Exclusive – As someone who has played on both sides of the Atlantic, Keaton Parks is better placed than most to judge Major League Soccer’s growth.
Now running the midfield for NYCFC, Parks left Texas for Portugal in 2015 at the age of just 17, first joining Varzim before moving to Lisbon giants Benfica two years later.
After 65 games in Portuguese football, Parks returned to the United States on loan with NYCFC in 2019, making the move permanent a year later. Speaking exclusively to 90min, the 24-year-old reveals how he came back to a very different MLS than the one he grew up watching.
“I think there have been a lot of improvements,” said Parks. “I’ve been watching MLS over the years, not just since I’ve gotten here. Obviously, there are a lot of foreign players being brought in, but also I think there’s just a bigger fan base these days.
“A lot more kids who grew up around soccer are reaching this age now where they’re playing professionally and I think you could say everybody in the league now has played soccer for 20 years. Everybody has that same technical ability in the sense that we’ve played since we were a little kid. So I think just overall, the technical ability and the level of MLS has just increased a lot.”
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Upon the league’s inception, many of its players were underpaid and had to balance their life on the pitch with another job off it. With that in mind, the thought of clubs owning and operating their own stadiums was unthinkable.
But the game has become a tangible and rewarding career in the United States now, and Parks believes the injection of more cash and the ability of players to dedicate their lives to soccer has played a key factor in improving standards.
“There’s more money being put into it, there’s more time and effort that gets put in,” he added. “When I was younger, players in MLS weren’t paid as much and they often had second jobs. In that sense, with players getting paid properly, they’re able to really dedicate all their time to this and, obviously, that helps the league grow and get stronger and it’s just going to keep getting stronger because the fanbase keeps growing and I don’t expect it to stop anytime soon.”
One of the key tenets to Don Garber’s growth plan for MLS is turning it into a selling league, giving it relevance and context on the global stage.
There’s a very solid argument to say that has already been achieved. In the past few years alone, a whole host of players have made the trip across the Atlantic. Homegrowns like Alphonso Davies, Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams are now playing top-flight and Champions League football. What’s more, MLS is demonstrating it can be a stepping stone for South American talent, with Miguel Almiron joining Newcastle United from Atlanta United in 2018 and Diego Rossi leaving LAFC for Fenerbahce recently.
The time will soon come where MLS has to strike a better balance between being the facilitator in getting players to Europe and pleasing supporters with big names and big products on the pitch.
But for now, Parks – who told 90min he “absolutely” intends to return to Europe one day – believes MLS is on the right track, while continuing to call on veteran stars might also remain a valid way of growing the league.
“I think being a selling league is good for MLS,” he said. “The whole situation how the league is getting better and better, that’ll just attract players. Especially big players who are maybe near the end of their careers, I think a lot of them would love to live in the US and live in certain cities like Miami, or LA, or New York City. And then when those big players are here, I think those players attract young players who aspire to get into the bigger leagues Europe and they can use it as a stepping stone through the US. As this keeps happening, the quality of the league will just get better and better and maybe one day, we’ll reach European standards.
“So I think it’s exciting. I think being a selling league, for now, is probably the smart move. Because then other players and other leagues will look to MLS to buy the talent and then there will be more money in this league to offer players to bring them here and I think it’ll work out.”
MLS is undoubtedly getting better, with clubs like Atlanta United and Seattle Sounders pushing the envelope in terms of trophies and crowd numbers, and the likes of Austin FC coming into the league with beautiful, bespoke stadiums.
But during his time in Portugal, Parks was stunned by the level of facilities Benfica had at their disposal.
“Seeing a full campus that’s dedicated to soccer development from a young age all the way up to the professional level, that was really cool and new to me. We don’t have anything like that here,” Parks said.
“They have a whole campus where U-12s and U-13s, they live there full-time. They do school there and they play soccer every single day, so that was really cool. Just being around soccer, being around football all the time, that has to help you develop and I think that’s why these other countries are a step ahead of the US in that sense, just because everything is dedicated to the game.”
As a result, Parks believes there remains quite a gulf when it comes to technical ability and professionalism.
“I think European players are just technically more sound,” the midfielder added. “They really do play football their whole life, and that’s all they do growing up.
“Every day they go to school, then they go back to, maybe, Benfica’s campus or back home and they just play more. So technically they just have more reps than we do and I think that’s one big difference in the game.”
Parks added: “I think also the standard of every single day. Every single day in training there are no jokes, it’s not taken lightly. If you mess up a few times then everybody will get on to you. They don’t hold anything back, you know.
“Everybody’s always fighting to be at the top, and they don’t let anybody hold them back or hold the team back in any way. I do think part of that is that they’re also pushing everybody to get better as well. They’re not just getting mad at you and telling you to get out of here. I think everybody just has very high standards for everybody else. Here for sure we have high standards and there’s no messing around and goofing off but I just think that since they’re so passionate and so dedicated to the game, because they grew up around it and that’s all they ever did, it’s just slightly different in essence too.”
With just one senior cap to his name – earned against Bolivia back in May 2018 – Parks obviously harbours plenty of ambition when it comes to breaking back into the USMNT.
Though there hasn’t been recent contact, 24-year-old says he has spoken to Gregg Berhalter in the past and that he’s working on becoming more consistent to get back into the manager’s plans.
“I haven’t talked to Gregg recently, but I have spoken with him before some U-23 camps I’ve been called into and got to interact with him there, but nothing recently,” said Parks.
On where he needs to improve to get an international look-in, he added: “I definitely need to be more consistent. I think that’s something that I’ve struggled with throughout my career. And then, of course, keep growing, keep getting better, hopefully get more assists and more goals, too.
“But I think that goes for everybody. Everybody’s always got to keep improving but I think that if I work on my consistency and add that to my game, I should be able to do it. I believe I’m at the level to play with the national team.”
Parks has already scored a career-high four goals in MLS this season. If he can bring that consistency he craves and add a few assists, he might just join NYCFC teammate James Sands in future USMNT camps.