On Sept. 4, 2016, recently turned 19-year-old Keaton Parks did something he'd done thousands of times before: He ran onto a soccer field. This time, two things were different: One, Parks was officially a professional. And two, he was far from home. So very far.
Parks, born in Plano, Texas, wore the white-and-black stripes of Varzim SC, a club in Portugal's second division based in Povoa de Varzim, about 30 minutes north of Porto. After spending a season with the reserve squad, he worked his way to the first team and then, in the 83rd minute of a 2-0 loss to Aves, replaced Diego Barcelos, joining the ranks of Americans with at least one appearance for a European squad.
Success came quickly: two goals in his first two starts, a starting role and then a move to powerhouse Benfica in the summer of 2017. He made four appearances for the first team and 42 for Benfica B, scoring seven goals. The 36-time Primeira Liga winners liked what they saw, signing him through 2022.
Spurning college -- Parks had a scholarship offer to attend Southern Methodist University before deciding to head across the pond to try his luck -- to play for the reserves of a tiny second-division club isn't the traditional path for a teenager from the United States. For a kid who grew up in FC Dallas' backyard but didn't get noticed by the prestigious youth academy, taking the risk to further his fledgling footballing career made sense.
In the offseason, he took another leap: returning stateside on loan to New York City FC.
"I had some other offers both in Europe and the U.S., but overall, New York was the best one," Parks said during a break from training with the American under-23 squad in Spain.
The 6-foot-3 central midfielder cited the opportunity to learn from the coaching staff, both NYCFC manager Dome Torrent and Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, as a major reason for his decision. While he arrived to find a crowded midfield featuring Alex Ring, Maxi Moralez, Ebenezer Ofori, James Sands, Justin Haak and Juan Pablo Torres, only managing two minutes of game time in the young Major League Soccer season so far, Parks isn't the type of player to shy away from a challenge. Plus, the move is designed to further his career, not end it.
There's a fluidity between MLS and Europe in a way there wasn't in the past. Parks is on loan, which makes a return simpler, even the default, if nothing changes. But even if it does -- say he's sold to NYCFC at the end of this season -- then has another good year or two in MLS, he could return to Europe at 24. (And that's without getting into the maneuverings of and opportunities presented by City Football Group, which either owns or actively invests in teams all around the world.)
Ultimately, Parks knows that if he can find the field, eyes will find him.
"I definitely think MLS has grown a lot over the last few years with a lot of European players coming over," he says. "I think Europeans would be surprised with how the level compares."
There's also the visibility of national team duty. Parks has one senior cap, a substitute appearance against Bolivia in May 2018, and should be an important part of the U-23 group that's trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, all with an eye on going further.
"[The coaching staff is] definitely trying to have cohesion, even down to the younger youth national team," he says. "For our team, they are trying to get us ready not only for the Olympics and qualifying, but for the next step, the full men's national team. Jason [Kreis, U.S. U-23 manager] has been talking to us about what Gregg [Berhalter] wants from all his players. He's teaching us that as well as his own stuff. I would stay that our trainings are similar to the full national team."
With the U-23s, Parks operates primarily in the No. 8 role, but he's comfortable in the No. 6 or No. 10 as well. "I don't mind any of the central midfield position," he says. "I like to be on the ball." He's been focused on playing how Berhalter wants the full national team to play, the little things that make the No. 8's job different in his system than in others. In the first U-23 match against Egypt, Parks said that he and the entire squad struggled. A 0-0 draw against the Netherlands showed improvement; after all, this was an unfamiliar group of guys getting comfortable with each other quickly. Parks went 45 minutes in the opener and 84 in the second.
Then he returned to the U.S., back to his apartment in Fort Lee, N.J., just on the other side of the George Washington Bridge. He picked it because it's equidistant from NYCFC's training grounds and Yankee Stadium. He and Torres, who signed with Belgian first-division team Lokeren when he was 18, before joining NYCFC in January, share a Nissan Altima. It's not the flashiest car, but it'll do for now. They had not, Parks said, "tricked it out." It's a ride for function, not fashion.
The midfielder mentioned this detail while sitting in a hotel in Spain, close to the Portugal club that owns him and far away from his current home in New York City, the epitome of young professional athletes in the most global of sports. It's been quite a ride and one that shows no indication of slowing anytime soon. He's charting his path; others can follow his example if they choose.
"You don't necessarily have to go to a huge club," Parks says. "You can start small like I did and just work your way up. I think going to Europe and taking that risk was definitely important.
"It's worked out well so far."