When news broke of former manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s eventual departure, many Atlanta United fans worried about the pipeline to South American talent. Who would be able to fit into the shoes of such a legendary manager that won over the city’s passionate fans and his players in the locker room? And what about Miguel Almirón leaving for Newcastle? Whoever the club signed to replace the MLS Cup winner would face scrutinization in comparison to the Paraguayan.
Those questions have since been answered, but another pillar of the Atlanta United foundation is undergoing change.
On Sept. 23rd, Atlanta United’s first ever captain, Michael Parkhurst, announced via Twitter his intention to retire at the conclusion of Atlanta United’s playoff run. At the end of the video Parkhurst immediately turned the attention back to and emphasized the importance of the team’s next match.
During the first two seasons that Parkhurst captained the club, he was always on the field. The American defender started all 33 matches he appeared in during the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons, starting all but one game. Parkhurst also started all five of Atlanta’s postseason games on the run to MLS Cup in 2018.
During the 2019 regular season, Parkhurst only made 20 appearances for the Five Stripes, coming on as a substitute for five of those appearances.
“I think [his role in the team] was a little bit different than it was in the past,” Dirty South Soccer managing editor Joe Patrick said. “He was a stalwart, one of the first names on the team sheet for Tata.”
A new manager and the eventual formation change combined with the rise of teammate Miles Robinson saw Parkhurst fighting for playing time. Parkhurst often played as a rotation player in the back four system that Frank de Boer deployed earlier in his tenure, but the change to a defensive line of three centre backs and two wing backs limited his chances for minutes even more. As Parkhurst began to see less and less playing time, his role as captain remained largely the same with some minor tweaks.
“He’s leading with his actions,” Patrick said. “I think fans forget that these guys are competing against each other all the time in training sessions and I think that’s where he was able to show his leadership this year. It’s something that Frank de Boer has talked about us a lot this season. He’s always very complimentary of how professional [Parkhurst] is. He knows he probably won’t be getting picked for the starting XI, but he would still be out there [working hard] in training every day.”
Despite the lack of minutes, Parkhurst continued to push his teammates to their best levels throughout the entire season.
One aspect of a captain’s role that may go under the radar is to connect with everyone on the team. In a locker room such as Atlanta’s with players from South America and Europe, it may seem somewhat difficult for an American captain to make everyone feel welcome and part of the team. Parkhurst was able to break down those barriers and connect with everyone.
That connection with everyone on the team was brought to the spotlight when Josef Martínez scored and performed his trademark celebration by kneeling to Parkhurst. It was an emotional moment that emphasized how big of an impact Parkhurst has had on the team, even on a center of attention type player that Martínez is.
Depending on how the club sets up the relationship between the players and the coaching staff, captains are oftentimes the bridge between the two groups. Communicating with the manager about player morale, tactics and certain decisions is an important part of the captain’s duties that fans may not see but is still important, nonetheless.
One of the club’s goals was to connect with the city and the fanbase, so appointing Parkhurst to set an example through his actions off the field was equally as important to what he brought the team on the field.
“I think more than anything they’re the person that you want to represent what the club is all about,” 92.9 The Game’s Jason Longshore said. “Parkhurst isn’t a vocal leader and an in-your-face leader, but he leads by example and all of the work off the field. Michael Parkhurst is consistently involved in community events and representing the club in the proper way off the field. He sets that example for everyone inside the club.”
The connection between the club and fans is critical for Atlanta United. Many players have cited that fan engagement during home games has helped push the team to win countless times. Parkhurst is the embodiment of the strong connection between the club and the fans in this sense too, because he often speaks to the media and in turn, the fans, in a genuinely truthful way, even during tough times and after losses.
The front office and technical staff understand how important a captain can be when it comes to establishing a healthy team culture and winning trophies. As Atlanta United grows older and writes more history, future captains will always look back at Parkhurst’s time at the club and see a top player and captain that they can look up to.
“You look at clubs with a lot of history like a Barcelona or a Real Madrid or any clubs with decades of history and to wear the armband and to be elected as captain is a huge honor,” Longshore said. “It’s something with a lot of responsibility and I think that’s what Atlanta United intended with Michael Parkhurst.”
There are a few players in the squad that have shown leadership qualities with and without the captain’s armband, but the final choice regarding the next captain raises some more questions.
Who chooses the next captain? Is it a player vote? Does the front office or the coaching staff decide? Different clubs handle these decisions in different ways, but there are various players in the squad that can step up and fill the role.
Parkhurst understands what it means to be the captain of a club like Atlanta United. A club that truly understands and values the fans’ support needed a captain that personified the connection to everyone in and around the club whether it be other players, the media, or the fans.
During his last regular season match, Mercedes-Benz Stadium echoed chants of Parkhurst’s name. He finally stepped onto the field and the crowd erupted, showing how much the fanbase values him.
During a guest appearance on BS The Podcast, Parkhurst stated that he would remain in Atlanta until the end of the school year so his children can finish the year without disruption. After that, he’ll be moving back to Columbus with his family and watch his kids play sports on the weekends. He wants to stay involved in soccer in some capacity, but his family will be his main priority post-retirement.
Despite not being a major part of de Boer’s plans throughout the season, Parkhurst played an important role during the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs. Many thought Atlanta wouldn’t be able to cope with Miles Robinson’s absence due to a hamstring injury sustained during a USMNT post game session, but Parkhurst stepped in and showed his class. Parkhurst performed outstandingly and helped the team earn its first clean sheet of the postseason against his former club the New England Revolution.
Unfortunately, the now retired defender suffered a dislocated shoulder injury against the Revolution. As the MLS Cup winner writhed in pain, everyone was left wondering if Parkhurst’s career ended right then and there. After less than two weeks, he was back in the starting lineup against Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Final, a testament to his work ethic and his determination to show out for his team even when so close to retirement.
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