Keaton Parks, 20, made his U.S. national team debut against Bolivia on Monday. (Getty)
PHILADELPHIA — There are dozens of places for a story about Keaton Parks to begin. Dozens of locales. Because Keaton Parks’ journey from Plano, Texas, to the U.S. men’s national team has taken him to so many settings off the beaten path.
But this one begins in Povoa de Varzim, Portugal, a small northern port city know for its beaches and fisheries. It begins at a cozy 11,000-seat stadium in July of 2015, a few modest high-rise apartment buildings dotting the otherwise non-existent skyline, the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred feet away.
Specifically, it begins on a sideline, where Armando Pelaez, Parks’ coach with the NPSL’s Liverpool Warriors, was watching 17-year-old Keaton. And as the lanky Texan, around 6-foot-2 at the time, sprayed another pass out to the wing, and danced by another opponent in midfield, the Portuguese talent evaluators and spectators were in awe. They kept coming back to Pelaez with the same question.
“How is it possible that he is so technical with that height?”
Three years later, Parks is 6-foot-4. He made his first USMNT appearance of any kind on Monday in Pennsylvania. He’s at Portugal’s most successful club, Benfica. And the question is still pertinent: How did Parks, whose size-skill combo is almost self-contradictory, develop into one of the most intriguing under-21 prospects in the U.S. player pool?
The answers arise from various stops along one of the most unorthodox routes to the national team.
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The journey begins in earnest around age 10. That’s when Pelaez, with over a dozen young players huddled around him in north Dallas suburbs, would pose a simple question to the kids: Who here wants to be a professional soccer player?
Hands would shoot up. Of course they would. And of course Parks’ was one of them.
“But I spoke to him outside of the group,” recalls Parks, who also played basketball, baseball and American football growing up. “He told me he can get me where I want to go. I just believed him from the start.”
Pelaez remembers, too. And he remembers his subsequent message to Parks: “Now, I need to be more demanding.”
That’s why tears would occasionally flow down Parks’ cheeks while his teammates celebrated triumphs. “We would win, I would feel good, and [Pelaez] would get on me about all the stuff I did wrong. At the moment, I would be mad at him. Like, why are you ripping me up?
“But all of that ended up being good for me,” he now realizes.
Parks followed Pelaez around to various local clubs, but never to one that was part of U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy. He was the only player at his first (and only) youth national team camp that hadn’t come through the DA. He had opportunities to join FC Dallas’ youth teams, but was never tempted.
The third of four siblings stuck with Pelaez, as his captain and No. 10. He occasionally trained with kids two or three years his elders. He later played three years of high school soccer as well, and loved it.
But, as Parks now says, “not playing academy soccer, I didn’t get a lot of exposure.” Pelaez took him to several U.S. Soccer satellite camps, designed to place top youngsters on youth national team radars. He never got follow-up calls. Nor did he never have the reasoning told straight to his face.
Pelaez, though, got it time and time again: “He was too little.”
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A 6-foot-4 central midfielder? “Too little”? Ah, but that wasn’t always the case. The average 16-year-old American male is around 5-foot-8. Parks, heading into his junior year of high school, was 5-foot-6. And that very well could be the answer to the question those Portuguese observers were asking.
Parks sprouted to 6-foot-1 that fall. Initially after the growth spurt, he struggled to recapture his coordination and touch. One he did, he was the soccer equivalent of a basketball power forward with guard skills.
Because when he was 5-foot-6, or 5-foot-4 going into high school, he was a guard. He was a tricky 10, a creative attacking midfielder whose playmaking skills Pelaez raves about. He couldn’t rely on his physicality. So he relied on technique.
“I wasn’t the tallest, strongest, fastest player on the field,” Parks says. “So I had to have good feet.”
Keaton Parks, center, competes for Benfica B. (Getty)
And when you watch him now, whether in a reduced space training game or a Benfica B match, there is evidence of that undersized kid who grew up watching and loving Spanish soccer. He is no longer a 10. Benfica sees him as a 6. In his first U.S. camp, he has alternated between 6 and 8. But he is as smooth and clever on the ball as ever. When asked if he has any footballing idols, he says there are none he models his game after, but mentions four players: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Marco Verratti and Sergio Busquets. Three of those four are 5-foot-7 or shorter.
“Keaton plays like Xavi and Iniesta in a big body,” Pelaez says, without even acknowledging the absurdity of the comparison. Or, in other words – Pelaez’s again – he’s a “Busquets with goals.”
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Pelaez clearly isn’t afraid of the odd hyperbolic comparison. But you can’t ignore his other eye-opening one: “I got the opportunity to coach Clint Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez, Jose Torres, Lee Nguyen,” he says. “Keaton is the most complete player [I’ve had].”
So why, then, did Parks get just one token youth national team call-up, and not until last spring, when he was 19?
For the same reasons he is so good now. Because, foreign to the academy pipeline, he was an outsider. And because as an outsider, he was too short to get noticed. Because he took the unconventional path.
And there is a reason it is unconventional. Because it is a leap of faith. Parks had committed to SMU, and very nearly went. As he says, the college route – the one all his friends and teammates were taking – is “the safe route.” The other route required language lessons, and taste bud adaptations, and undesirable positional changes, and all kinds of adjustments that the academy-trained, domestic-based American player never has to make.
For Parks, it also required the enduring of a nasty contract dispute with his first Portuguese club, Varzim. After refusing to accept a transfer to top-flight club Portimonense, the then-19-year-old midfielder was effectively frozen out by his club, left out of matchday squads, unable to train. Only after multiple arbitration courts sided with Parks was he able to sign with Benfica, his Varzim contract rendered void.
Now he’s a reserve team catalyst, with four first-team appearances under his belt. He’s almost fluent in Portuguese. He has reportedly drawn interest from the likes of Monaco, Borussia Monchengladbach and Leicester City. And he’s a U.S. international.
“Last year was my first national team camp,” of any kind, “with the U-20s,” he notes. “This is my second.” And then he almost chuckles, as if realizing just how much of a whirlwind the past few years have been – and just how unorthodox his path to that first cap was.
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