PHILADELPHIA — In the United States, there are a few well-worn paths to becoming a professional men’s soccer player.
These days, teams that are part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy play a considerable role. If a player is a mainstay on a youth national team, that can do plenty to get them noticed. Then there’s the possibility of going to college and using that as a means of burrowing one’s way into the professional game.
Keaton Parks didn’t take any of those routes. Sure, he could have gone to Southern Methodist University on a partial soccer scholarship. He also received a “get to know you” call-up with the U.S. under-20 team 13 months ago, but that was after he had turned pro, and it proved to be his only involvement in that particular cycle.
Instead the 20-year-old took a circuitous path, starting in the Dallas youth soccer scene and then winning his way through the Portuguese professional ranks, first at Varzim Sport Club, and later making his Benfica debut in 2017. And now here is, part of the U.S. team that will face Bolivia in a Memorial Day friendly at Talen Energy Stadium.
“Looking back at it, there was a lot of stuff I had to go through to get to where I am,” Parks told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview.
For Parks, it started with growing up in a soccer-loving family in which everyone — parents, brothers and sister — played at one point in their lives. But it was when he came under the tutelage of a Dallas-area youth coach by the name of Armando Pelaez that Parks’ path was set. Pelaez was a coach who stressed possession, and Parks was at the heart of his team’s attack.
“I wanted [Parks] to be a perfect player when it comes to his technical abilities,” said Pelaez by telephone.
As for why Parks never really got noticed, Pelaez chalks it up to the fact that the midfielder was undersized for much of his childhood until a late growth spurt took him to his current height of 6-foot-4. It’s a subject that raises Pelaez’s ire, not because of what it meant to Parks but because he’s convinced there are other players like him out there. But in Parks’ case, Pelaez never doubted the player’s ability, and the two stuck together for 10 years.
“Armando told me from a young age that he had connections in Portugal and that if I wanted to go there he’d get me there,” said Parks. “I trusted what he said.”
That trust has been repaid in full. It was Pelaez who took Parks on tours of Portugal when he was still in high school in a bid to get him exposure to various clubs. When Parks graduated from high school a semester early, and with his 18th birthday approaching, his path was wide open. Following one last tour with the Pelaez-coached Liverpool Warriors of the NPSL, he signed on with the reserve team of second-tier side Varzim in 2015. A season later he was playing in the first team.
“It was only a matter of time until Parks made it, because he’s that kind of player,” said Pelaez. “He’s 6-foot-4 with the ability of someone who is 5-foot-7. He’s a very smooth, very classy player. He’s the kind of player who’s not afraid to have the ball. He will have it, he will keep it, he will retain it. If you come and try to get it, he will not be afraid. He’s made for that.”
During his time with Varzim, Parks experienced all of the ups and downs associated with a player moving overseas. There was the language barrier to overcome and bouts of loneliness, though the presence of Pelaez’s son Armando, as well as two Canadian roommates, helped ease the transition. Early on, a knee injury sidelined Parks for three months, testing his resolve.
“I was in my apartment a lot thinking, ‘Did I make the right choice?’ but I got past it,” he said about the period when he was injured.
He later added, “I’ve adapted, the loneliness is just part of it. Of course I have friends that I hang out with a lot, but I think being alone is OK. Just relax sometimes. We work hard every day. I’ve just grown into it.”
The biggest test of all came in January 2017. Parks had impressed enough with Varzim that bigger clubs began to bid for his services. But Varzim’s owner was intent on selling Parks to first-division side Portimonense without consulting the player or his agent, Henrique Sosa. Parks refused to go.
What ensued is the kind of ugliness in the sport that often never makes its way out in the open. To hear Parks tell it, his refusal to go to Portimonense not only resulted in Varzim benching him, but they stopped paying his full contract as well.
Parks eventually rescinded his contract and had to go to the sports tribunal in Portugal to be free to sign for another club. He ultimately prevailed, but it came at a cost.
“That was a hard time for me,” he said. “From January all the way to July, I wasn’t training, or at least I didn’t have a set team.”
A training stint with another club, Gil Vicente, helped Parks maintain a modicum of fitness, as did the aforementioned U-20 camp, but it wasn’t the same as training consistently with the same club.
Such a loss of momentum has stymied many an American player coping with the stresses of playing in Europe. But moving to Benfica revitalized Parks, and he adapted quickly. He made his first-team debut in a cup game last November and has made four league appearances with the first team. He recently signed a new contract through 2022.
“The first three or four months I learned a lot, I grew a lot as a player,” he said. “Then I got my opportunity with the A team in a cup game. That whole experience of playing in that stadium in front of those fans was just like a dream come true.”
Along the way, Parks has been converted into a holding midfielder from his preferred attacking midfield role, though he hasn’t rid himself of his attacking instincts.
“When I play No. 6 now, making a good tackle or reading the play and cutting off a pass, it makes me feel good,” he said. “I’m learning, I’m growing in this position. But growing up and always playing soccer, I love making that good pass; a long ball, a through ball, an assist. That’s always what got me excited. Of course I love scoring goals as well, but assisting goals, and making that key pass has always been my favorite.”
Parks certainly has the kind of two-way skill set that the U.S. team could use, though how he’ll perform in games is still an unknown. However, given the obstacles he’s already surmounted, his future looks promising indeed.