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Michael Parkhurst is the best center back to ever play in MLS

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Can’t trust my heart on this, so we’ll make do with the numbers

MLS: New England Revolution at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2019 MLS regular season having come to an end this past weekend, Michael Parkhurst’s playing career is not over. He may yet have a part to play in the postseason; however, with some time on my hands ahead of Atlanta’s opening round matchup against New England, it just feels wrong to not go ahead right now and make the case that Michael Parkhurst is the greatest center back to ever play in MLS,

Let me just say that I love Michael Parkhurst, and because of this there’s no way you should trust my opinion about who the greatest MLS center back is. This is exactly why I’m going to try my best not to expound upon my opinion. I’m going to bring you the facts and some numbers.

Three Eras: Success at Every Stop

2005-2008: New England Revolution

New England Revolution vs San Jose Earthquakes - April 2, 2005 Photo by Robert B. Stanton/MLSNETImages

This was the dark era of soccer analytics, before the big data providers kept detailed event level statistics in MLS (or really anywhere in soccer), so I don’t have any fancy analytics to give you during Parkhurst’s first 4 years. Luckily, his record during this time speaks for itself:

Michael Parkhurst was drafted 9th overall and won rookie of the year with the Revolution who placed 1st in the East and made the 2005 MLS Cup Final. That very season Parkhurst scored low-key one of the best goals in MLS history and made the All-Star team in his first season as a professional. He and the Revolution then repeated this, making the MLS Cup Final the next two seasons (for a total of three Final appearances in a row) with Parkhurst again an MLS All-Star, named Defender of the Year in 2007. OK, so no big deal. His early years saw immediate and unprecedented success which drew attention from European clubs. Before we jump overseas, I should also note that while this is outside the scope of Major League Soccer, during this era Michael Parkhurst won the US Open Cup in 2007 and the North American Superliga in 2008, in which New England defeated Pachuca, Santos Laguna, and Atlante en route to the championship.

2008-2014: Denmark & Germany

FBL-GER-BUNDESLIGA-LEVERKUSEN-AUGSBURG Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Parkhurst’s time in Europe also doesn’t technically have an impact on whether he’s the greatest MLS center back of all time or not, but it’s just worth noting that this 6 year stretch abroad is the one reason that Parkhurst won’t retire with some of the longevity-based career MLS records that other 15 year pros have to their name. To the extent that others can lodge a convincing case that Michael Parkhurst is not the greatest center back to ever play in MLS, they rely on the fact that he left the league for 6 years — that in the prime of his career, Michael Parkhurst patted his US Open Cup and North American Superliga championship medals on their heads, and left the three MLS Cup runner-up medals in the drawer, and took flight overseas to challenge himself at the highest level. Because this is the alleged weak spot in his case, it’s also worth noting that while he was away he found success. Parkhurst helped lead Danish club Nordsjælland to lift their first trophy in club history, the 2010 Danish Cup. The next year he lifted it again. The year after that he helped lead the club to their first ever domestic league title, which earned them a UEFA Champions League berth, and then he played every single minute in the Champions League Group stage. He also played a season in Germany before deciding to pack up his three consecutive trophies, each one more historic and significant than the last, and head back home to Major League Soccer, which is where we will pick up the inquiry into whether he is the greatest MLS center back of all time.

2014-2019: Columbus Crew & Atlanta United

Minnesota United FC v Atlanta United FC: Final - 2019 U.S. Open Cup Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Michael Parkhurst returned to Major League Soccer in Columbus, Ohio, where he led the Crew to the playoffs and was named to the All-Star team in 2014 and then in 2015 to the MLS Cup Final, the fourth of his career. The Crew had a bad year in 2016 and Parkhurst was seeking a bigger contract, but the Crew wouldn’t offer what he thought he was worth so he said “trade me.” Luckily, Gerardo “Tata” Martino while coaching the Argentina National Team had been watching the Crew’s games on and off and jumped at the opportunity to sign the fundamental building block of his team, a ball-playing center back captain. Once again an MLS All-Star, Parkhurst led the expansion team Atlanta United to a playoff berth in its first year and then again as an MLS All-Star lifted the long-elusive MLS Cup in its second year, as you know.

The Analytics

American Soccer Analysis calculates what it calls an “Expected Goal Chain.” By linking chains of passes together into “possessions” and allocating the value of attacking output at the end of the possessions, as measured by the expected goal values of the shots that were generated (with a value of zero if a shot was not generated), ASA is able to assign chance creation credit not just to attackers, but to players throughout the possession chain, and slowly but surely, given a large enough sample size track a player’s influence on his overall team’s attacking buildups. This metric is known as Expected Buildup or xB, and the team at American Soccer Analysis has calculated xB values going back to 2015 which more or less corresponds to around the time Michael Parkhurst returned to MLS from Europe. You can find all of the xB data here. We can use these values and compare Michael Parkhurst to his peers during this era, which also happens to be the “TAM era” aka MLS 3.0, the modern era, or whatever you want to call it. And once again, his numbers speak for themselves.

