Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst at work against FC Cincinnati earlier this season. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

For Michael Parkhurst, Atlanta United’s first captain, it’s been a great voyage

Anticipation and vision met opportunity the day that Atlanta United won the MLS Cup. In other words, it was a moment meant for Michael Parkhurst.

It is the one play that everyone – himself included – points to when determining the highlight of the three seasons Parkhurst spent showing us what the captain of a bold new soccer franchise should look like.  

With the 2018 championship game in the 39th minute, Portland’s Jeremy Ebobisse gathered the ball well on his own end of the field. But here comes this Atlanta United defender ranging far from his assigned space, ambushing Ebobisse, sliding in order to punch the ball back toward the goal. “I don’t really slide that much. I don’t know why in the moment I did slide,” Parkhurst said last week. 

As true as any pass, Parkhust’s horizontal take-away found Josef Martinez, the perfect fellow to take this gift and turn it into a goal. The first goal of a 2-0, parade-inducing victory for what was then just a two-year-old franchise.

That is a little of what teammate Jeff Larentowicz meant when he said of Parkhurst, “The thing that separates him is the speed of thought.” He had processed the possibilities quicker than anyone else could that day, and Atlanta United was on the board because of it.

“Not only was it a quintessential heady play from a veteran, but it was a quintessential Atlanta United moment,” Larentowicz said.

Such quickness of mind does not leave a player when he turns 35, but the specific cruelty of sports is that the body can’t keep pace. He is young in almost every other way, but old afield. Parkhurst can still see every puzzle within the game. He just can’t solve them quite as well. 

The end of playing days was foretold when Atlanta United reported to camp to start this season.

“The preseason was the most difficult one for me by far, physically,” Parkhurst said. “It just took me a long time to get the body going again. The feet were so slow. It was something I had never experienced before.”

And, then, when the season began, another sign: He would start roughly half the number of games as he had in 2017 and ’18. A fixture, going back to his earliest MLS days with the New England Revolution, was now a part-timer. 

Time to go. On Sunday inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Parkhurst will experience the last regular-season game of his career. The circular nature of a sporting life will be on full display because the opponent is the Revolution, where he began as a pro in 2005. An uncertain number of playoff games remain, but it is definitely time to get retrospective.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said, staring at retirement at 35. “It’s been a long time and I’ve enjoyed it. But I’m also looking forward to the next phase of life, being there on weekends to watch the kids play their sports. Not waking up with aches and pains.”

The signs indicate he won’t start again Sunday, but could always be inserted later in the proceedings.

“It’s not our last home game, so we have time,” Atlanta United’s manager Frank de Boer said. His team is guaranteed at least one home playoff game.

His is not a legacy easily quantified, because as the classic defender, Parkhurst does not produce numbers, just results. He has one goal in 10 MLS seasons, when once in 2007 he decided to boot the ball from midfield when he noted the goalie out of position, and it found the net on the fly. “I hit the best ball I hit in my career. I don’t think I can kick the ball that far anymore,” he said.

The history of Atlanta United may be written in the gilded exploits of goal-scorers like Martinez and Miguel Almiron, but there must be a significant section devoted to the pig-iron play of Parkhurst as well. 

When the expansion team made a trade with Columbus for Parkhurst before its first season, it was in search of someone to provide veteran anchorage to a collection of strangers.

“I can’t speak for the club, but I imagine when they had the opportunity to get him, I’m sure they were licking their chops because he’s the type of player everyone would want,” said Larentowicz, who joined Atlanta United just days after Parkhurst. The two had been teammates in New England a decade before that.

“When they got him, I’m sure they were elated and clearly had him pegged to be the first captain of the club,” Larentowicz said.

With the mantle of captain came the responsibility of nurturing this foreign game in the capital of the New South. Parkhurst was the voice of the franchise with the media and its face out in the community. 

“All of us had a role to play in that regard,” Parkhust said. “When you come here as a new team, and the league is still young compared to all the other professional leagues, we all had to play our part. Some of us have been doing it a lot longer than others as far as engaging with the community and going out there and being more accessible than the typical pro athlete. Even more so for an expansion team, you had to make sure you appreciated the fans and let them know that they play a big part.”

As for the fabric of the team, Parkhurst was served as the stitching that held it together. 

“He’s the calming presence in the room,” Larentowicz said. “He’s not the person who is going to score the goals or make outlandish comments. However, he’s ever-present. When you think of Atlanta United and the success we’ve had in three years, without his presence we wouldn’t have it. The goals come, the excitement comes, the social media flare is always there but the thing that’s also always there is Michael Parkhurst the last three years.”

His long soccer journey, one that took Parkhurst to Europe and three different stops in MLS, will soon be put on pause. He anticipates moving back to Ohio with his wife and two young children. There is no hurry to throw himself back into the game in some fashion, because he’s savoring the chance to watch the kids at play. His wife, Sam, has a Ph.D. in physical therapy and has not put it to much use while her husband was off chasing this funny ball covered in pentagons and hexagons. It’s her time now to concentrate on a career delayed, he said.

Parkhurst will look back in the short term with minor regrets that he didn’t play more in his final season.

“Of course, you want a fairy-tale ending to your career where you play every game, you play well, and the team wins, and you ride off,” he said. “The way we’ve been playing this year is a little more aggressive, a little more taxing on the defenders, so I understood the decision. Sure, I think I could have contributed a little bit more, but every player always thinks that.”

But the macro view is just fine. 

Asked if he had a message for the place where he ended when his run on the soccer hamster wheel stopped – hey, it’s cheaper than taking out an ad – Parkhurst gave the question just a moment’s thought. And then, unrehearsed and unscripted, gave a long, heartfelt response, just the way a first team captain would say it:

“It’s been a dream.

“I was upset to have to leave Columbus, I was upset that I was traded. I had no idea how things would be coming down here to an expansion team. In a big city, you don’t know how you’re going to be supported, how successful the team was going to be.

“I still remember walking out for the first game, the atmosphere at Bobby Dodd (Stadium), and just being in awe of it. It was so different than the previous places I played in MLS. Our crowd is incredible. It’s so fun to play in front of them every week and to get recognized out on the streets. It means a lot to the team, the support we get. We wouldn’t be champions without the atmosphere we get.

“Tons of thanks. I wouldn’t have enjoyed my last three years as much as I did had I gone anywhere else in MLS.”

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