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The Bird is the Word: How Parks Became Central To NYCFC's Success
Keaton Parks has developed into one of the best central midfielders in MLS, but when is Gregg Berhalter going to finally give him his shot with the USMNT?
As NYCFC prepared for their pivotal 2021 regular season finale that would help determine playoff seeding, a shocking bit of injury news appeared out of the blue - Keaton Parks would miss the next match, the playoffs, and potentially longer with a blood clot that required surgery.
For any NYCFC fan this was terrible news - Parks had been the best performer on the team through the later part of the season, and had established himself as one of the best midfielders in the league. For The Outfield, it was also tragic as the vast bulk of this article had been written and was in line for publication that very next day.
While he missed the entire preseason and has had a clear minutes limitation in start 2022, it looks like Parks is close to being back to the same player that he was last season. His initial games have left him at 3rd among all CMs and DMs in Goals Added (G+) per 96 minutes in 2022 suggesting his ability has not declined due to the injury.
Parks has always been an enigma as a player. He spent his early career on the high school fields of Plano and the second division of Portugal, and only truly committed fans would even have been able to see him play.
Coaches seemed to struggle with what to do with the tall midfielder, shifting him through multiple midfield positions as he moved from team to team. With Benfica, he began as an attacking midfielder feeding assists to Joao Felix, then became a holding midfielder the next season tasked with dropping between center backs in the buildup. U20 USYNT head coach Tab Ramos even tried him at center back in Parks’ lone U20 camp callup.
The talent was always there, but the consistency and stability needed to show that talent were not. It took some time to establish himself, but after a solid run in the 2019 US Open Cup, he has been a key fixture for NYCFC. Since then, he evicted club captain Alex Ring from first a starting role then the team on the way to being the best midfielder on the best team in the league.
G+ reveals the level of quality that Keaton brings to the table. He ranks among the best holding midfielders in MLS since 2013, alongside notable players like Joao Paulo. He is remarkably consistent, racking up positive performances while rarely having a poor game. Less than 10% of his career performances have been in the bottom 25th percentile of MLS performances, while in 2021 almost 60% of his performances exceeded the 75th percentile. But what exactly makes him a special player? The G+ metric may love his game, but what is driving that?
As one of the most aggressive teams in possession in MLS, NYCFC thrives on quick progressive play to move the ball into their opponent’s defensive third and then presses heavily to keep the ball there. Parks fits into the game plan perfectly as an aggressive passer and carrier of the ball. He combines being one of the best progressive midfielders in the league with an ability to play under intense pressure.
Parks is unique in his approach to the role of a deep lying playmaker. The role brings a certain kind of player to mind, like former Pigeon Andrea Pirlo - the classic “regista” sitting deep behind the forward line and playing beautiful switches all over the field. In essence, the role is that of a quarterback dropping back and directing the offense from a protected position. Parks breaks free from the mold and approaches the role of a holding midfielder much differently.
The most defining feature of Parks in possession is his relentless and efficient elimination of defenders whether through his passing, carrying, or receiving. He doesn’t need to play long balls over the top to do so. Instead, he uses a staccato passing game making short passes quickly and constantly moving to get into better positions to receive the ball.
Keaton’s technical skill and passing accuracy is unquestionable. He can fit the ball into tight windows with ease, even under pressure. While he is able to hit the big switch and change the point of attack, his primary focus is involving himself in the intricate possession play of NYCFC.
When given space, he attacks it with the ball at his feet forcing the defense to shift. This draws additional pressure and frees up space for his teammates to exploit. He doesn’t look like a player who can dribble smoothly, but he passes challengers with ease. He often will beat one or two players on the ground and find himself in space in the final third, ready to break down the last lines of defense.
He also makes himself available for return passes, using wall passes to gain separation and break into space where he can continue his run or play in a teammate. Here’s a short play where he breaks Santos de Guapiles down quite easily, using his array of skills to draw pressure and open space for teammates:
The effortless combination of multiple skills makes him difficult to press. Despite being the most pressured player on NYCFC and 19th in MLS for overall share of pressures faced, he is still one of the most progressive players in the league. When not on the field, it is clear that NYCFC struggles to connect the buildup phase to the final third, and Parks has become crucial to the continued success of the team.
The varied experience Parks has acquired through his career has paid off in versatility. For Varzim, Benfica, and NYCFC he has cycled through all three 4-3-3 midfield positions and has extensive experience with 3 man back lines as well.
In 2019 and 2020, he was often used to make up for the lack of depth in the attacking midfield. In 2021, as Maxi Moralez has been on the field more consistently and with the arrival of Santiago Rodriguez, he has not been called on to attack as frequently. Despite this, he is comfortable in the final third, able to seamlessly join NYCFC’s attack as another creative force.
In the attacking phase, Parks likes to sit at the edge of the attacking third in support. From there, he will either receive the ball and play interior passes to the forwards, wide passes to the attacking fullbacks, or make brief carries past pressure before playing in a teammate.
Frequently he will join an attacking move along either sideline to create the up-back-through pattern that NYCFC uses to break pressure. Although he is not the primary creator for NYCFC, he still creates chances at a high level with his tight passing through the lines or disruptive carries. As he sits deep, he can also win the ball in the air to create transition opportunities for his teammates.
