An unsung hero from Columbus: Michael Parkhurst


On days such as yesterday with much celebration, much fanfare, and much boasting, there often goes a moment, a performance, or an individual who gets overlooked.

Last night, Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, and the stars of the USMNT took much of the credit – and rightly so – for their second half domination of Mexico en route to Brazil 2014 qualification.

One individual’s performance did, however, get swept under the rug, and without it the game would have been vastly different.

Michael Parkhurst came on as a second-half substitute for right-back Fabian Johnson, and changed the match entirely in the home side’s favor.

It was clear that, with a new coach at the helm for all of three days, Mexico was keeping things simple. They fired salvos directly at the obvious vulnerabilities of the United States – they challenged hard in the weakened US midfield, and bombarded their right flank just as the Costa Ricans had done. They looked to start with a bang – again, like Costa Rica – and grab a goal or two before tiring.

Getting the start at right-back was Johnson, and although he fared much better than poor Michael Orozco, it was still a point of weakness. Right-back has been a merry-go-round for the United States in the recent going, and Jurgen Klinsmann has worked hard to find a suitable fit down the flank who can provide both an attacking instinct as well as a brick wall for opposing wingers.

Mexico had tired from their early frenzy, and had no goals to show for it. Enter Parkhurst, who came on for Johnson at halftime who had apparently tweaked his hamstring. He was the switch the United States was looking to flip.

Often as a defender, it is best to go unnoticed. Much like a defensive back in football, it is more difficult to notice when one performs well, but all too easy to spot mistakes – which often lead to scores. Parkhurst is easily overlooked, largely because the Mexicans had ended their pounding of the US right flank by halftime.

However, what cannot be underestimated is how well the 29-year-old Rhode Island native fit into the well-organized US back four. The crew, both first half and second, seemed to absorb a fair bit of pressure but never looked like they were on the verge of conceding, and the organization between the back line and the defensive midfielders on Mexican attacks is without question a main reason why.

On the attacking end, Parkhurst added a lovely first-touch layoff to Mix Diskerud on the United States’ second goal, which Diskerud worked to the edge of the box and crossed to Donovan to punch home. Again, in the background, but contributing nonetheless.

Is Parkhurst the long-term solution at right-back? It’s a question whose answer has eluded not just Jurgen Klinsmann but almost every fan as well. People have their opinions, but nobody seems to agree.

Fabian performed so-so, but appeared to be the weakest link of the back four in the first half nonetheless. Steve Cherundolo had knee surgery…again. The Michael Orozco experiment at Costa Rica was pretty much a failure. Eric Lichaj has been stuffed to the bottom of the pile by the current regime thanks to spotty performances at the club level. Brad Evans figured to be the man this qualifying round but ended up with niggling injuries – nothing new for the 28-year-old. Klinsmann seems to favor Geoff Cameron out of position at defensive midfielder rather than in the spot he plays for at Stoke.

Whomever you believe to be the long-term answer, credit must be given to the man who, for 45 minutes, took the weakest link in the United States back four and solidified it.

This allowed for bigger and better things to take place up front – namely, that whole “Dos a Cero” business we’ve been shoving down your throat.

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.

Phil Neville praises Juan Mata’s play to Manchester United

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Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.

Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.

Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”

Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”

Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?

The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.

Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.

However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.

David Moyes faces FA charges after being sent off during EFL Cup

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David Moyes and Sunderland have gotten off to one of the worst starts in Premier League history.

If they fail to earn a point against Arsenal this weekend, they will tie the 1995-96 Manchester City team for the worst start ever through 10 matches with two points.

It appears those frustrations carried over to the EFL Cup for Moyes. On Wednesday, the manager was forced to leave the dugout toward the end of Sunderland’s 1-0 loss to Southampton after he protested a no-call from referee Chris Kavanagh.

Moyes was charged by the FA for his protests, saying the manager “used abusive and/or insulting words towards a match official”.

It’s just another thing to add to Moyes’ plate as he looks to keep Sunderland’s hopes of safety alive in the Premier League.