Days after announcing Ronny Deila as its new manager, NYCFC took another step toward fortifying its team for the 2020 season by signing U.S. international midfielder Keaton Parks from Benfica–this time on a permanent basis. The 22-year-old Texas native officially signed a multi-year deal after a successful loan spell with the club last season, NYCFC revealed on Wednesday.
Parks is excited about returning to New York and further establishing his role as a key, dependable box-to-box midfielder for the club. Given it's an Olympic year and the U.S. men haven't reached that stage since 2008, he has an eye on that as well. It's a year full of ambitious goals for Parks, though he contends leaving his Portuguese club was a tough decision.
“It’s never easy to make a life decision, but for me right now it’s about playing time and stability, and of course New York City FC is a great club and I know all the players and staff and I’m really excited to get started with them again. All of that played a part in my decision in coming back,” Parks told SI.com.
Parks has a strong backing of the club's front office, with new sporting director David Lee lauding the 6-foot-3 central midfielder's abilities.
“We’re delighted to sign Keaton to a long-term contract that will keep him in New York City for the foreseeable future," said Lee, who took the reins from Claudio Reyna this offseason. "Getting Keaton back on a permanent basis was one of our main priorities, and we’re happy to complete the deal before the team leaves for preseason.
"He had a tremendous impact on our team last year and showed continued development throughout the 2019 season. He displayed his quality as a player on the pitch, and off it he was an incredible presence in our locker room.
“Keaton’s potential as a professional is extremely high. Having already made his debut for the U.S. national team, we believe that he has the capability to become a regular at that level if he continues to develop as he’s done throughout his career."
The one staff member Parks still needs to meet is perhaps the most important, as he prepares to work under Deila for preseason training. There's little time for Parks and the whole club to get acclimated, with its first Concacaf Champions League match against Costa Rican side San Carlos set for Feb. 20.
“He looks like a great manager, he has trophies under his belt, and I’m just excited to get started and to meet him and his staff,” said Parks, who is also eager to rejoin his teammates–specifically midfield partners Alex Ring and Maxi Moralez.
“I think Alex, me [and Maxi Moralez, too] are a great midfield partnership. It was difficult at the beginning [of 2019], as we didn’t know each other, but as the season went on you could tell we built more chemistry–with us as well as the rest of the team–and I think right now going back into the season with the same players, I think our chemistry is going to grow even more in preseason and we’re going to be ready for that first game.”
Parks made 22 MLS appearances (14 starts) last year and played a role in the club's first-place finish in the Eastern Conference in the regular season. The club eventually lost to Toronto FC in the conference semifinals, though, and Parks sees his return accompanied by some unfinished business.
“We had such a great season last year, and we knew the level of talent we had within the team and to get knocked out was difficult and less from what we deserved for sure," Parks said. "This year we’re going to go into it with the same mentality and same attitude and hopefully get to MLS Cup.”
Parks knows that this is also a crucial year for U.S. Soccer, with Olympic qualifying, the Concacaf Nations League semifinals, World Cup qualifying and–ideally–the Olympics all on the horizon, and he hopes his club performances translate to appearances on both national-team levels. He's had light experience with the senior national team and U-23s and faces stiff competition for a place on the Olympic qualifying team as Tokyo 2020 nears, but his personal goals remain big.
“This year I want to help the U-23 team get to the Olympics and then have a successful run in Tokyo.” said Parks, who was part of former NYCFC coach Jason Kreis's first U-23 roster last March but then fell out of the mix. “We have a very strong squad, a lot of players playing in Europe as well as MLS, and I think we have a lot of talent and have the capability of going far for sure. I’m really excited to get back with that team again and get to qualifying for Tokyo.”
Parks's ambitions extend to his now-permanent new home, too, as he looks to help NYCFC build its trophy collection.
“I think we have the capability to win MLS Cup for sure, U.S. Open Cup and even Concacaf Champions League," Parks said. "I know this is my first full season playing in the league, but from what I’ve seen and the talent that we have, I know we can go far.”