BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, August 21, 2012
With the Champions League group stages beginning next month, American defender Michael Parkhurst is excited for the challenges that lie ahead.

It was only last year when Parkhurst, 28, believed that he would be leaving Nordsjaelland during the winter break. But he decided to sign an extension because he had a sense the team was one the verge of something special.

He was right. In 2011/12, Nordsjaelland shocked Danish Superliga fans and won the title in the season's final game against Horsens. That victory also clinched the tiny club a spot in the prestigious group stages of the UEFA Champions League.

The draw for the group stages will be held on August 30 in Monaco and Parkhurst said that he along with his teammates are looking forward to learning their fate which could include some of the best teams in the world.

"We're destined to play some big teams so we're looking forward to that," Parkhurst told YA. "I think we all wanted to play Barcelona. I saw them play Manchester United in the preseason, and they're a big challenge. If a team like United struggles to get out of their own half against Barcelona, you know they're good. That'll be a reality check. It doesn't matter who we play, it'll be a challenge. We're looking forward to the draw right now. We're anxious for it."

The Danish Superliga season is already six weeks old and Nordsjaelland had a rough start but has come on strong the last two weeks. They currently sit in fourth place with 11 points in six games and trail leaders Copenhagen by just three points.

With the team beginning to hit its stride in the new season, Parkhurst has noticed that there is intense internal competition among the players to make the team's Champions League roster. This competition is not new for Nordsjaelland and Parkhurst believes it is part of the reason why the team has been successful in recent years.

"Everyone on the team is fighting to be in the team for those games," Parkhurst explained. "We know these games are important for us, not just individually, but to defend our title. But it's easy right now just to focus on the Superliga. We have to do well in our league first and then when the Champions League comes around, we'll shift our focus."

"There is always good competition," he added. "That's why we've done so well. We fight for each other in training. Trainings are difficult and we push ourselves. Competition is a great thing because it drives us all to get better. Of course there are big games coming up and everyone wants to be part of those. You can see that in trainings and in the games. Guys want to make a statement to be in the starting 11."

Prior to last year, Nordsjaelland had never finished higher than sixth place in the Danish Superliga. Just one year ago their wage budget was third from the smallest in the Superliga so winning the title was an accomplishment that surprised most experts of Danish soccer.

This year, however, there will much higher expectations for Nordsjaelland not just internally, but also from other teams in the league. The element of surprise is no longer present and teams will be highly motivated to put in a strong performance against the defending champion.

"I think teams have realized how we play," Parkhurst said. "They know our game plan and tactically how to defend us. We need to adjust and make sure we stay on top of things. Our coaching staff is doing a good job keeping us fresh, throwing new bodies out there, and keeping the opponents off guard."

Even with the team sitting in fourth place, Parkhurst is happy with how the team has been playing at thestart of the year. Parkhurst, himself, even missed time due to the lingering effects from a broken toe that he suffered last March and has been playing on ever since.

The team is now fully fit and Parkhurst believes the team is ready to gain momentum heading into the Champions League games which begin on September 18.

"We had a slow start," Parkhurst concluded. "We had a few injuries to some key players on the team. But everyone is getting back fit now so that's a big lift to the team. We also had some performances where we were unlucky to come away with draws when we thought we were the better team. If we were a little more clinical with our finishes, we could have had six points instead of two."

"But it's been nice these past two games to go out there and do what we needed to do. Hopefully this catapults us up the standings and we continue to rise to the top."

Michael Parkhurst and Nordsjalland host sixth place Sonderjyske this Friday.

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