The story circulating in Columbus is one of enthusiastic transition. And it sounds almost too good to be true.
It starts with an elite veteran player, one of the best in MLS, gracefully consenting to the loss of his captaincy for the greater good of his club.
Federico Higuaín, the stylish playmaker who wore the armband in 2013, not only told incoming coach Gregg Berhalter that he understood the decision to elevate recently signed defender Michael Parkhurst to the captaincy. Higuaín supported it.
“He’s a great choice,” the Argentine veteran said to his new manager.
It was the sort of transition that might tear some locker rooms apart (see the 2007 L.A. Galaxy), but Berhalter had the right read on his charges in Columbus. It’s a club on the cusp a new era. While Higuaín will remain a critical component and the team’s attacking linchpin, Berhalter sought a captain who would help him realize his vision on and off the field.
That’s why he pulled the trigger on a January trade with the New England Revolution that sent Parkhurst’s rights to Columbus, and it’s why he named the 30-year-old defender captain the day before the Crew opened its season two weeks ago with a comprehensive 3-0 dismantling of D.C. United.
“There’s a lot of new guys. That’s the thing,” Berhalter told SI.com when asked why he handed the armband to a player unfamiliar with the club and city. “When we brought [Parkhurst] on board, the idea was that he’s the guy we want to build the team around. We knew he’s had success in this league [with New England]. We know he’s an intelligent player. He’s the type of player I want in that position. He has high ambitions for himself and all the leadership and qualities we want out of that position.”
Parkhurst joked that he was booed when Berhalter made the announcement. It was good natured, of course. This is a locker room that already appears to have united behind its new coach and captain, a pair that's building an understanding with each other that should alter the face of the Crew as dramatically as the new logo planned for 2015.
“It’s more than just a player and a coach. I’ve got a lot of respect for what he’s been through and I think he’s got respect for me and my career so far,” Parkhurst said of Berhalter. “He’s really someone that’s easy to talk to. He’s approachable. You want that in a coach – someone you can talk to, talk tactics to. He’s asked my views on things, just different tactics in training, in preseason. ‘How’s this working?’ What do you think we can do better?’ That type of stuff.”
Berhalter, 40, played at the University of North Carolina then spent 16 years with clubs in the Netherlands, England and Germany before retiring in 2011 as a member of the Galaxy. His interest in coaching and connection to L.A. owner AEG landed him an historic managerial appointment with Sweden’s Hammarby IF, another AEG club.
Parkhurst has similar pedigree. He starred for the Revolution from 2005 through 2008 then played six years in Denmark and Germany. Both Parkhurst and Berhalter developed an affinity for the tactics they picked up abroad and now are working together to implement a new system in Columbus.
“I think tactically, he learned a lot in Sweden, similar to what I was doing in Denmark,” Parkhurst said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do here. It’s very Scandinavian, with [midfielder] Will [Trapp] dropping between the two center backs and the two outside backs spreading wide.”
Parkhurst is the composed and confident organizer in the middle of the Columbus back four. When the Crew lose possession, he and fellow central defender Giancarlo González, a Costa Rican international, aim to stay compact. But when they have the ball, the pair splits, Trapp retreats and outside backs Waylon Francis and Josh Williams barrel forward. It can create frightening matchup problems for the opposition and it gives Higuaín more options. But it works only if Parkhurst controls the chaos, communicates and makes smart decisions on and off the ball.
The system functioned seamlessly in Washington. Parkhurst helped shut down the D.C. duo of Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espíndola without committing a single foul. United managed just one shot on goal. Parkhurst cleared a ball of the Columbus goal line line, completed an efficient 92 percent of his passes and drew the penalty kick that led to the Crew’s second goal. Meanwhile, both outside backs had an assist.
“I’m cautious because I know we still have work to do and we and we still need to get better,” Berhalter said. “But the way we played was what I had in mind and as we improve, it’s hopefully going to be more effective.”
Tactics are just part of the agenda. Berhalter is meticulous and thorough, from planning training sessions down to the minute to ensuring that each players’ initials were ironed on their gear when they gathered inside Crew Stadium’s hospitality club on the first day of preseason camp.
“Gregg early on had contacted me and let me know he was really interested and wanted me to come to the club and the more people I talked to said, that’s a really nice place to raise a family and there’s a lot of new things going on,” Parkhurst said.
Speaking to reporters during the build-up to Saturday’s home opener against the Philadelphia Union (1-0-1), Parkhurst, said, “All of us players, we’re aware of everything that’s going on, everything that [new owner Anthony] Precourt and Gregg have changed, what they’re bringing to the team. Even though I wasn’t here last year, all the guys talk about the little subtleties off the field that are much different this year. Everything from the lunches to the weight room to not only the new locker room [at the stadium] but the new locker room at Obetz, our training facility. All of that is just part of the bigger picture of professionalism and I think this year is the start of something new.”
It is, of course, a work barely in progress. The Crew have a ways to go before catching up with the league’s elite, and a new local TV contract that limits accessibility to games has ruffled fans’ feathers and put Precourt under pressure for the first time. A win on Saturday and a 2-0-0 start might establish some good will and certainly will leave Berhalter and his captain believing they’re on the right track.
As for that armband, it’s worth noting that Parkhurst, like Higuaín, is taking one for the team. He prefers playing right back, not in the middle, and the right flank just so happens to be where U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann sees Parkhurst. There’s still some uncertainty at outside back as the World Cup looms and Parkhurst is in the mix, but he'll have to make his case in other ways. “Gregg wants me in the middle because then he can get his best players out on the field. He likes Josh out there on the wing as right back and think I can be on the ball a little bit more and lead little more from the middle, and I’m fine with that,” Parkhurst said. “It’s a World Cup year. It’s on everybody’s mind. Everybody’s looking forward to the summer. But the only way you get on that team is if you play well for your club. You have to be fit, playing every game. I want to be one of the leaders on this team and we want to be winning games. All of those things, Jurgen is looking at. He wants us to be leaders on the field and in the locker room as well, and I think this is an important step.”