NEW YORK — Keaton Parks had two dreams growing up in Plano, Texas. He wanted to play professional soccer in Europe and he wanted to play in the United States.
That much was certain. As for the timeline, that was a bit cloudier.
“I guess I never really knew the order of things,” Parks said. “I never knew I was going to play in Europe at all or the US at all, so it's all just moving parts and coming together.”
Parks, who made the move to Portugal at the age of 17 and competed for Varzim before making the move to powerhouse Benfica, joined New York City FC on loan in January.
He’s just part of a growing trend of young US internationals arriving in Major League Soccer.
Joining the 21-year-old central midfielder in that group is 19-year-old NYCFC teammate Juan Pablo Torres, 25-year-old Kenny Saief, who joined FC Cincinnati on loan from Belgian club Anderlecht, 28-year-old Joe Corona, who transferred from Club Tijuana to the LA Galaxy and the move of 22-year-old Gedion Zelalem from Arsenal to Sporting Kansas City.
“It’s very exciting,” NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna said. “They’re coming also with experience and growth they’ve had in Europe. They want to come back and they’re also hungry and motivated.”
While each situation and decision is different, Reyna said the league’s expansion has opened the door for these young players who are looking to get important first-team minutes and earn good money. They’re all factors in a trend he said “will likely continue.”
“It’s good, it’s exciting for them,” Reyna said. “They can come here to prove to their US men's national team coaches they can compete at a good level. We’re excited about it. They’re doing really well for us and will play and get minutes.”
Parks said a chance to graduate through the FC Dallas academy and into the club’s first team didn’t materialize, so he left for Europe straight out of high school, opting to pass up an NCAA scholarship to Southern Methodist University.
He grew up playing with Weston McKennie in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and the two kept in touch on their European adventures.
While McKinnie settled at Schalke 04, Parks briefly found a home at Varzim before joining Benfica two years later. He made just four first-team appearances, but in December 2017 signed a new deal through 2022.
Reyna said all the feedback about Parks was positive and that Benfica “were not so keen to let him go so easily” when NYCFC came calling.
“But they did realize that coming to NYCFC, being in our environment would be good for him,” Reyna added.
When one dream ends, another one begins for Parks, who said he spent the last six months playing the No. 6, but can also feature as a No. 8 or No. 10. So far, he has made just a late cameo in NYCFC's opener against Orlando City SC.
“I think it's just the next step in my career,” he said. “It’s obviously a great opportunity. I'm here in New York, I'm playing with a very, very good club, good coach, good group of players. It's just the next step for me.”
Parks has one cap for the USMNT, coming on a substitute for Corona in an international friendly against Bolivia last May at Talen Energy Stadium. Now both players are again linked with their moves to MLS.
“We’re all Americans and I think it's really cool for all of us to be able to play in our home country,” Parks said. “I’m just excited for all of them to be able to play in this league just like I am.”