2022 won’t be a year Keaton Parks forgets quickly.
It was a year cast in sharp contrast. The 25-year-old from, Plano, Texas, entered the year as an MLS Cup Champion, and would lift another trophy in the Campeones Cup.
Among the many happy memories, he exchanged vows with his then-fianceé, now wife, Kat in Central Park, having first met when they were both children.
The contrast in his life would be represented by the moment Parks was told that for the second time in under a year doctors had found a blood clot in his leg – requiring a second surgery.
“I go into each year wanting to have the best year of my career, and I’m feeling really good right now,” Parks said from California. “It’s a new motivation for me, having missed so much time recently, and hopefully I can put that into my work on the field, and really have the season of my career so far.
“I keep telling my wife and my friends that too – that it's like I have a whole new motivation on the field. I know how easily it can be taken away from you – short-term or long-term – so I definitely have a new appreciation for health, and new motivation for each time I’m on the field.
“I'm going to keep approaching any little setback with that same attitude and hopefully it will pass quicker each time.
“I think it’s going well so far but it is a thing you have to grow: to learn to be confident again. I feel like I'm a pretty confident guy and a confident player but even subconsciously, it's something that you really have to get used to – you have knock off all the rust and try to get back to your old ways, but I'm working on it.
“I had to learn to be patient, especially after my second injury, because the first one was all new to me – it was my first big injury, my first big setback – so I was more okay with it, I was positive about it.”
Although he was unable to affect the on-field results during his rehab, Parks was still absorbed in the action, observing closely to aid his understanding and personal development, aiding a smoother transition upon his return.
It was no coincidence that his return to action in September sparked a welcome upturn in fortunes for Nick Cushing’s side, as he propelled the Boys in Blue to a strong finish to the 2022 campaign. While helping the team excel is his primarily goal, the next twelve months also afford him the chance to take his own game to the next level.
“I did my best. I tried to learn a lot while I wasn't playing, so that I wasn't playing catch-up when I came back,” he explained.
“I was still progressing throughout those years that I wasn't necessarily getting as many touches. I was always with the team at the training ground and at the games.
“I still really want to improve on my defensive role – I think I have a lot to offer in that sense – and I want to improve on my decision-making in the final third, being more effective in assisting in scoring goals. There’s still a lot of progression to be made.”
In searching for the change between this year and last Parks need just look at the wedding ring on his finger. Asked how married life is going, he laughs, but smiles at the memories of the special day.
“I keep telling people it's almost exactly the same!” he replied. “I’d lived with my wife for two years before we got married, we have a dog and a house together and all that, so nothing much has changed... but I do love the fact that I am married now to her and it's official, so that part's fun.
“[On my days off] I like to stay home and hang out with my wife and my dog – I'm a big homebody – but when I do get into the city, I love to find new restaurants and just walk around a lot. I just love to take it in... I'm from suburb of Dallas, Texas, so it's definitely different for me.
“I just really like to just hang out and feel like the city, the energy and how busy it is – I love all that temporarily, and then I can escape to my suburb in New Jersey as well.”
Grateful to have had such positive news to focus on, Parks is keen to acknowledge those that provided support during last year. That foundation has been key in helping him move forward to this season, and a fresh opportunity to move closer to his full potential.
“I have a great support system behind me with my wife and family; of course, the organization here [at NYCFC], and all my teammates have been great through it all.
“Everybody played a big role: the coaches were always checking in on me, calling me, texting me, even when we weren't together, and the players too when they found out the bad news. They would text me right away or call me, checking in or wishing me well, and of course our medical staff have been good, very helpful to me.
“One guy I’d like to mention is Nick Caropino, who really helped me with all my rehab and everything, getting me back on the field as quickly as possible, and another is Constantine Demetriadis – I want to put that name out there because he sat with me at the hospital for five or six hours before I got my room, the first night I went in.
“With all these tools to support me and stuff, it makes it much easier than just trying to have your own positive attitude towards it.”
Naturally, Parks hopes to experience so much more with NYCFC, as he enters his fifth season with the Club. Eager to play a more established role in the hunt for silverware, the 25-year-old has high hopes on all fronts, fueled by his desire to make up for lost time.
“I think we can achieve a lot,” he stated of the squad’s ambitions. “We have a lot of talent, a lot of commitment, and a lot of guys who are passionate about winning. We’re going to fight and we’re going to give the team and the Club everything we can.
“I haven’t thought too much about that [my own hopes] so much recently, just because of my injuries. Everything was short-term: just getting back on the field and producing again has been my main focus, but I would love to win multiple titles with this Club, as well as hopefully getting some call-ups for the [US] National Team.
“But that’s all background noise for me… I’m just trying to focus on my time here, right now in the present – getting healthy and playing good soccer again.”
NYCFC will kick off the 2023 MLS season on Feb. 25 when we visit Nashville SC at GEODIS Park (4:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).