Blog: Who is odd man out if Atlanta United sticks with 4 in the back?

Michael Parkhust didn’t start, nor did he play, for Atlanta United in last week’s 2-0 loss at Columbus.

Will Parkhurst, the team’s captain, continue not to be in the starting 11 should Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer stick with a four-man backline?

Even before de Boer said Thursday that Parkhurst was sick Wednesday, I suspected that the team’s captain wouldn’t start Saturday for two reasons: an expected change in formation and Gyasi Zardes.

With the return of Franco Escobar, I thought de Boer would elect to go with a four-man backline. That means just two centerbacks. That formation change, combined with the defenders trying to deal with Zardes, who arguably is the biggest and most physical striker in MLS, likely would mean that de Boer would choose the emerging Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, both much bigger than Parkhurst, as his centerback pairing. 

De Boer did.

It didn’t work out as well as De Boer had hoped.

Zardes scored in the second half when he was left unmarked in the penalty box with four Atlanta United players forming a box around him. Zardes also won a penalty kick.

I didn’t think much of Parkurst’s exclusion. A one-game rest may not have been a bad thing. Not only were we told that he had been sick, but he also was among a group that played most of the minutes in the team’s stretch of seven games in 24 days. He is 35 years old and coming off five consecutive seasons of at least 32 starts and 2,806 minutes per season.

Some Atlanta United supporters expressed consternation that Parkhurst wasn’t in the 11. It was understandable considering how valuable he was to the team the previous two seasons. His ability to read plays and consistently be in the right place a half-second before the player he is marking is something that can’t be trained. He’s just very, very good at what he does, so good that he finished third in Defender of the Year voting last season and helped Atlanta United win the MLS Cup. I think, had he played against Columbus, he likely would have positioned himself to cut out the crosses that resulted in both of the Crew’s goals. I base that on seeing him do just that dozens of times the previous two seasons.

But, again: sick, Zardes, minutes. 

And then I appeared on “Counter Attack” on Sirius XM on Tuesday. I assumed that hosts Brian Dunseth and Tony Meola were going to ask me about Atlanta United’s 0-2-2 start, de Boer and what the mood was in Atlanta and among the supporters. They did because they are good at their jobs and consistently have an informative, entertaining show.

They did ask one question that caught me off guard (I’m paraphrasing): Was the benching of Parkhurst going to cause some sort of schism within the team? Was it a kind of power move by de Boer?

They reasoned that teams don’t bench their captains. That’s a valid point. I explained to them the reasons I outlined above why I thought Parkhurst didn’t start.

But I did begin to wonder what is going to happen with the three primary players in the centerback pool should de Boer stick with the 4-3-3.

Will Parkhurst be the odd centerback out or will he become a rotational player? Or will Robinson or Gonzalez Pirez become the odd player out?

This wasn’t a problem last year. Parkhurst and Gonzalez Pirez arguably were the second-best centerback tandem in MLS behind the Red Bulls’ Aaron Long and Tim Parker. 

Robinson was on the outside looking in, making three starts as part of 10 appearances.

Then manager Gerardo Martino resigned and de Boer, who has a history of playing younger players, was hired.

Robinson, who is 22 years old and was the team’s first pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, earned a starting job in the preseason and hasn’t given it up with eight starts in eight games. Setting aside two bad moments against Columbus, Robinson has been arguably the team’s best player this season. He is big. He is fast. He is playing with more and more confidence. His strength is his one-on-one defending. His weakness is his passing, though it is much improved. It would be hard for de Boer to suddenly bench him.

Gonzalez Pirez is 27 years old and played well enough to draw interest from Boca Juniors in his native Argentina during the offseason. While Parkhurst is an excellent passer, Gonzalez Pirez’s strength is he is the best of the three at joining the attack, whether by dribbling up the field or with runs. His weakness is his penchant for earning yellow cards, having received four already across all competitions this season. There’s also this: He said he is in the last year of his contract.

Could any one of the three play another position so that all three can get on the field at the same time? It doesn’t seem likely. I don’t see Gonzalez Pirez or Robinson playing fullback in a four-man backline. I don’t think Gonzalez Pirez is fast enough, and Robinson isn’t a good enough passer yet to put in a dependable cross.

Some have asked why Parkhurst can’t play fullback on the left side. That’s not his natural position. He did play for a few years with the national team, and was there for a few minutes in a game earlier this season. But I think his skills are better in the center of the pitch. 

A thought has been in the back of my mind for a while, and it’s an earworm that I can’t get rid of. 

Could Parkhurst move up and be a defensive midfielder? Philipp Lahm was converted from arguably the world’s best right fullback into a holding midfielder by Pep Guardiola when he managed Bayern Munich. 

The move would take advantage of Parkhurst’s ability to read games and his passing is underrated. He could also drop back and become a third centerback should it be needed. It would be similar to how Jeff Larentowicz has been used. It would also give Eric Remedi, normally the defensive midfielder, a chance to rest.

Whatever de Boer chooses, it’s going to be fascinating.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

About the Author

Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson covers the Atlanta United and Major League Soccer.