As a boy growing up in North Texas, Keaton Parks became an FC Dallas fan. His family had season tickets and he thought about how it might be cool to play professionally near home.
As a high school soccer standout, Parks played a few games at Toyota Stadium in front of family and friends. He didn't think to pursue the FC Dallas academy because he had aspirations of playing in Europe, specifically Portugal, where he'd spend 2015 through 2018 with Varzim and then powerhouse Benfica.
Parks' realization of a childhood dream comes true Sunday (6 pm ET | UniMás, Twitter, TUDN) when he plays at his hometown stadium for the first time when New York City FC take on FC Dallas.
“I’m really excited," Parks told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. He expects roughly 60 family and friends to be in attendance. "It’ll be really cool to go back and play professionally back home.”
Parks' allegiance with the stadium and his hometown area will end before the opening whistle, as the soft-footed midfielder aims for nothing less than three points for the Eastern Conference leaders.
"We know we’re the better team going into any matchup in MLS," Parks said matter-of-factly. "We believe we should win this game and hopefully we do.”
In his first season with NYCFC on loan from Portuguese side Benfica, Parks has grown to be a vital player for Dome Torrent's side. He's appeared in 17 consecutive MLS matches, including 13 starts, culminating in his first MLS goal last weekend. His confidence has grown game by game, as his soft touch and adeptness in possession fits perfectly with NYCFC's ethos.
"Keaton has special qualities, he's never nervous," Torrent said Thursday. "He's not pressured. Sometimes you have to say to them 'be careful.' He plays the same way in our 18-yard box, (Bayern Munich's) Thiago Alcantara played the same way. ... The mentality of Keaton is amazing."
But it didn't come easy, nor was straight forward for the one-time US international.
As a youth international with Benfica on his resume, Parks' loan signing with NYCFC was met with the requisite fanfare this offseason. Though just 21-years-old when signed in January, there were hopes he'd be a key player for a team that promised to be one of the league's best.
At the beginning, though, Parks found his opportunities limited. Parks made just four substitute appearances across the first 14 games. No starts. There was even talks of, possibly, a short-term loan to USL for needed minutes.
“Yeah, it was difficult," Parks said of his time on the bench. "I always want to play, everybody wants to play, that’s why we’re here. I was getting frustrated, but Dome talked to me a lot. That’s part of the game, there’s only 11 players that can start the game. I always knew I’d get a chance, but it gets frustrating at times. You just got to fight through it.
“My frustration showed in training sessions, I was going into them angry," Parks added. "It was hard to get rid of, it’d carry with me throughout the day. I knew whenever I got my opportunity that I’d have to do something, so not to go back to that same cycle of frustration. It’s not enjoyable.”
That opportunity came in the US Open Cup and, with a pair of sparkling performances before the team's return to MLS at the end of June, Parks played his way into the lineup and hasn't looked back.
“I’m a young player, I think everybody goes through that point in their career where they get frustrated," Parks said. "It’s just part of a soccer player’s career. This was a good life lesson for me, for sure.”
Before the season started, Parks told MLSsoccer.com he was excited how much he could grow with NYCFC and in MLS.
“I’ve learned a lot from players here this year, like [Alex Ring] and Maxi [Moralez]. They have a lot of experience and talent, just playing alongside them and talking to them. I've got a lot of confidence from them. They believe in me, they trust me They talk to me a lot—they also yell at me a lot," Parks said with a laugh. "That’s normal."
Parks has also added to his defensive abilities and awareness, crucial to staying in the lineup.
“Early on, Dome wanted me to work on the defensive side of the ball," Parks said. "Positioning and being more aggressive. I’m more of an attack-minded player, so sometimes that gets into my head then I’ll go up the field and not really watch my positioning. I’ve grown a lot in that sense. I’ve been able to win balls, help the team defensively as well. It’s a huge thing I can add to my game.”
All those qualities will be on display in his return to North Texas on a competitive soccer field for the first time as a pro.