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NYCFC’s Keaton Parks the product of training environment that stressed freedom, creativity

“Did I know he was going to be 6-3? No, but he turned into a 6-3 player with the skills of the guy who is 5-7.”

Keaton Parks was told to "dribble, dribble, dribble" and "keep it, keep it, keep it" by his youth coach in Texas. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In 2007, 10-year old Keaton Parks walked onto the field prior to kickoff at Pizza Hut Park holding the hand of former FC Dallas defender Clarence Goodson.

Parks would soon thereafter define his future aspirations.

“He said to me when he was 11 that he wanted to be a professional player,” Armando Pelaez told Pro Soccer USA. “You may not believe this, but I knew he could be a pro at 9.”

Pelaez was Parks’ youth coach from age 8 through 18 and will reunite with his former pupil when New York City FC visits FC Dallas Sunday.

Pelaez remains in close contact with the 22-year-old Benfica transfer, who is expected to make his 13th start and 22nd appearance. While prospering as a regular at the moment, Parks’ first season at NYCFC began sluggishly with just 55 minutes logged in his initial 14 matches with the club.

“I said to him, ‘You’re not playing, huh?’” Pelaez said. “I said to him, ‘patience, patience.’ We laughed because all my life I have said to him,’ patience.’”

“Since the time I was a little kid, he (Pelaez) knew that I wanted to play,” Parks said. “He pushed me really hard and I stuck with it and he’s still a big influence in my life right now.”

Now at 6-foot-3, it is difficult to envision Parks’ frame before his junior year at Liberty High School in Frisco.

“He was 5-feet, then 5-5,” Pelaez said, describing Parks between eight and 14 years old. “No one was paying attention to him and I said that this is the best player right now in the country at this age.  Somebody told me, ‘seriously, look at the kid.’ I am looking at what the kid will be in three years. I took him three times to the satellite training center for the national teams and they didn’t pay attention to him.”

Then, between his sophomore and junior year at high school, the Frisco, Texas native was sprouting between classes. He grew 10 inches.

“Did I know he was going to be 6-3?” Pelaez said. “No, but he turned into a 6-3 player with the skills of the guy who is 5-7.”

And those techniques that are readily visible in the midfield for New York City were developed in an environment of few restrictions.

“He always wanted us to experiment and try stuff out and try dribbling and try to make the hard pass,” Parks said. “He gave us a lot of freedom.”

“Everybody on all the teams around the complex here were yelling at their kids – coaches and parents – ‘pass the ball, pass the ball,” the Venezuelan said. “I would tell my kids, ‘dribble, dribble, dribble – keep it, keep it, keep it.’ Don’t listen to what the people are telling you from the outside because you are the player. Do whatever you think you need to do. Look for the spaces and whenever you need to pass the ball, you’ll pass the ball.”

Pelaez, who trained Gio Savarese, Clint Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez and Eddie Johnson across the years, said he provided autonomy but simultaneously demanded perfection.

“I’d get all over him (Parks) when he was little,” Pelaez said. “We won a game, 2-0 and he scored both goals and he asked me how he did. I said, ‘very bad.’ The parents called me and say he came home crying. Well, he asked me and I said he didn’t do good because he told me that he had scored two goals and that was enough – but he missed seven passes.”

Ultimately, Parks appreciated the feedback which helped channel him to a professional career.

“He would always get on us for bad positioning or if our passing was bad,” Parks said. “But it was always important to try new things and find out what works before you get to the professional level. He gave us that freedom.”

Which has facilitated tranquility in the moments of chaos on the pitch for NYCFC.

“He’s never nervous,” New York City coach Dome Torrent said. “Sometimes you have to say to him be careful because he plays in the same way in our box.”

While those moments may cause angst among the coaching staff and supporters, those scenarios are conventional for the U.S. U-23 player.

“Growing up, all of our trainings we played in small spaces and I learned really well how to do one touch, two touch and keep the ball and be confident in tight spaces,” Parks said. “So yeah, I’m in our defensive box and it’s a little more nerve wracking. I feel like I’m pretty calm on the ball and I’m pretty confident when I’m aware of who’s around me.”

Pelaez said that Parks has the rare soccer commodity of 360-degree vision and as a youth player was forced into uncomfortable moments in matches where winning was deemed secondary.

“The parents were pulling their hair out because I would tell the kids to play the ball back to the goalkeeper,” said Pelaez, the director of the American Academy of Soccer in Dallas. “I would force them to keep the ball in the back and if we get a goal against, I would tell them don’t worry, it’s my fault. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to feel that sensation of pressure when you have eight guys on top of you and you don’t know what you are going to do with the ball.

“I told them to keep the ball inside the box on purpose. Just keep it there – drive them crazy and knock the ball around, keep it there for five minutes. Are you able to do it? That’s why when you see Keaton inside the area he will not panic. I’ve lost games, I’ve won games but it really did not matter about the result.”

The results for NYCFC with Parks as a regular have been impressive. City is 11-2-1 when he is in the XI although Parks received a good deal of verbal friendly fire from teammates when he failed to score his first career goal until the equalizing strike in a recent 2-1 over the San Jose Earthquakes.

“You think that the team was teasing him? You don’t know what I was telling him,” Pelaez said. “I told him I don’t understand how it is possible that he had not scored. Because Keaton has been a scorer all his life.”

Which included nine professional goals in Portugal before his arrival in the Bronx and MLS.

Pelaez, a former professional player, organized trials at seven clubs in Europe for Parks from the time he was 16.

“Each one of them wanted him and all of them said he is a very special player,” Pelaez said. “Nobody was able to see that here.”

Parks signed with second division side Varzim before agreeing to a deal with Benfica where he made four appearances for the first team – but none after 2017. He is signed through 2022 with the Portuguese giants and is on a one-year loan with New York City.

“I can tell you he loves New York,” said Pelaez who was on scholarship at LIU-Brooklyn in 1981. “And you guys have seen Keaton playing but you REALLY haven’t seen him yet. He is not at the top of his game – yet.”

Pelaez then placed a reminder about the primary factor in the development of Keaton Parks before welcoming him home this weekend.

“A lot of the coaches here will tell you everything you need to do and if don’t do it they will bench you,” he said. “What you see with Keaton is the product of my guidance. I did not want to destroy his creativity. I guided him instead of telling him. I guided him without messing up the diamond that I had. I let him be.”

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