Michael Parkhurst helped the U.S. fend off Panama in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup final and is pushing for a World Cup place. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
CARSON, Calif. — These days there’s more competition than ever for spots on the U.S. national team, and in a World Cup year we’re seeing a procession of players returning to MLS from Europe to get playing time and put themselves in the discussion for the 23-man squad that will go to Brazil.
One of those returnees is defender Michael Parkhurst, who just signed with the Columbus Crew and joined up with the U.S. this week ahead of Saturday’s friendly here against South Korea (5 p.m. ET, ESPN, Unimas). Parkhurst has been a useful player at times for coach Jurgen Klinsmann — he was a mainstay at right back during last year’s Gold Cup and was excellent as a halftime sub in the 2-0 victory over Mexico in September — but he was buried deep on the bench at Augsburg in Germany and needed to make a club move.
“I’ve been speaking with Jurgen for a while since the end of December to let him know what’s been going on, that I was trying to get a new contract somewhere, and if it was going to be MLS I’d want to be joining [national team] camp,” Parkhurst said. “He was up for it from the beginning.”
Parkhurst’s versatility increases his appeal: He has played mostly right back for the U.S., but he has also spent time at left back. Eventually, Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter will probably use him at center back, but Berhalter, a former U.S. national team defender himself, said he’s willing to put Parkhurst at right back for now if it helps him get to Brazil.
“At least in the short term, we want to help [Parkhurst] make the World Cup team,” Berhalter said. “It would be fabulous to have a Columbus Crew player in the World Cup.”
Whether Parkhurst will play at right back for the U.S. on Saturday is up in the air. It’s more likely that the position will be filled by Brad Evans, who has been with the national team for the entire January camp and has been the first-choice starter when available. That brings up the possibility that Parkhurst could start at left back, since first-choice starter DaMarcus Beasley isn’t in camp here.
Parkhurst’s lack of playing time at Augsburg was surprising, not least because he had done well at his previous club, Denmark’s Nordsjaelland, in the UEFA Champions League against such top competition as Juventus two seasons ago. But Parkhurst, 30, couldn’t break through in Germany.
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“It was an unfortunate situation,” Parkhurst said. “The technical director who brought me in got fired before I even joined the team … Apparently the coach wasn’t on the same page as him. Even when I went in, I don’t think I was given a fair chance from the beginning. I did get a chance there for a game and a half, but then I got the flu and missed two weeks. The team won those games and from there I never got a chance again.
“I still think I can play at that level and could have been there helping the team, but it just never worked out. It’s one of those things in soccer where the coach had his mind made up and it didn’t matter what I did in training.”
You can be sure Parkhurst will get playing time in Columbus. After taking over the team in the offseason, Berhalter made a point of going after the former MLS Defender of the Year.
“He’s a very, very smart soccer player, a guy who’s had a lot of success in the MLS,” Berhalter said. “He’s intelligent enough to play multiple positions, he’s very good attacking and he’s also very good defending 1-v-1. He reads the game very well, so he’s a plus for our group.”
For Parkhurst, who played four seasons with the New England Revolution, he feels like he’s coming back to a different league than the one he left.
“New teams, new stadiums,” he said. “It seems like everything growing in the right direction. A lot of places I can’t wait to see for the first time … I’m excited for the first trip to every [new] stadium.”