Keaton Parks is an MLS Cup champion. The New York City FC midfielder has the ring to prove it.
Yet because of a blood clot in his leg that required surgery, he watched from the stands as his team battled through the playoffs last season.
“I was sitting with the families, with my wife,” Parks told Newsday regarding last year’s Eastern Conference final in Philadelphia. “I think I get more nervous sitting in the stands watching the team than I do when I get to play.”
In that case, Parks’ nerves should remain at bay Sunday when NYCFC returns to Philadelphia for another Eastern Conference final against the Union. The 25-year-old is in the rotation this time around, returning from a second clot surgery over the summer to appear in NYCFC’s final four regular season games and both of its playoff victories.
“Of course we win as a team, we played the whole season so we all win, but I think it definitely feels different being on the field and being part of these playoff games already,” Parks said. “So I hope we can repeat just to see that feeling from my own perspective on the field. I hope we can do that again.”
Parks has dealt with a handful of ailments since arriving as a loanee from Portuguese giant Benfica in 2019. None were as poorly timed, or significant, as the blood clot last fall. After making 28 starts in 31 appearances during the 2021 regular season, he no longer could contribute at the most important time.
It was a situation he was unfamiliar with.
“I’ve been sidelined with a couple of injuries but nothing as serious as what I had last year and this year again,” Parks said. “So it sucked, it was way different. It’s one thing to really still be part of the team and be able to be on the bench or whatever it is, but I wasn’t training or anything like that. So it was different and hopefully never have to experience that again.”
While Parks may have felt far from the action, NYCFC interim coach Nick Cushing said his motivation and encouragement to teammates was a “huge part” of their success last postseason. In these playoffs, Parks has shown value as a substitute, coming on to help finish off Inter Miami CF in the first round, then entering for an injured Maxime Chanot early on in a semifinal win over CF Montreal.
“Really hungry to play a part, whether that’s coming off the bench for 10 minutes or going in after 14 minutes like Keaton did,” Cushing told Newsday. “He played really well in the game, but I think the good part is there’s a real hunger and desire for him, and if we need Keaton in the game for whatever reason, he can go in and be a really key offensive player, and he can go in and be a really good defensive player.”
The time on the side wasn’t pleasant, but it did teach Parks at least one thing — playoff soccer still is soccer.
“These games, we definitely get more excited, have more adrenaline, it’s definitely a little more tense, but you have to treat it like a normal game,” Parks said. “We want to win every game, we want to play our best football, so we just go out and treat it like a normal game and rely on the preparation we do.”