FOXBOROUGH - Michael Parkhurst has probably been the most efficient and stylish defender in Major League Soccer since making his professional debut with the Revolution in 2005. But Parkhurst had a rocky start in the 2005 opener against the San Jose Earthquakes, virtually the same team the Revolution will meet in their opener tomorrow at Gillette Stadium at 7:30 p.m.
"They were all over us and we were down, 2-0, in the first 10 minutes and I was thinking, 'Holy smokes,' " Parkhurst recalled yesterday. "The pace of the game was a lot different on the field than you see on TV. The quickness, the strength of guys. You have to be ready and you have to be organized, and we weren't. Someone went by me and they got a penalty kick. I don't know if I adjusted, but we got back into the game [which concluded 2-2]. I can't believe that was three years ago - it seems like yesterday."
By the end of that season, though, Parkhurst had been named Rookie of the Year and become a US national team candidate, and the Earthquakes were on the way to Houston, where they became the Dynamo.
Revolution coach Steve Nicol built the defense around Parkhurst, an unlikely choice in a hard-charging, physical league. And Parkhurst set standards. He was rarely outmaneuvered by opposing forwards and he seldom surrendered free kicks. In three seasons, Parkhurst has committed only 23 fouls and has been issued three cautions.
"Most people didn't think I would make it," Parkhurst said. "Luckily, Stevie took a gamble with me, because it's a position where you can't make too many mistakes. Other guys have had good first years, Bobby Boswell, Ugo Ihemelu, so it's possible to do it."
On the move?Parkhurst has refined his already sophisticated style and continued to improve - so much so, he could be outgrowing MLS. Parkhurst's contract expires after this season, and if all goes as planned, he could be on his way to Europe, where several opportunities could be available because he has a Republic of Ireland passport. Only a contract extravagant by MLS standards would likely keep Parkhurst near his Cranston, R.I., home.
"Generally in sports, it's better to assess opportunities if you play out your contract," said Craig Sharon, Parkhurst's agent. "And in soccer, there are so many other alternatives. Michael wants to play it out and then decide his next stop. He hasn't ruled out coming back and he will seriously consider that at the appropriate time, after the season. The passport opens the door to opportunities that would not be otherwise open."
The Revolution lost midfielder Andy Dorman (St. Mirren) and forward Pat Noonan (Aalesund FK) to Europe after last season, and Clint Dempsey (Fulham) the year before. Parkhurst could be next.
"We would love to re-sign him," Revolution director of soccer Michael Burns said. "But they have made it perfectly clear that he wants to play out his contract and visit the situation then. We have to honor and respect that."
There are still doubts about Parkhurst's ability to survive in, say, England's Premier League. But Nicol, whose ability to identify Parkhurst's assets and provide guidance for his pro career, is not among the skeptics.
"A year ago, I would have probably said no," Nicol said. "[The Premier] is a physical league, but a lot of it is pace [speed] and using your brain. And [Parkhurst] has as good a brain as anybody in the league. Ryan Nelsen made it with Blackburn Rovers, so I'm sure [Parkhurst] could do it as well.
"It all depends on what they are looking for. A lot of teams want a center back who is going to win the ball, a square head who crunches people. But he reads the game well, and that's one thing about players down through the years, the big names, that's how they play. You look at [Franz] Beckenbauer, the old geezers, when they played, they always had a clean strip [uniform]. Alan Hansen [Nicol's former Liverpool teammate], he could have hung his strip up and left it for the next game. It's not all about hard tackling and sliding in the mud.
"Good sweepers don't put themselves in a position where they get hurt. What they like to do is take the ball off the opposition and start the attack."
Mind gameParkhurst gained his conception of soccer as a game based on finesse and two-way play before the sport became widely televised in the United States. He was seldom able to view defenders such as Franco Baresi and Fabio Cannavaro, similar in stature to him, until he was well on the way to developing his style.
"We grew up playing with our mom and dad as coaches," Parkhurst said. "A lot of our coaches were just local guys and didn't know much about soccer, and there was only the odd Manchester United game on TV. Now kids are growing up and coaches are teaching them. There is a lot more structure. Not that you shouldn't have fun when you're a kid, but we had very little structure when we were growing up."
Parkhurst, encouraged by his club coach, Stacey DeCastro, and by watching the Revolution in their early years, made a pro career a goal and moved to Bradenton, Fla., at age 14. He then went to Wake Forest University, a program that bases its game on skill and, like the Revolution, was seeking a cerebral center back.
Parkhurst displayed his versatility at Wake Forest, once single-handedly leading a second-half comeback from an attacking midfield position.
"We were trailing against Duke, 3-0," Parkhurst said. "I scored a goal and set one up. And we had a chance to tie."
Wells Thompson, Parkhurst's teammate at Wake Forest and now with the Revolution, recalled Parkhurst then splitting two defenders, rounding the goalkeeper, and being on the verge of scoring into an empty net, but the play was negated by an offside call.
He has it coveredParkhurst scored on his only shot with the Revolution, launching a goal from the halfway line at BMO Field in Toronto in the final game of the regular season last year.
"I wouldn't mind giving it a shot in midfield, but I give those guys a lot of credit in there," Parkhurst said. "I'm used to having everything in front of me. In midfield, you don't have much time on the ball. There are guys on all sides of you and they close on you very quickly."
As for his defensive style, Parkhurst has long approached things differently than the traditional hard-hitting central defenders.
"Guys who are strong and post up, like Carlos Ruiz and Brian Ching, if you are up on them, they will grab you, so they always know where you are and they can easily turn you," Parkhurst said. "Watch Didier Drogba [of Chelsea]. He is always grabbing the defender and trying to turn him. I would rather play off them a little, so they don't know where I am. Then I can come in from the side and they don't know where I'm coming from."
After participating in his first US national team training camp, Parkhurst was advised by coach Bob Bradley to assert himself more physically. He committed five fouls during the 2006 season. Last year, he committed six.
"I'm not going to change too much," Parkhurst said. "In certain situations, you need to make physical plays. I'm not going to go out and start kicking people. But I can be a little stronger and maybe give a few more fouls."
Parkhurst has been anticipating situations off the field for some time. His father was born in Ireland, enabling Parkhurst to qualify for a passport, which would allow him to be contracted as a domestic player in Great Britain.
"The Premier League would be a challenge," Parkhurst said. "People didn't think I could make it as a center back in the ACC or the MLS. I'd like to give it a shot.
"There is always a chance I could stay here. But if there is a chance to make enough money to take care of my family, I'll have to look at it. I was thinking about that when I got the passport in my first or second year of college."
The Revolution have signed left back Chase Hilgenbrinck, a Quincy, Ill., native who played at Clemson and spent three seasons in Chile. "We were looking for cover defensively," Nicol said. "[Hilgenbrinck] has a good left peg, he's experienced, he picks up good positions." . . . Costa Rican forward Argenis Fernandez's work visa has been approved and he is expected to be available tomorrow . . . Kenny Mansally paired with Taylor Twellman at forward in training yesterday . . . Midfielder Shalrie Joseph is expected to return to training today after playing for Grenada in a 10-0 win over the US Virgin Islands in a World Cup qualifying game Wednesday in St. George.