One of Parks’ standout traits is his off the ball movement. He is constantly looking to exploit space. In the final third this often takes the form of aggressive runs from deep. He has an excellent understanding of when to leave the space and attack the box, which can break his opponents’ defensive organization. His work off the ball opens space for his teammates as well.
When Parks came into the league, his defense was a problem. He was lanky and lacked the physical strength to compete with veteran opponents. His positioning and decision-making off the ball made him appear slower than he was, and his fitness levels meant that he could fade late into games. This has unfairly defined the general public perception of his game; he’s often said to be a poor defender or unathletic even as his overall skill level has improved.
It’s clear that he has worked on that side of the game. According to Second Spectrum, he was in the top 25% in MLS for ground covered per 96 in 2021 and was just above the average CM for top sustained speed at 8.86 m/s. Any concerns about his range or physical ability are simply not valid.
His defensive stats show a willingness to get involved in the dirty work as well as greatly improved 1v1 defending. Parks is among the top players in the league for his ability to disrupt dribblers who try to beat him off the dribble, yet they attempt to do so often. Parks’ long legs and increased strength have made him extremely difficult to pass in the open field; less than half of the players that have attempted to dribble past him have succeeded. Parks is one of just 5 midfielders in MLS to have accomplished that feat in 2021.
His read of the game allows him to intercept the ball in the final third frequently. As he sits at the top of the attacking move, he acts as a center fielder, tracking down aerial balls in his area and making a play on them. His physical attributes and technical attributes combine to help him bring down a 50/50 ball and then control it before making a play on the ball.
After making a defensive play, whether it’s winning a ball or fielding an interception, he instantly looks to turn defense into offense and take advantage of his opponent in transition.
One significant improvement has been a significant difference in the intensity Parks has developed in his game. When Parks first arrived at NYCFC, his standout attribute was his composure. He was always calm, playing with the same measured coolness regardless of where he was on the field. He’s maintained the relaxed approach on the ball but has turned up the intensity in his game when the team needs it.
The increased defensive ability, intensity, and fitness have meant he is more often relied on to manage opposing counterattacks. He’s effective in this role; in 2021, despite the aggressive NYCFC style that leaves space to counterattack, NYCFC gave up the fifth fewest xGA in the league from opponent fastbreaks.
When NYCFC had Keaton on the field they gave up 0.05 fewer xGA per 90 minutes than when they did not. What’s more, in the middle third of the field, inside the flanks - zones 12-19 on American Soccer Analysis’ Team Goals Added - NYCFC was the best in MLS for both Goals Added For and Against. That’s Parks’ prime location, and NYCFC owned it last season. It’s clear that not only is he a competent defender, he’s unexpectedly become a very good one.
His physicality has also improved his aerial game. At 6’4.5”, he’s always been a towering presence, but aerial duels are about intelligence and positioning as much as sheer height. Watch how he smothers Brenner to win this aerial challenge and deftly direct the ball towards the side of goal where the goalkeeper has no chance to make a play. His ability on set pieces means he is an extra threat to be accounted for whenever NYCFC has a corner or free kick near the goal.
According to American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added metric, Landon Donovan is the best American to play more than 2000 minutes in MLS since 2013. With a career G+ Above Average per 96 of 0.11, few could argue his outsized impact on the field. Another legend, Clint Dempsey, is third - narrowly trailing Parks.
It is shocking that despite three seasons at levels higher than 95% of the players to lace up in MLS, Parks still has yet to earn his first USMNT callup since moving to NYCFC. In fact, he couldn’t even get a look with the U23s, a team that crashed out of Olympic qualifying and was let down by truly terrible midfield play.1
With an international manager, the benefit of the doubt is somewhat warranted in personnel decisions. After all, they have their own goals in squad selection and need to balance a number of different concerns, and the long-term plan comes before any one player. At the same time, since Parks is consistently near the top of MLS, it’s hard to justify the lack of even a single camp callup, much less lack of communication in general. Keaton Parks has developed into one of the most complete central midfielders in MLS, but when is Gregg Berhalter going to give him his shot with the USMNT?
The midfield position is hardly set; aside from Tyler Adams, none of the players in that deeper-lying role have made it their own. There are also significant question marks regarding the depth behind McKennie and Musah, an area where Keaton has plenty of experience. It’s impossible to know if Parks can come in and compete right away, but it’s beyond time for Gregg Berhalter to bring him in and let him show what he can do in the system.
Parks is incredibly strong in off ball movement, progressive play, and creativity, which has been lacking throughout World Cup Qualifying and will be vital to earn points in Qatar. With Nations League approaching this could be an opportunity for Parks to showcase his skills at a higher level.
At 24 years old, Parks is at a crucial point in his development. For all the recent success MLS has enjoyed in sending teenagers to Europe, they have sent relatively few who are closer to the middle of their careers. Players like Cristian Roldan, Memo Rodriguez, or even Jordan Morris have years of excellent performances in MLS but never moved on to greater challenges.
Keaton can spearhead the movement of more established players into European leagues. Based on the success of other MLS products, it’s not unreasonable to believe Parks could comfortably transition to a good team in a top five league or a Champions League contender in a smaller league. Keaton’s time is now - we’re all along for the ride. ❧
Image: John James Audubon, Great White Heron (1835)