After three MLS Cup losses, Columbus Crew SC captain Michael Parkhurst ready for redemption

Michael Parkhurst in action for Columbus Crew SC

When the Columbus Crew SC take the field Sunday for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against the New York Red Bulls (5 pm ET, ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes in US, TSN Go, MLS LIVE in Canada), most players will be in a situation they’ve never experienced before.

With a young squad bolstered by a slew of international MLS newcomers, only three players on the club’s entire roster have experienced a playoff run this deep into the season. A young Hector Jimenez was a part of two MLS Cup-winning LA Galaxy teams but barely saw the field down the stretch. Kei Kamara has playoff experience with the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City but never made it to an MLS Cup final.

In Columbus, the outlier is Michael Parkhurst. Before leaving MLS for Europe, Parkhurst went to three consecutive MLS Cup finals with the New England Revolution in his first three years as a professional, picking up Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year honors along the way.

After three MLS Cup losses, Columbus Crew SC captain Michael Parkhurst ready for redemption -

The defender says his early accomplishments helped shape the rest of his career.

“The earlier on in your career you can get experience playing in those big games, the better,” he said. “To know what it takes to get there and know what it’s like when you are there and the experience of MLS Cup, the week leading up to it, that’s valuable experience.

“I hope that everyone in this locker room gets to experience it, because it’s the best feeling. Leading up to the game, knowing that you’re going to represent your conference, represent your club and the city, and all the media attention surrounding the game – it’s a fun time to be a soccer player still playing.”

But in all three tries, Parkhurst never got to lift the cup. New England lost in extra time in 2005 and in penalty kicks in 2006 before losing an early lead en route to a 2-1 defeat in 2007.

While he has fond memories of his New England runs, the MLS Cup losses still eat at the Crew SC captain.

“It’s super disappointing, first off,” he said. “To be that close and to be denied on multiple occasions, it’s frustrating. You think if you could just get another chance, to win it would be nice. But that said, we had a fantastic team. It was a fun team to be a part of. … When I went through it, you don’t take it for granted at all, as far as [saying], ‘This might be my only chance.’ But I had three cracks at it, and not too many people can say that, outside of the guys I played with.”

Ten years after his first appearance in an MLS Cup final, Parkhurst has taken an entirely different role in Columbus. Since his arrival in 2014, he’s been the team’s captain, leading largely by example and bringing his calm demeanor and intelligent play to the youthful squad.

Parkhurst says it is his job to remind the less-experienced players what this time of year requires. After Columbus smashed rival D.C. United 5-0 on Decision Day, it was Parkhurst that stepped up and reminded the team of their defeat at the hands of the Revs to end their 2014 season.

“I will never forget the message he gave us after the game against D.C.,” Tony Tchani said. “[He said], ‘We had a really good game tonight, but it’s not over. Remember what happened last year against New England. We didn’t make it to the next round.’ I feel like this year we’re one step ahead of last year. We just need to focus, because it’s not over yet. That’s something Michael is always telling us.”

For young vice-captain Wil Trapp, Parkhurst “epitomizes everything good about our team.” Trapp added that players look to Parkhurst for advice and know he will calm them down in big moments.

“He’s a leader, he’s a fantastic player, he’s always there for younger guys or older guys, it doesn’t matter,” Trapp said. “He’ll grab you by the neck when you need it, but he’s also there to support you when things are going well. I can’t say enough about Michael.”

After a difficult and dramatic win over the Montreal Impact in this year’s playoffs, Parkhurst believes Columbus are starting to mature. But they’re not quite to the level of confidence that permeated his old New England teams.

“There was an aura about the [New England] team that we were used to winning and we expected to be in MLS Cup,” he said. “I think that’s specifically why it’s important for us to have gotten over that hurdle last week. It’s a mentality and a feeling in the club that you’re used to going far in the postseason.

“As a club, we’re not there yet. We haven’t been there for a while, and nobody who’s currently on the team played in [the MLS Cup final in 2008]. So we’re far from that, but I think it’s growing and things are definitely going in the right direction here.”

Parkhurst is patient and has never said he expects a championship from this Crew SC squad. But, at 31, he could be entering the final phase in his career. He’s won championships in Denmark, a US Open Cup with New England and a Gold Cup with the US national team, but MLS Cup remains on his bucket list.

“MLS Cup is different, for sure; it would be a lot different,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say that if I finish my career without an MLS Cup, I’ll be disappointed. I want that feeling to know what it’s like to win MLS Cup and be on the other side of the locker room – not the one that’s dejected, the one that’s celebrating with champagne.”