Postcard from Europe: A year of change for Parkhurst
AMSTERDAM – It's been an eventful season for FC Nordsjælland defender Michael Parkhurst, and it could get a lot more exciting. Just don't try telling the Wild Tigers that.
Finally dethroned as repeat Danish Cup champs this year, the club is now on the prowl for new territory. Nordsjælland have never won the crown and never been to the UEFA Champions League.
Nevertheless, defending their four-point edge in the race for the Superliga's second Champions League qualifying berth is not the rallying cry at Farum Park. Nor, for that matter, is the fact that they're only five points away from first place.
"The goal is top four, in a Europa League spot," Parkhurst told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Tuesday after FCN training. "The sooner we can clinch that, the sooner we can talk about another goal: either solidifying second or chasing [leaders] Copenhagen, depending at that point on what the difference is."
Meticulously programmed by new manager Kasper Hjulmand, the team is loyal to the system. They are the stingiest side in Denmark, and extremely difficult to deal with at home or away. Parkhurst says the club has climbed high by mastering the art of plotting to strength and hiding weakness.
"We've been building on it for a few years since I've been here, every year progressing up the table one or two spots," he said. "But this is the year we've taken a big jump. Tactically, we're aware of what we do well and what we need to work on. We go out there and put our game on other teams."
For FC Nordsjælland, that means one overriding thing: Hog the ball.
"We're very organized in pressure and very organized when we get the ball – where to be, what runs to make," explained Parkhurst. "We dominate possession in games. Obviously, if the other team doesn't have the ball, that's less chances that can be made against us."
This style agrees with the player, one trusted to play anywhere along the back or even in defensive midfield. If his team is the Matrix to opponents, Parkhurst is their Agent Smith.
"It's why I fit in well with the system that we play here," said Parkhurst. "We do play the ball out of the back. Sometimes a little too much, but we get away with it most often. We move the ball around and then quickly try to get it back if we lose it."
He says a hard-fought Europa League playoff-round defeat to Portuguese giants Sporting CP back in August boosted FC Nordsjælland's continued drive to raise their level. After a harsh 0-0 result in the home opener, Sporting needed 77 minutes at home to break through and some stoppage-time urgency when the underdogs threatened to snatch away the group-phase pass with a last-gasp away goal.
When it's suggested that his humble yet ambitious club scared the mighty Lions enough that they'd prefer to avoid drawing a third tangle with the Wild Tigers this coming fall, Parkhurst doesn't hesitate in reply.
"We wouldn't mind seeing somebody else as well," he cracked. "We weren't scared of Sporting. We played them last year and had done well. We were unfortunate not to get a home win in the first leg."
Fellow US international Oguchi Onyewu, who was in Sporting uniform for both matches, admitted to him that the nearly great Danes have plenty of bark.
"I talked to Gooch," Parkhurst said. "He was disappointed that he couldn't play, but he told me they watched videos of us and had respect for how we play."
Of course, the way they play is in many ways also the new way with the US national team. Parkhurst has dressed for all three 1-0 victories thus far in 2012 and worked 90 minutes of central defense in both of the January friendlies.
Though he did not get off the bench for a historic win over Italy in Genoa last month, it was still a very rewarding night.
"It was a great surprise and great honor to be called in because it was the top [US] team in Italy," he said. "It was a bit disappointing not to play, but just to be a part of the team and experience the victory was awesome."
"I think my style of play fits into what [head coach Jurgen Klinsmann] wants to do. I'm just trying to show him what my skills are and what I can bring to the team. Hopefully, I can appear a little more."
Before all the excitement of 2014 World Cup qualifying with the USMNT, Parkhurst must first stick to the program at Nordsjælland.
This weekend sends the club to AC Horsens (the team that's four points back in third place and winners in four of five). Predictably, Agent Smith is on the move.
"It'll be a tough challenge this weekend with three starters out on yellow-card suspensions," Parkhurst said. "I don't know where I'll be playing yet, but I'll be on the field. There's a lot at stake, so we'll be ready."