Between 2015 and 2018, starting two seasons for Columbus and two seasons for Atlanta United, Parkhurst recorded the highest cumulative xB value of any center back in MLS. That is to say, at a possession sequence level, he was involved in one way or another in more raw chance creation than any other center back. If you are like me and immediately thought, “yea, but those Atlanta teams created so much attacking output, he’s probably just riding the coat tails, passing to Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron,” well, just know that before Atlanta United existed, in 2015 and 2016 Michael Parkhurst playing for the Columbus Crew also recorded the highest cumulative xB value of any center back in MLS. It’s almost like he exhibited the sort of skills that a world class coach might require in a modern ball-playing center back. Just to complete the thought, it goes without saying then that Michael Parkhurst also recorded the highest cumulative xB value of any center back in MLS from 2017 to 2018 while playing for Atlanta United, and this came from elite “ball retention,” which rated in the 86th and 97th percentiles respectively in 2017 and 2018 as well as exceptionally high possession involvement (76th and 83rd percentile in team touch %) and superior progressive passing and pass accuracy when compared to the ASA passing models.

If you’re sitting there saying to yourself, but “who cares about his xB, he’s a defender, how good was he at defending?” first off, stop — the best center backs in the world are ball-playing center backs, and the case that Parkhurst is the best ball playing center back in MLS history is a solid one. But also, is he a bad defender? The answer is obviously no. His efforts as a defender were recognized time and time again not only in MLS but by the US National Team, but if I had to point you to a number, I might highlight that he registered above average ball recoveries in 2017 and 2018 relative to other central defenders despite his team having the lion’s share of possession and thus less active defending to do. His impact as a leader on his teammates is well-documented though this subjective and you can find just as glowing testimonies for some of his peers.

In summary the case for Parkhurst is that at every step of his career he found success both individually through awards and recognition and also at the team level, his teams on both continents consistently hauling in silverware and showing up in finals. And moreover, that in the era of MLS that we have robust data and analytics for, Parkhurst shines consistently high above all his peers as a modern ball-playing center back at multiple clubs.

The Case Against Michael Parkhurst

His greatest weakness

Michael Parkhurst was not 6 feet tall. He remained 5’11’’ throughout his career. One knock-on impact of this is that he neither attempted nor won many aerial duels. I mean, relative to his peers he simply did not do this part of the game. I’m talking zeroeth percentile - stuff like that. He was also not a big dude, and this was apparent when you watched the games. That said, he did win tackles at average MLS rates. It didn’t seem to really be a problem.

Chad Marshall

One thing you will hear is that Chad Marshall is the GOAT. He played 16 years in MLS, starting a year before Parkhurst and retiring this year. He is the three-time MLS defender of the year. He won MLS Cup once twice, US Open Cup once, and grabbed four Supporters’ Shields — fair play. You could imagine a universe where instead of chasing the the chance to play the game at the highest level like the UEFA Champions League, Parkhurst stays in MLS, and, who knows — perhaps he grabs another Cup and a couple Supporters’ Shields like Marshall did. He may have even been Marshall’s teammate and shared in the joy of winning in MLS during this time. It is hard to say, and we shouldn’t hold it against Chad Marshall nor against Michael Parkhurst.

Marshall, to his credit, put up consistently monstrously elite aerial success rates. He attempted aerial duels often, he succeeded in these duels extremely often. He was a machine at this. Also to his credit, he passed the ball extremely well vs the ASA models. He didn’t turn it over. He kept it tight. His involvement in Seattle’s possessions was much lower than that of Parkhurst in Columbus or Atlanta as was his progressive passing. His xBuildup was much worse than Parkhurst’s for the years where we have that level of data.

These guys were both legends, and it’s wild that their careers overlapped so much. You can imagine them making a very successful center back pairing for the US men’s national team. Ultimately, each of them hauled in a ton of trophies for their teams. Marshall found this success in MLS and Parkhurst did so in MLS and in Europe. Jurgen Klinsmann would probably tell you that Parkhurst challenged himself at a higher level something something, and I do not think that is the winning argument in favor of Parkhurst here — I would just ask that his six year absence from MLS not be held against him.

Eddie Pope?

Yea, I don’t know. The honors are definitely there. In an 11 year MLS Career, 3 MLS Cups, 2 Supporters Shields, 1 USOC, 1 CCL title, 1 “Defender of the Year” award. It’s just a different era, man. Perhaps someone in the comments or out there online can make the case for Pope.

Go Deacs

To me, when I put it all together, it is the fact that Michael Parkhurst combined consistent high level individual and team success over his 9-year MLS career with the elite attributes we’ve come to require of a modern ball-playing center back that cements him as the greatest.