PROVIDENCE -- On a cool night in late April 1996, 12-year-old Michael Parkhurst saw his future. The Revolution were playing their first Major League Soccer match at Foxboro Stadium, and Parkhurst was among the 32,864 receiving their initial exposure to professional soccer at the local level.
"A few months later, I was driving Michael and another boy to Pennsylvania for the ODP [Olympic Development Program] regionals," Parkhurst's mother, Marian, said yesterday. "And I asked them, `Where are we going with this?' And they said, `We want to be professional soccer players -- that's our dream.'
"After the [MLS] started, there was a team and a league, and they could sit there and actually see it was possible. Someday they could grow up and do this. We kind of laughed, but we had always told our children if they wanted to do anything, the sky is the limit. But it's mind-boggling what has happened."
Many youngsters envision their future as professional athletes, but sooner or later, are dissuaded by the reality of the odds against them. Parkhurst, though, persisted and will return to the soccer field in Foxborough tomorrow night, as a starting central defender for the Revolution in their home opener against the Columbus Crew.
"As I walk into the stadium and see the younger kids in the shoes I was in," Parkhurst said, "I will definitely take time for autographs and to give them the little things I wanted when I was a kid."
The center back in a 3-5-2 alignment has a lot of ground to cover. The requirements for the position, though, are as much mental as physical -- an ability to anticipate and organize, read the game, and cut angles. The best central defenders make things look easy, cutting off threats before they form, calmly defusing an eager attacker's run.
But the position also requires resilience and strength, the ability to contest crosses with powerful, tall forwards.
For this reason, soccer coaches often use size as their first requisite for the position.
Not so, said Stacey DiCastro. Parkhurst was 8 years old when he joined DiCastro's Bayside United club, training at Providence Country Day School.
"With his instincts," DiCastro said, "I said that he would be a professional someday, and I didn't say that about others who have come from this area and played in national team programs. He was different. All he needed to do was stick with it and keep progressing. His size worked against him -- ODP never picked him out and the colleges are usually looking for speed and size and strength. In the US, they say someone his size will never make it.
"I look at ability. Can he get the job done -- yes, he can. It's very hard to determine at that age, but he was very special, the way he could read the game. Whenever someone on our team got beat, he was there to take care of it. In all my years of coaching, I had never seen anyone so consistent, with that type of instinct."
Parkhurst, who is listed at 5 feet 11 inches, 155 pounds, returned to practice with DiCastro's Under-15 team this week.
"The only thing that has changed is his height and the hair on his face," DiCastro said. "His touches on the ball are the same.
"Sometimes coaches take the credit for the success of their players, but all I did with Michael is facilitate. He did all the hard work and deserves all the credit."
Parkhurst's ability to look ahead led him to leave his Cranston, R.I., home for the International Management Group Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
"He said he would have to do it to be a professional player someday," Parkhurst's father, Michael, said. "We gave him the option and it was very difficult on our part."
Uprooting is a major part of the Parkhurst family story.
Parkhurst's father was born Charles Michael Finlay in County Monaghan, Republic of Ireland. His father died when he was 2, his mother died when he was 7, so two Finlay boys and two Finlay girls were sent to live with relatives in Ireland and the US. Charles Michael Finlay eventually was adopted by the Rhode Island Parkhursts, who were related by marriage to his mother, and took the name Michael Parkhurst. Among the New England O'Boys and Murphys, Parkhursts and Sullivans, he found a home.
"Even though I grew up in Ireland, I knew nothing about soccer before Michael started playing," said Parkhurst's father, a revenue officer for the state of Rhode Island. "I was into basketball, baseball, I am a big fan of the Patriots, all sports. Now I teach other parents about the game.
"When Michael was younger, he scored a ton of goals, but that is like a lot of kids," Parkhurst's father said. "But he could see the whole field and when he played at the back, the kids played better around him. He could distribute the ball and make runs, he always understood what had to be done. Even then, I knew he would be a professional athlete, because he was so fast and he could anticipate the game. He played shortstop in baseball and he always knew where the ball was going.
"He was always the smallest kid on the field but he learned to deal with that. He got used to other guys being faster and bigger and stronger. They said he was not strong enough to play in the middle, that he won't be able to head the ball. But he proved them wrong and he will keep proving them wrong."
The Parkhursts might have left their Irish roots behind them, but not their European Union passports. Ireland citizenship could allow Michael to perform for a European club as an EU citizen and, possibly, have a chance with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), which has gone to such great lengths to pursue talent it was nicknamed Find Any Irishman.
"It is good to have [dual citizenship] if I want to pursue something overseas," Parkhurst said. "I want to play for the US in the future, but if it doesn't work out, I would look at playing for the Republic."
Parkhurst probably made the right choice when he enrolled at Wake Forest, where he started at center back in a 3-5-2 formation in his first official match with the team and performed in 62 successive contests. The Revolution selected him in the MLS draft in January, partly because of his experience in the 3-5-2 scheme.
"I knew if I went to Bradenton, I would be done with all other sports," Parkhurst said.
"If you are playing in central defense, you are always involved. You do have a little more time back there than you think, but you are the last man back, and if you take too long -- that's why guys hurry up with the ball. I started out playing as a forward and that has helped me defending, because I read the game the way a forward would.
"People say I am composed on the ball, and composure comes with experience. It's because I've been a center back since I was 8 or 9. You can adapt to any position at a younger age. [DiCastro] was the coach and I just went along with it, the team had a lot of success, we were happy, and I liked having the game in front of me."