

However, one man cannot steer a storm-battered vessel alone. The Revolution failed to reach MLS Cup for the first time since 2004.

As expected, Parky packed his bags and signed with the Danish club FC Nordsjælland, and left behind a gaping hole at the center back slot in New England.

Which brings us to the club's current condition. With Parky gone for good, the club's employed a four-man backline in each of its preseason matches rather than the customary 3-5-2. I know this isn't entirely suprising, as the Revs are apt to undertake a great deal of experimentation during the preseason. But this year, given Parkhurst's departure and the club's depth in the rear, there's been a considerable amount of buzz that the 3-5-2 may be scrapped altogether.

Depth is one thing; sheer talent is another. If you asked Steve Nicol, he'd likely choose a fit Michael Parkhurst over three capable CB candidates. Although he's denied the idea of a preferred formation over the years, it's clear that the three-man back line, featuring Parkhurst as its centerpiece, is the one that Nicol's achieved the greatest success with during the past four seasons.

Whether the current crop of defenders can seamlessly mesh and reform its stingy self as a four-headed beast remains to be seen. Can Valentino and Badilla (or Jay Heaps, if necessary) man the middle effectively? If not, will Nicol have to scour the international seas to find a Parkhurst clone?

It may take some time before we know. Yet, the very real possibility of a tactical shift amply underscores how special Michael Parkhurst truly was.


Anonymous said...

I know that it sounds like hyperbole, but I often thought of Beckenbauer when I watched Parkhurst. (I'm a New England Revolution supporter.) He had the same sort of cerebral approach, the ball skills, and the ability to start things from the back. Obviously he didn't range quite so much but his passing and quickness started many an attack. I'm hoping he'll get his chance beside Onyewu in central defense on the Nats. said...

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