1. Michael Parkhurst
The captain is not the sexiest pick for a player to watch. He doesn’t have the prolific passing like Almiron or the dazzling scoring like Josef Martinez. But he might play one of the most important roles on the team.
As captain, it is Michael Parkhurst’s job to help prepare the team mentally and keep things organized on the pitch; as a center-back, it is Parkhurst’s job to keep the defense disciplined and structured, especially the backline. He did a fantastic job of organizing things during the first leg, leading to a much-needed clean sheet.
Parkhurst will need to organize the defense on Thursday to the same extent. The Red Bulls will most likely come out with physical and relentless play, meaning the defense must remain strong in its approach. The last time the Five Stripes faced the Red Bulls on the road, things did not go well for Atlanta’s back line.
Because New York presses high against teams (for the most part), the backline is always the most important factor in beating that press. In the game against New York in September, Atlanta let that press force them into poor passing, they looking uncomfortable throughout, committing a series of turnovers in advanced areas, unable to progress the play and build any real attacks.
Assuming New York will press the same way this Thursday, it will be on Parkhurst to make sure the same mistakes are not committed. Parkhurst will have to lead the way with confidence on the ball and comfortable passing in the defensive third, no matter what pressure occurs. He is the leader of this team and, for vigilance’s sake, he must lead it well on Thursday.