KENYA BROWN - Tuesday, December 13, 2016
American midfielder Keaton Parks has big ambitions of making it in professional soccer and he hopes playing with Varzim SC in Portugal will be his launching pad.
There has been a plethora of news about US youth internationals such as Emmanuel Sabbi, Justin vom Steeg, Weston McKennie and Haji Wright signing with teams in Europe. Even US defender Erik Palmer-Brown received some press when word got out that he was heading to Portugal to play for FC Porto on loan from Sporting Kansas City.
However, Parks' move to Portugal went literally under the radar when he signed with Varzim, a team located in northern Portugal.
Standing at 6-4, one would think the 19-year-old would be interested in playing football or basketball. However, he told Yanks Abroad that his interest in soccer started at a very young age.
"I started playing soccer when I was three and after that I always had a ball at my feet," he said. "I played basketball and baseball as a kid too, but I never had the same passion about those sports as I did with soccer. I had a natural talent as well and I was surrounded by great coaches and parents who always believed in me and gave me the confidence to follow my dream of becoming a pro."
Parks is no stranger to Portugal as he first visited the country while in high school to train with various teams. It would be his coach in Texas, Armando Pelaez, who would introduce him to the country and Henrique Sousa, now his agent. Sousa arranged training sessions with teams such as Guimaraes, Braga, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon.
According to the Texas native, he immediately saw the stark difference between training in Portugal compared with what he went through in the United States.
"Training in Portugal was a lot different. Every training was very intense compared to my trainings in Texas. The teams in Portugal train every day as well; at home I would train only 2-3 times a week with my team," said Parks.
After his first training stint in Portugal, Parks was bound Southern Methodist University, where he earned a scholarship to play for the Mustangs. However, that would all change last summer when he made another trip to Portugal with the Liverpool Warriors of the National Premier Soccer League. The team was there to play in a tournament hosted by Varzim. He impressed the Varzim coaching staff so much that he was offered his first professional contract.
In his first year at Varzim, Parks played games with the under-19 and B teams, but he was also granted the opportunity to train with the first team from time to time. Every young player wants to improve certain aspects of their game and the midfielder, who loves to have the ball at his feet, is no different.
He said he appreciated being given the opportunity to train with the first team in his maiden season and learned quite a lot during that time.
"Training with the A team really helped me improve a lot last year. At all levels in Portugal, the soccer is very aggressive and more aggressive than I was used to. Overall, the level of soccer was higher as well, especially with the first team, so I have had to become a lot quicker, stronger and smarter all around," said Parks.
After getting adjusted to his new environment and playing with the team, Parks has found things a bit different this season. On September 4, he made his debut for Varzim's first team in their 2-0 loss to Desportivo Aves. While he only came into the game in the 83rd minute, he still had a great feeling to be getting his first minutes as a professional player.
"It was an amazing experience and it's what I've worked my whole life for, but it was just a small step in my career and I'm hoping for bigger things to come. I hope to have more playing time this year and help the team succeed and maybe get promoted," said Parks.
Since that first appearance, the Frisco Liberty High School alum has found himself playing more with the first team and even starting some games. While the team is currently in 18th place in the standings, Parks is taking everything in stride as he strives to make it to the highest level in soccer.
While Parks continues to grow and become a better player, he has also taken the time to look at the progress of other players. One of those players is Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Christian Pulisic. At only 18 years old, the Pennsylvania native is turning heads with his displays on the field for the German team.
What Pulisic has been doing is nothing but inspiring for Parks as he hopes someday he too can catch the attention of soccer fans.
"Christian Pulisic is an amazing player at such a young age and he's playing on the biggest stages in the world. It makes me believe as a fellow American that I can make it to the top clubs in the world and maybe play alongside him one day," he said. "So far in my career, I have just been under the radar and I'm hoping to get noticed in the near future."
Pulisic is not the only player that has inspired the midfielder. Parks also points to Spanish league giants Barcelona, who have produced some well-known players.
"Growing up I was a big fan of [Andres] Iniesta, Xavi, [Cesc] Fabregas, etc. because they are the best midfielders in the world. They all also played for Barcelona and I have always been a fan of their style of playing," said Parks. "I have tried to copy that style in the way I play. Also, I am 6'4" so unlike them I can be an asset in the air offensively and defensively."
Talking with Parks, one can tell he is a very determined young man who wants to be the best. He is slowly starting to make inroads at Varzim and if he continues to make progress, he could eventually be playing for one of the top teams in Portugal. This could also lead to him taking the next step, which is the international stage.
Parks has yet to receive a call-up to youth teams, but he is very confident that the call will come one day and he will be ready to contribute when it does happen.
"It is my dream to play for US national team, so getting noticed is a big deal for me. I know I can play at that level and would love an opportunity to prove myself," he said. "I have just been under the radar so far in my career. I'm a very technical and creative player and believe I would be a great asset to the national team."
"I believe that I have what it takes to be on the national team and I hope to have the opportunity to prove that."