USMNT Roster: Keaton Parks’ understanding of space with NYCFC should put him on Gregg Berhalter’s radar

New York City — Spacing is important to everything that Ronny Delia and New York City FC do. From Maxi Moralez floating into pockets to Talles Magno’s devastating dribbling and Valentine Castellano’s lethal finishing, players creating space makes NYCFC’s up tempo attack tick. It was on display during Sunday’s 3-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes, where Keaton Parks shined, scoring a goal. Given how the USMNT operates, and the players coach Gregg Berhalter does and doesn’t have at his disposal, performances like the one Parks put in on Sunday should at least have him on the United States men’s national team radar.

Few players on Deila’s team understand spacing on the pitch in the way that Parks does. Along with most of the team, Parks struggled to make an impact in the first half, barely touching the ball but after a formation shift by Delia, things changed in a big way.

Delia explained what happened after the match. “First of all, San Jose were really well organized. They were really hard to play against. This is the best opponent we’ve had in this stadium this season so far in my opinion, ” he said. “We had to be at our best, we had to be patient, we had to stay disciplined. It’s easy when you don’t take your chances in the first half to be stressed and lose organization. I think it was our best performance this year. At the break we changed the formation a little bit because the press was giving us some problems.” 

The shift that he speaks of is Parks and Santi Rodriguez operating as dual sixes with Moralez playing as a number ten. Parks then received the ball more from Alexander Callens and was able to spray passes forward while also working his way into the space that Magno created with his dribbling. These interchanges take both a strong understanding of your teammates and their tendencies as well as vision from Parks.

They also created the goal that he scored which was his second of the season to go along with two assists for NYCFC.

There’s a lot in common with that goal and how Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic interchange for the national team under Berhalter. While Parks isn’t an overly athletic midfielder like McKennie, you can see where the two players have similarities in picking and choosing their runs when space is provided. Noticing space to run into the hole that Magno created is an impressive piece of awareness from Parks.

Berhalter values what he calls “verticality,” so this is the kind of off ball movement, especially in set possessions that he appreciates from midfielders. In the pool of US eligible midfielders, there is a lack of players who can do this from deeper positions. Luca de la Torre is the most progressive dribbler of the fringe guys on the radar but he hasn’t displayed a wide range of passing when he can’t get into a good position with his feet. Parks is a different side of a similar coin.

While he isn’t as dynamic dribbling with the ball at his feet, Parks is able to make the ball travel into proper positions with accuracy as shown by his 89.3 passing success rate. Even on long passes (passes over 25 yards), Parks has a success rate of almost 90 percent. For only being 24 years of age, Parks has a good understanding of what he can and can’t do to properly pick his spots to play a ball forward or drop back to be a safety valve for his center backs.

Parks did this constantly during New York’s victory over San Jose on Sunday which is shown in the below passing map. Black arrows are completed passes while gray ones are unsuccessful passes.

Keaton Parks passing map versus San Jose Earthquakes
Major League Soccer

He also won two tackles and blocked a shot. He’s not a pure defensive midfielder who can or should sit alone like USMNT defensive mid extraordinaire Tyler Adams, but given the passing range he offers the question is can he offer enough defensive help to not be a liability. 

Parks also has had an interesting and unique career trajectory. He was born in Texas but then joined Varzim SC in the Portuguese second division in 2015 after turning 18. He debuted there in 2016, playing all over the midfield, and scoring two goals. This was enough to earn Parks a move to the first division with Benfica.

Parks only made four appearances for Benfica’s senior team and spent most of his time with Benfica B, but the attention to detail he gained from developing with the club shows in his game as he has been with NYCFC since 2019. It has helped him integrate into Delia’s technical system and thrive. With upcoming Nations League matches and friendlies during the summer, it would be a good time for Berhalter to see if Parks can add another technical system to his wheelhouse.

In the World Cup, being able to utilize dual defensive midfielders and have different options as a change of pace could be the difference between crashing out in the group stage and making it to the round of 16, especially considering the quality of competition that the United States could play. If Parks continues to impress, he could offer another tool to Berhalter’s arsenal moving forward.

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