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Nothing splashy, Parkhurst classy

FOXBOROUGH -- Soccer has been described as the simplest of games, and when conditions are conducive, there seem to be few easier tasks in sport than kicking a ball. But complications tend to arise in soccer for which no amount of advice, coaching, or training can prepare a player.

So, when Major League Soccer scheduled a combine for prospective players to be evaluated in January, the major rainstorms that soaked Southern California seemed to have diluted the purpose of the exercise. Without a level playing field, or at least a dry one, it was difficult to determine who actually could perform at the professional level.

One player caught the attention of Revolution coach Steve Nicol. While most passes were splashing to a stop on the artificial surface of one of The Home Depot Center's practice fields, Michael Parkhurst's were sailing above and beyond the moisture, finding their intended target.

''It was not normal circumstances, the pitch was waterlogged," Nicol recalled this week. ''Basically, you couldn't roll the ball like you normally would. But [Parkhurst] was working out how far away the other players were and lifting it, scooping the ball to them. It looks and seems like a really simple thing, but there were 22 on the field and he was the only one doing it.

''That was it -- [it showed] he has a great brain, he is composed. He has ability and he reads the game. I'm sure all coaches would love to have a player like that."

But Nicol was the first to commit to Parkhurst, selecting him with the ninth overall pick in the MLS draft. Parkhurst soon overcame several other obstacles in the path of his professional career, and will be starting his 35th consecutive game when the Revolution meet the Chicago Fire in the Eastern Conference final at 3 p.m. tomorrow at Gillette Stadium.

''[The combine] was one of the worst experiences I've had," Parkhurst said. ''We were there five days and there were mudslides and floods all over. Everybody thought we wouldn't play at all; the whole thing was in jeopardy. When we played it was wet and there were puddles everywhere. In those conditions I wanted to do something to help myself out. The ball was holding up in the puddles, so I chipped it to my teammates."

Why didn't others attempt to do so?

''Everyone wants to play the ball on the ground and they were probably afraid to look bad lifting it in the air," Parkhurst said. ''For me, it was a spur of the moment thing. If you can't go through something, go around it."

Parkhurst has elevated himself above and beyond expectations this season, doing so in a way considered unconventional in the United States. Parkhurst became the first central defender to be named MLS rookie of the year, his interpretation of the position going far toward changing the perception of defending.

Instead of attempting to manhandle forwards, Parkhurst finesses them, anticipates plays with positioning, and proactively defuses attacks. Parkhurst's style is suited to the Revolution's 3-5-2 alignment, which requires a combination of a cerebral approach to playing central defense along with the ability to quickly cover vast spaces. Parkhurst, 21, has been sizing up the position since Stacey DeCastro, his coach at Bayside United in Rhode Island, placed him there as an 8-year-old, encouraging him to combine defending with playmaking.

''There is a time and place to be safe with the ball, but it is better to keep as much possession as possible," Parkhurst said. ''It's not good to just lump it forward because it's going to come right back at us."

A broadcast this week noted Parkhurst had been cautioned only six times this season, apparently believing this a significantly low number for a central defender; but the statistic was wrong. Parkhurst has actually committed only six fouls this season, by far the lowest amount for a player with significant playing time in MLS's 10-year history, and earned two yellow cards. The previous low foul count was held by current Colorado Rapid Leo Cullen (11 fouls in 2,680 minutes in 31 games for Miami in 1998). Foul totals of other central defenders with MLS's top teams this year were 68, 45, 40, 40, 33, 33, 32, and none was issued fewer than three yellow cards. The Revolution midfield is responsible for absorbing much of the opponents' pressure, but the team's three-man defense of Jay Heaps, Parkhurst, and Joe Franchino, in front of goalkeeper Matt Reis, is constantly on the verge of being exposed, like a high-wire act without a safety net.

''I have always used my brain to help me get an edge on opponents," said Parkhurst, who played every minute (2,880) of every regular-season game. ''I am not as physically gifted as some players.

''I try to intercept the ball, break up passes. You don't necessarily need to take out the other player."

Revolution midfielder James Riley noted Parkhurst's efficiency when they were together at Wake Forest University.

''That is his demeanor, he is a laid-back kind of guy," Riley said of Parkhurst. ''He is quick and he anticipates the play. He rarely gets his uniform dirty because he is never down on the ground, because he reads the game well. He is not out there banging guys around, but he can give the professional foul if need be. He rarely gets fired up, I think he had one yellow card in college, for dissent."

Parkhurst recalled five cautions in three seasons of collegiate soccer and two with the Revolution (a questionable handball in an April match and a professional foul on Dallas's Carlos Ruiz in a July 16 match at Gillette Stadium).

''I try to organize the defense as much as possible, though Matt [Reis] wants me to do it three times as much as I do," Parkhurst said. ''The whole team takes great pride in our defense and everyone in the back and Matt have had a great year. But if the midfielders don't track back, we're in trouble. We try to keep things as tight as possible. We don't want to get spread out. If Jay [Heaps] or Joey [Franchino] is on the sidelines, I am exposed."

Parkhurst was in the stands for the Revolution's inaugural home match April 27, 1996, an experience that motivated him to seek a professional soccer career. By the time the MLS Cup was held (and nearly postponed) in October, Parkhurst had gained a seat inside the sheltered ''club" section at Foxboro Stadium, showing he was wise enough to remain clean and dry during a northeaster.

''Slide tackles and crunching people, those are last-gasp things you do in order to stop someone," Nicol said. ''But you have to have the ability to play that way, you have to read the game and have good positioning all the time."

Should the Revolution advance to the MLS Cup Nov. 13, Parkhurst will probably be in contention for a US national team call-up.

''If I continue to play well, hopefully I will have a shot at it," Parkhurst said. ''But it's not something I am worried about for now."

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