NPSL alum is the first to reach the level of Champions League football
For Plano, Texas native Keaton Parks, coming to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Harrison, New Jersey isn’t exactly a trip home.
But for the 20-year-old midfielder that has spent the last three seasons playing in Portugal, it’s an acceptable substitute.
Parks, who grew up playing at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas and the NPSL’s Liverpool Warriors, is now with S.L. Benfica, a legendary Portuguese first division club that competed against the likes of European giants Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, and Olympique Lyonnais in the International Champions Cup this summer.
So even though Pittsburgh and Harrison aren’t exactly comparable to the Lone Star State, it’s still good to be spending some time on home turf this summer. Parks’ trip to the U.S. for the ICC was preceded by a call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team for a match against Bolivia in Chester, Pennsylvania in late May.
“It feels good,” Parks said. “It’s fun to be able to show my friends and my teammates around the city a little bit. I don’t know know Pittsburgh, but I can tell them what’s good, what restaurants to eat at, things like that. It’s nice being home, for sure.”
Parks is one of several young American players that has decided to hone his trade overseas. Fellow USMNT midfielder Christian Pulisic is a standout with Borussia Dortmund, while Timothy Weah is with Paris St. Germain and Weston McKennie is with Schalke 04. Of the latest 20-man roster for the top American team, only four were playing for American clubs.
For Parks, the decision to play in Europe was about rising to a higher level in his development. Benfica will play in either the UEFA Champions League or Europa League for the 16th consecutive season in 2018-19. When it comes to club soccer, that’s about as high of a level that is possible to compete.
“I think it’s very important,” Parks said. “There’s high level soccer here in the States, as well, of course, but the level in Europe is very high and I think getting in at a young age really helps a developing player.”
Of course, that means traveling thousands of miles from home and his support system, playing in a country and being immersed in a culture where he didn’t initially speak the language. That’s tough for any professional athlete, but especially for someone that, if he’d gone the collegiate route, would be entering his senior season.
“I always hang out with my teammates,” Parks said about how he handles the cultural differences. “I’m really close with my teammates. We hang out on the field, off the field, of course. My brother is up in Portugal now, too. He’s in the north, so he’s a little far away, but I try to hang out with him as much as I can, as well.”
There have been times in the past where a hyped young American player has gone to Europe and underwhelmed. In fact, it’s happened at Benfica. In 2007, Freddy Adu, then 18 years old, cost Benfica a $2 million transfer fee only to underwhelm with two goals 11 career appearances.
But it seems that with this current crop of young American prospects playing in Europe, the development curve hasn’t been as steep.
“There’s a lot of American players that are in Europe now,” Parks said. “I think, when we’re there, they expect the same from us as all the other players. They don’t look at us as Americans, they look at us as another player on the team.”
In that regard, this is an important preseason for Parks. After making his Primeira Liga debut in July, he made six appearances with Benfica across all competitions during the 2017-18 season and 29 with Benfica B in the second-tier LigaPro. That’s a ratio he’d like to reverse for the upcoming season.
“Right now, I’m just enjoying my time with the first team, just putting in the work and hopefully, I’ll be training with them full time,” Parks said.
In order to reach his goal of playing at the top level in Europe, he’ll have to show he can stick against top-level competition. But there’s a good bit of irony in the fact that he’s had to come back to America, with the national team and in the International Champions Cup to prove that he has earned that opportunity.
“It’s huge for me,” Parks said. “It’s my first preseason at this high level. It’s really exciting. I’m just enjoying it. … “It’s always special to play with Benfica and it’s nice to be home, as well.”
Benfica manager Rui Vitoria is excited about Parks’ potential.
“He is a quality player. We believe in him, but there is a process. He is working hard, and we believe he has a promising future.”
That future makes Parks one of the most exciting American products in years, a player that is capable of dominating in European competition and on the international stage. And it all started from his time in the NPSL.
Contributor: Alan Saunders/NPSL.com
Photo Credit: www.OnsidePhotography.com