Keaton Parks took to the field in Nashville, Tennessee knowing a milestone had been reached – 100 appearances for New York City Football Club.
A moment of celebration, it represented another step on a fascinating soccer journey for Parks that started in his native Texas.
“I was one of the kids that walked out with the players for FC Dallas,” Parks explained. “It wasn’t just at the FC Dallas stadium, it was at the Cotton Bowl, it was a bigger crowd. I had been going to FC Dallas games for a long time at that point, and it was my first or second year with season tickets. It was cool to be on the field for the first time.”
When he wasn’t basking in the atmosphere generated by a local crowd, Parks was playing soccer. He grew up a keen admirer of Barcelona and their Tiki-Taka style of short passing, and that emphasis on possession remains central to his game today. The journey between Texas and New York was punctuated by a spell in Portugal facilitated by his junior coach Armando Pelaez, who himself had played professionally in the country.
“I first started going there during the summer in high school,” Parks explained. “I would train with a few different teams. The main one I was training with was Feirense - I was training with their youth team. I got a couple of training sessions with Braga. I think we trained once or twice with Sporting. We jumped around a bit training with a few teams here and there, but it was mainly with Feirense. It was tough at first because I went to Portugal not having a contract. I had already de-committed from Southern Methodist University to go take my chances there. I had to go and prove myself and earn a contract when I first went.”
Eventually, Varzim S.C., a team founded in 1915 and plying their trade in the second division, saw enough to hand Parks a professional contract and a spot on their youth team. The bright lights of European soccer weren’t to be found here.
“It was in this very small beach town in northern Portugal,” Parks said of Varzim. “I lived in an apartment right across the street from the stadium - this tiny little stadium - that’s built into the city almost. You can barely tell it’s there unless you’re right next to it. Half the time, we’d train in the stadium, just because we didn’t have fields available. We had one other field that we would use and it would get torn up.
“The training gear was like super outdated, and didn’t always fit, there’s holes in the socks and stuff. They [the club] did enough. We had the right trainers and the right equipment to stay healthy and perform at a high level, but they just didn’t have the money and the resources to give us the best environment or situation. I think that’s a lot of clubs in Portugal, it wasn’t like we had a bad club or anything. It’s just how it was there.”
A glitzier experience would arrive after less than a year in Portugal when Benfica took an interest in acquiring him. The move would see Parks join Benfica’s B-team, which is used primarily for developing the next generation of players.
“It was surreal, honestly,” Parks said of the contrast between Benfica and Varzim. “It’s like a college campus but all for soccer - from their academy teams all the way up through to the first team. They have a full buffet style cafeteria for every meal. The B-team Stadium was on campus, and there’s like eight other training fields around the area. It’s built right on the water and everything. It’s like a whole new world right outside of Lisbon. It’s pristine, everything’s brand new. It was a huge step up from Varzim.”
It wasn’t just the surroundings that had improved, but also the competition. Benfica’s ability to develop young talent is well known. The likes of Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo, and Ruben Dias have all emerged through Benfica’s hallowed halls in recent years, as has João Félix, the world’s second most expensive teenager and one-time teammate of Parks.
“I played with him for that whole first year on the B-team,” Parks said. “He moved up to the first team that next year. I actually have a picture of him subbing in for me - I thought that was pretty cool. I was going to post it and be like, the moment that changed soccer for him [laughs].”
If Varzim was Park’s introduction to European soccer, Benfica was his finishing school. Every aspect of his lifestyle, from his diet to his education, improved. The pressure of being at a top club is not without challenges, however. The circumstances surrounding a B-team make for a curious atmosphere. The pursuit of first-team recognition can leave some players chasing personal advancement over team success.
“I was always about the team and playing for the team,” Parks explained. “I was taught that, if you play for the team, then you’ll shine yourself, so that’s just how I played and that was always my mentality going into any game. I had to learn that all these players were just trying to make it to the first team or to another first division team somewhere else in the world, because the whole world looks at Benfica’s academy as one of the top academies. I didn’t realize that all eyes were on us. I’d say not everybody, but some people were just out for themselves and to make themselves look good.”
While results weren’t always great, Parks did enough to catch the eye of Rui Vitoria and earn a moment in the spotlight with the first team at the Estadio Da Luz. Parks was handed a cameo against Vitória Setúbal - the former ball-boy now a first-team player.
“Luckily, for me, my first game was a cup game so there wasn’t as many fans, there was only like 50,000 instead of 70,000,” Parks said. “I was definitely nervous. The first time I was out there, the lights just seemed incredibly bright. I was just trying to get my heart rate down and focus on playing soccer because there was a whole new world out there with all those people - all that noise around you. Once I started to get touches on the ball I settled down a little bit, but it was just crazy. Being in that stadium, with that many people going there to watch you play. It was insane.”
Engulfed by a sea of 50,000 Benfica fans, it is not the most heightened experience Parks can recall. That came when he proposed to his now-wife in the backyard of their house.
“We actually met when I was in sixth grade,” Parks said smiling. “She was in fifth grade. It was a long time ago. Her friend lived upstairs from my dad’s apartment, and she had been over at our apartment, and we went to the pool one day. Then we just lost contact with each other completely until junior or senior year of high school. Then she saw me on Twitter and messaged me like “Do we know each other? Your name sounds very familiar.” And we figured out how we had met each other years before and became good friends. We had a lot of mutual friends too. So we hung out a little bit, became good friends again, and we didn’t actually start dating until like my last six months in Portugal.”
Understandably, the life of an athlete can be transient. Apartments and cars are often rented, and the surroundings feel temporary. Parks is the exception.
“I live by the George Washington Bridge, but in the suburbs, so in that sense, it makes me feel like I’m more at home,” he said. “I live in a little neighborhood that’s very similar to the one I grew up in. I like that aspect of it and then I like the fact that if I’m feeling it one night I can go do basically whatever I want in the city. At this point, I definitely feel settled and like I belong here.”
It's with that foundation - surrounded by his wife Kat, their dog Samson, and with a baby boy on the way - that Parks now feels prepared to attack his career goals; notably more success with NYCFC and a call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team. And after his early exposure to the Cotton Bowl and the bright lights of Benfica, the city of New York feels like the perfect place to achieve those dreams.