Michael Parkhurst, veteran defender and captain for Atlanta United. Credit: ATLANTA UNITED
Photo: HANDOUT/Atlanta United
Photo: HANDOUT/Atlanta United

Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst to retire at end of season

After thinking about it for a long time, Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst, one of the most underrated and unassuming players in MLS history, said he will retire at end of the season.

“It’s a decision I’m confident in,” he said. “There won’t be any comeback or anything. I’ve really enjoyed it.” 

Parkhurst, 35, will leave with numerous individual awards, two U.S. Open Cups, one Campeones Cup and at least one MLS Cup with hope for one more. 

Blessed with unkempt curly black hair that his teammates love to kid him about and a brain that seems to see what’s happening a split-second before most others, Parkhurst was the player on the field and in the locker room that everyone could relate to. He’s not tall (just 5-foot-11), big (maybe 160 pounds after a beer) or particularly fast. 

But he found ways to make plays, starting his first year at New England where he was named Rookie of the Year in 2005, to stops with clubs in Denmark and Germany and with the U.S. men’s national team before returning to MLS to play for Columbus, which traded him to Atlanta United for a pittance of allocation money in Dec. 2016 in one of possibly the greatest heists in league history. 

Parkhurst was soon made captain and went on to start 65 games in 2016 and 2017, finishing top-five in Defender of the Year voting last year while helping the club win four trophies into this season. 

“He was my role model as a player,” former MLS player Bobby Warshaw said. “He showed that you didn't have to be overly fast, strong, or "talented." It was possible to make through intelligence, demeanor, and technical ability. It meant a lot to me - he turned pro in 2005 when I was in high school - to see someone like Parkhurst push into the top level of American soccer. I knew what I could model my game after him and get to the levels I wanted to get to.” 

Parkhurst’s appearances dropped dramatically this season to just 18 with the emergence of Miles Robinson. But he said even if he were playing more frequently, he’s still likely certain this year was going to be his last. 

“Coming in I knew it could possibly be the last year,” he said. “If it was, and now it turns out it is, absolutely, I wanted to retire an Atlanta United player. It’s a great organization, it’s a great team. To have the two, almost three now, seasons that we’ve had, and the support that we got from the city and just what Atlanta United means within the city, it’s just amazing. To be a big part of that is special. I’m happy that I’ll be able to retire a United player.” 

Some of his teammates, like Julian Gressel, said they’ve known that Parkhurst was going to retire. He told the entire group on Monday at 9 a.m. before the team trained for Wednesday’s key game at NYCFC. The decision was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

“I’ve come into places and always looked at guys who have been around the block a bit,” Gressel said. “He makes a decision of when he wants to call it a day. That’s the biggest compliment you can give a guy. We’ve talked about a lot of things. He’s helped me grow on the field and off the field. Don’t want to get too specific. Just simple questions. Life stuff. And then stuff on the field where he’s a good guy to speak with. He’s been through a lot and has a lot of perspectives. That’s why he’s such a popular figure.” 

Parkhurst said he hopes to be remembered as a good teammate, a fun guy in the locker room and someone who was dependable. 

Check. Check. Check. 

Was he dependable? Parkhurst made at least 25 starts in each of his previous nine seasons, four with New England, three with Columbus and two with Atlanta United. 

“He’s a great example for the team,” manager Frank de Boer said. “At his age, he’s still so fit because he’s taking care of himself. I know, of course with experience, when you’re getting older you think of that. I said a lot of players can take an example of how he’s preparing for the game every time even though he’s not playing much lately. He’s a great example. This is what you want to see from every professional.” 

 Was he a good teammate? Teammates took to social media on Monday to thank him (Josef Martinez said he will always be his captain), or kid him (Brad Guzan asked why he didn’t comb his hair for a video posted by the team), in just a few examples of how much others appreciate him and his modest appearance. While some teammates are getting haircuts before every game, Parkhurst said he will sometimes go three months between cuts. 

“We landed at LAX for the 2005 combine and an MLS van picked us up,” said Dan Gargan, former player and now color commentator for Atlanta United. “He got on and I thought he was a tutor for one of the guys that was finishing school. He turned out to be one of the best students of the game this league has seen.” 

Was he a fun guy in the locker room? Atlanta United supporters loved the videos Parkhurst would post of the pranks he would play on Darlington Nagbe involving missing shoes or luggage, or during live TV shots such as at Cincinnati when Parkhurst pretended to be walking down stairs behind an unsuspecting Fox Sports crew as they discussed the team’s 2-0 win. 

“One of the best things about this job is the relationship you make with teammates, with opponents, with each other, giving each other a hard time and not taking it too seriously,” Parkhurst said. “It’s nice to have those relationships and things I’ll look back fondly on.” 

Parkhurst also hopes that he will be remembered, along with other MLS players, as helping to grow the sport. 

“We don’t have the success that we have, we don’t have the amazing atmosphere without our fans,” he said. “We know it’s important to give back and I think that most fans will say that we are very approachable. That’s one thing about MLS guys in general. Just very approachable people that don’t mind taking a second to sign an autograph or take a photo. I’ve always tried to do that throughout my career, even moreso here in Atlanta with it being a start-up club.” 

Parkhurst said some of his favorite moments were playing for the U.S. men’s Olympic team and getting to participate in the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing, defeating Mexico in Columbus to clinch a berth in the World Cup, and winning the MLS Cup last season. It was his fifth attempt to win his first MLS title. 

He said he would love to win one more. 

“To go out back-to-back would be amazing,” he said. “To play a role would make it even sweeter. If that doesn’t happen, still to be a part of the team that wins back-to-back in this day and age when it’s so difficult. We have a tough road ahead but it’s possible. That would be fantastic.” 

Parkhurst doesn’t know what’s next or where he will live. His family still has a home in Columbus, which is where he thought he was going to retire. After “dragging” his wife around for the past 15 years, he said they will make a decision together. He said he hasn’t thought about coaching or doing TV work. He just wants to watch his kids and spend some time with his family. 

He wasn’t even going to celebrate his decision on Monday. He said he might – might -- have a beer. He thinks there will be a bigger celebration after the season. But for now he wants to stay ready in case he’s needed at NYCFC, against Montreal or in the final regular-season game, fittingly, against New England. 

“I want to be ready because obviously I want to play well and leave a good memory out there on the field,” he said.

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