Welcome to part four of the Summer Preseason Battle Preview. With European preseasons set to get under way in a few weeks, many young Americans will have opportunities to earn first team spots. I’ve already previewed the chances of Antonee Robinson, Matt Miazga and Josh Sargent. This time, we will focus on an American trying to make it in Portugal - Keaton Parks.
Parks is the exception to so many rules both on and off the field. He didn’t come from an MLS academy nor a USSDA despite growing up in the shadow of FC Dallas. He played high school soccer (a rarity among high level prospects) before moving to Portugal and signing with Varzim SC’s B team following his 18th birthday. Then Parks was noticed by Benfica after moving up to Varzim’s first team (who play in the second division in Portugal) during the 2016/2017 season. Parks moved to Benfica the following summer to join their B team. He came out of the gate on fire before head coach Rui Vitoria decided to give him an opportunity to train with the Benfica first team. Following the November 2017 international window, Parks earned his first appearance with the Portuguese giants just a few years removed from playing high school soccer in Texas. Parks would go on to appear six times in all competitions for them last season while also playing regularly for the B team (he recorded 6 goals and six assists for the B team). His strong debut campaign earned him an opportunity to compete for a regular first team spot this summer.
On the field, Parks is also surprising. It’s common to see big central midfielders playing deep to help protect the backline and win aerial battles. However, Parks doesn’t really fit that role yet. He’s at his best when he gets on the ball and dribbles forward to generate the attack. He has very nimble and quick feet as well as outstanding touch and vision. While Parks can certainly win in the air, it’s this ground ability that makes him an exciting player. Rui Vitoria reportedly sees Parks in a similar mold as Nemanja Matic once he develops more as a player. We’ll see if he can become that type of deep lying playmaker. He’ll have to continue to improve defensively if they want him to play as a 6.
Parks will have plenty of obstacles in his path to consistent first team football next season. Pizzi is one of the best players on Benfica’s team. He made 45 appearances last season in all competitions, scoring 6 goals and supplying 7 assists. Ljubomir Fejsa is coming off a strong season where he made 35 appearances in all competitions. Andreas Samaris made 25 appearances in all competitions, but he had an inconsistent year. All three of Pizzi, Fejsa, and Samaris are in the primes of their careers. Andrija Zivkovic is a versatile 21-year-old who can play on the wing but usually features centrally. Adel Taarabt returns following an 18-month loan to Genoa in Italy’s Serie A. He also can play on either wing as well as centrally. Brazilian Talisca returns from his loan at Besiktas where he was outstanding. Filip Krovinovic is another younger player who can play anywhere in midfield. However, he suffered an ACL tear last season so he won’t be available for some time. Erdal Rakip returns from a disastrous loan to Crystal Palace where he failed to appear for the first team and only made the bench twice.
Rui Vitoria seems to have held off the people asking for his head a bit longer following the poor season they had last year due to Benfica qualifying for the Champions League next season on the final matchday. That made the season at best bitter sweet. They were bounced out of the Champions League in the group stage. They were knocked out of both the Portuguese Cup and League Cup relatively early on. They also missed several opportunities to challenge Porto for the league title. While it’s a good thing that Vitoria seems to rate Parks, any major slips early in the season will increase the pressure on him. There will be ample opportunities to rotate the squad to give players like Parks a look, but many coaches tend to go with what they know best when they need results. That could work against the 20-year-old (he’ll be 21 in August) in this scenario. Regardless of the pressure on the team, Parks will have to take advantage of his chances when he gets them.
American fans could have a chance to see him in person next month. Benfica will be in the US taking part in the International Champions Cup this summer. They will face off against Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund (a Keaton Parks-Christian Pulisic duel could be lots of fun!), Juventus and Olympique Lyon. It will be interesting to see how he looks against these big name clubs. If he wants to see some Champions League minutes this fall, this would be a good chance for him to make his case.
Hit the comments section to discuss what you think about Parks’ chances for more first team ball with Benfica. Let’s wish him the best of luck as he prepares to fight for a consistent first team spot.