On Saturday evening, Columbus Crew SC steps onto a field in which the team has never played, in a city most players are unfamiliar with. The Black & Gold go against expansion side Atlanta United in front of a raucous crowd that this team has never seen.
But there will be at least one familiar face for many on Crew SC in former teammate Michael Parkhurst.
“It will be good to see him again,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said of Parkhurst this week.
“I have nothing but positive things to say about Michael. He was a great leader for this team.”
Parkhurst was one of Berhalter’s first signings after he took charge of Columbus, bringing him back to Major League Soccer from FC Augsburg in January of 2014.
When Berhalter looked for was twofold. First, he wanted a central defender that fit the playing style he was hoping to employ with the Black & Gold, one based on possession and ball movement. That meant a player who was good with his feet and could make passes out of the back while still being a capable defender.
That’s what Parkhurst brought to Columbus.
“To me he’s the best passing center back in the league and he’s been that for a long time. Ever since he came back,” Parkhurst’s former teammate with Crew SC, Josh Williams said. “So his ability to create out of the back and to find pockets, that’s something we got to see first hand.”
In the Black & Gold’s system, the buildup starts as soon as the ball is turned over, and often that happens at the back. A ball-playing defender makes it much easier to begin moving the other way.
This ability of Parkhurt’s was not only important, especially in the early days of the Berhalter era, but vital to what Columbus wanted to do.
“He was key to that,” Berhalter said of starting possessions. “When you think about his passing, being able to breakdown the opposing defense, he was key to that.
He’s the one that singlehandedly brought Justin (Meram) into the pocket by being able to find him with the passes. And now we said, ‘OK, that works. Justin stay in the pocket,’ but Michael’s responsible for that.”
It was not just the fact that he was a center back who could help possess the ball, that led Berhalter to acquiring Parkhurst, but also the leadership and experience he brings.
Despite wearing the armband for all three years he was in Columbus, Parkhurst is not a typical captain. He doesn’t do a lot of yelling, nor is he a guy who will get in your face. He leads by example, with a quiet confidence that players just gravitate to.
“Just my time with him, he’s an unbelievable leader,” Williams said.
“We called him Daddy Parkhurt because he’s just a dad,” current Crew SC captain Wil Trapp followed up. “He’s just so clam, cool, collected. The way he is on the field, he is off the field. He was a great mentor, role model for a lot of younger players, myself included.”
While these qualities were once something that made Parkhurst a mainstay in the Black & Gold defense, he is now a member of United after he was traded last December for General Allocation Money. Those talents and leadership qualities are now in the advantage of the opposition.
Fortunately for Crew SC, many in the organization know a lot about Parkhurst as they look to attack his defense which has conceded the second-most goals in MLS.
“We obviously want to put him in positions that make it difficult to read,” Berhalter said. “If you look at the last couple of games, we saw instances of that in Chicago and the NYC game. That’s the idea is to put him in positions where it’s not comfortable for him. We know he’s a very smart player, a very experienced player and a very good player. We have to make it uncomfortable for him.”
But the experience the Black & Gold have with Parkhurst works both ways.
The center back spent three years in Columbus and in all of those, he defended against wingers Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay each day in training. He spent last season consistently going against forward Ola Kamara, so Parkhurst will have some idea of what Crew SC want to do offensively and how to combat it.
For Kamara, going against a player who’s that familiar with your game is about not letting Parkhurst’s experience with him throw the forward off before the game even begins.
“As an attacker, you just have to be kind of aware of not overthinking things in the game,” he explained. “Suddenly, maybe he knows I’m going there so I go here. Still you just have to do your thing, play my game and not overthink, just do things by instinct.”
According to Kamara, there’s a bit more preparation that goes into games like this. While a player doesn’t want to overthink, this can be a good time to break some tendencies that might throw a defender like Parkhurst off.
And that goes for the entire attack.
“Michael likes to jump the routes when we try to play Ethan Finlay, he anticipates that,” Berhalter said knowing the defender. “And we saw that in the preseason game. We know that he’s going to look for certain tendencies of ours and we have to be prepared.”
When Crew SC arrives in Atlanta, it will be nice to be welcomed by a familiar face. There will be “Hellos” and “How are you doings” at some point, but once the game starts, it’s all about competing.
Friendships get put aside, as players like Williams look to get get one over on Parkhurst and his Atlanta team.
“Outside of the lines, once the game is over, then you can kind of come back to reality and understand that it is just a game,” he said. “But while I’m on the field, I don’t have any friends. My friends are wearing the same jersey. If you’re not wearing the same jersey, we’re not friends at the time.”