Under the radar, Parks beginning to emerge with Benfica
Among the new generation of American players, Keaton Parks has had one of the more difficult paths to Europe but hard work and patience has resulted in him signing a long-term deal with Benfica. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke to the tall central midfielder from Texas about the journey to Portugal's most famous team.
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedWhen looking at the best American players, both now and in the past, there are often many different paths to the top. Some jump abroad early and claw their way up. Others begin domestically in MLS or even college, which still remains relevant.
December 15, 2017
December 15, 2017
Keaton Parks, 20, is one of the players who made the move abroad early. But unlike players such as Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie, his path to the top has been far less glamorous and has been outside of the best development paths the U.S. soccer system offers.
But despite the difficult journey, it eventually ended up with him signing long-term deal at Portuguese giants Benfica and making his first team debut on November 18 where he came off the bench in a Taca de Portugal game against Vitoria Setubal. 10 minutes after entering, he set up a goal in the 2-0 win.
Behind the massive spotlight of playing for the first team of one of Europe’s most famous clubs, however, is a very unusual story. History has shown that many players who end up playing for Benfica were highly rated at the youth level and consider top prospects from an early age.
But Parks does not fit that mold. A native of Plano, Texas, he did not play in the Development Academy and he was not part of U.S. Soccer’s residency or any youth national team (aside from a U-20 call-up earlier this year after the preliminary World Cup roster was submitted – which he was not on). At 6’4” tall, he doesn’t fit the frame of an American central midfielder.
Outside of the DA or U.S. Soccer, Parks kept about his business locally playing for Frisco’s Liberty High School and the Dallas/Ft. Worth-based Liverpool Warriors of the amateur NPSL. What Parks did have going for him was a very strong and close-knit support group that included his family, friends, and long-time youth coach Armando Pelaez who was instrumental in his development.
“I grew up with the same coach growing up for 10 years,” Parks told ASN from Portugal. “[Pelaez] always taught me the same style and I always played with a lot of confidence. He helped me develop my game in a certain way because he always believed I could make it to Europe and play professionally. I think mostly because I didn't play academy, I didn't get a lot of recognition. So the fact that I didn't have a spotlight on me or that I was recognized as a kid, it didn't really affect me growing up and I don't think it ever affected the way I played or made me play with a chip on my shoulder. I just do this for myself because I love this game.”
“I had opportunities to go to college back home,” Parks added. “I was committed to go to Southern Methodist University but when the opportunity came to play professionally in Portugal, I had to take it. Playing professional soccer was always my dream and this is what I always wanted.”
As a former international with Venezuela’s national team, Pelaez is now a top youth coach in Texas and his own American-born son also plays for the youth teams at Benfica. He remains very close with Parks and is not surprised by his development. Even after making his Benfica debut, Pelaez believes Parks has only hit 40% of his potential.
“We do have a lot of very good players like Keaton,” Pelaez said. “A lot of people are trying to bring soccer from abroad to the United States as if the Americans don't know what they're doing. I can tell you that the Americans know what they're doing. We just have to be better scouts. We have to go out and look for the talent that we're losing because we only care about the Development Academy. You have a lot of very good players in the DA but you have very good players out there like Keaton.”
“The curriculum that I use with my players is the one that was taught to me which is Brazilian and Peruvian,” he added. “It's a lot of ball control and a lot of skill. That is why Keaton is so good. What I did with Keaton was so simple: I let him be. When I saw he was talented at the age of seven, I didn't want to touch that raw diamond that was in my hands. I needed to coach him and encourage him. I didn't yell at him to pass. In fact, I was telling him to keep the ball and dribble. It's easy to pass the ball but it's difficult to keep it. Why do all these teams what Keaton? They cannot believe that at 6'4" he can dribble the way he dribbles.”
But getting Parks to Europe was challenging enough and it came through Pelaez who had contacts as a former professional in Portugal. He helped to arrange a series of trials and get his name out in Portugal. But eventually while playing in a tournament in Portugal, he was discovered by Varzim, a small second division club where he would eventually sign in 2015.
Parks battled at first with homesickness and a language barrier but quickly go through it and learned to enjoy the Portuguese lifestyle. But there were also other difficulties, namely the ugly business side of soccer.
After initially succeeding at Varzim, his standing with the club would sour in December 2016. There were accusations from the club that Parks refused a transfer to Portimonense. During that time, Parks was not playing or training with Varzim. He took his case to the Joint Arbitration Commission for a release of his contract under “just cause” clause. In the end after six months, the commission sided with Parks who then signed with Benfica B.
It was a long and drawn out process that cost Parks both playing time and a realistic shot at the making the U-20 World Cup team. But in the end, Parks felt it helped him mature as a person and as a player.
“It was definitely frustrating and there were some difficulties but I believe that is just part of this life,” Parks said. “There are all these people supporting me and they gave me a lot of confidence that we could get through it and that I could get where I wanted to be. It was difficult but I never lost hope.”
But the past month has been good for Keaton who along with making his first team debut at Benfica, also extended his contact through 2022. That alone elevated his profile back in the United States and put is name alongside McKennie, Jonathan Gonzalez, Tyler Adams as top emerging young players. He knows that continued appearances at Benfica would likely put him into the fold with the U.S. national team.
“It is a little bit of a wake-up call that we didn't qualify for the World Cup,” Parks said. “Every time since I've been alive we've qualified. I think it was expected that we would qualify and after we didn't it surprised a lot of people. It also made everyone open their eyes about the future and what's next for the U.S. national team.”
“Of course I would love to play for the national team and represent my country. That is always on the back of my mind but I don't worry about it or stress about it. I would love to get U-23 call-ups for Olympic qualifying or first team camps if possible. But I am here at Benfica and focused on playing games here.”