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Keaton Parks and Recreation

The data show that the NYCFC midfielder is among the best in MLS, and deserves a shot at the USMNT

Keaton Parks is one of the best payers in MLS, and one the most under-appreciated outside of New York City.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy NYCFC.coc

When Djordje Mihailovic pulled out of the latest United States national team camp because of injury, Keaton Parks felt like the most obvious replacement.

Of the domestic-based players not called up for this roster, he was perhaps the most notable omission given his form.

Parks, who hails from Plano, Texas, received his first and only USMNT call-up back in 2018 when he was still playing in Portugal for Benfica’s B team, but his performances for New York City FC have put him back on the national team radar of many fans and, you’d think, those in charge of selection.

But they decided not to call up a replacement for Mihailovic at all. It’s a missed opportunity with a FIFA World Cup around the corner — one at which it now seems increasingly unlikely Parks will be present.

Five months is a long time in football though, and there’s confidence in the Bronx (and indeed in Queens) that Parks can maintain this form under interim head coach Nick Cushing, and possibly bring a call up from Berhalter.

What’s so good about Parks?

Major League Soccer is a league that likes its awards, its arbitrary rankings, its MVP candidates after one game, its players of the week. Despite this, you won’t see Parks’s name in many of these. He’s not a player who will top the rankings for specific stats, from goals and assists to more advanced data, but he does rank highly in a number of areas which are evidence of a good, or even great, all-around game.

You watch him play and you can see him doing a bit of everything. You could imagine him playing as a wide forward from the left, but at the same time, you could also picture him playing in the center of the defense.

In New York he’s found a midfield role in a two, usually alongside Alfredo Morales, in Ronny Deila’s 4-2-3-1 formation — a shape you’d guess will continue to be used by interim head coach Nick Cushing following Deila’s departure.

From this position, he can be seen playing all types of passes, from short build-up work to long-range crossfield switches of play. In more advanced areas he also has an eye for a through ball. Parks is able to get his team up the pitch through his passing, but also via his ability to use his size and a burst of speed to carry the ball past opponents in midfield.

He seems to like being pressured as it gives him the opportunity to pass around players or turn and carry the ball past them. He uses his 6-foot 4-inch frame effectively to hold off defenders, and it also makes him useful if not brilliant in the air. It’s also handy when it comes to battling in defense as part of his job to protect the back four.

There’s no doubt he needs to tidy a few things up, make sure he’s constantly switched on in defense and try to improve his confidence on his left foot, but this already looks set to be another breakout season for Parks if last season wasn’t that already prior to his untimely injury ahead of the playoffs.

It’s in the data

Some players can take some time to build up a distinctive heatmap when it’s viewed on a seasonal basis rather than for an individual game, but not Parks. His heatmap below, from SofaScore, for the 2022 MLS season so far already shows plenty of action in both halves.

Keaton Parks heatmap - MLS 2022
Keaton Parks heatmap - MLS 2022

The busier areas in his own half are indicative of his role in a double pivot in the 4-2-3-1, and the SmarterScout actions map below shows in more detail what he’s doing in these areas.

Attacking from left to right, it demonstrates Parks’ all-around game including passing, dribbling (purple squares), and shooting (white squares).

The yellow boxes in his own half once again show his tendency to play long passes from deep, switching play to wings near the final third. His long pass success is currently over 80% for the first time in his career.

Keaton Parks actions map - MLS 2022
Keaton Parks actions map - MLS 2022 as a deep-lying midfielder.

Digging deeper into the more advanced stats alluded to earlier, Parks’s FBref scout report has him above the 90th percentile among midfielders in the league this season for many shooting metrics, long pass completion, passes into the penalty area, progressive passes, passes under pressure, and dribbles completed.

He’s actually top among central midfielders who play the deeper role when it comes to goal-creating actions (includes passes, dribbles, fouls won, etc.)

The visualization below shows the FBref data in radar form. The largest value, at the edge of each section, is the highest number recorded by a central midfielder in MLS this season for each stat. The middle of the radar is the lowest recorded. Parks’s performance is shaded in blue.

Keaton Parks radar MLS 2022
Keaton Parks radar MLS 2022

Not all passes are created equal

Though FBref data doesn’t rank Parks right in the upper echelons for pass completion (88% is still very good) based on the basic passes attempted vs passes completed data, expected pass (xPass) data on American Soccer Analysis (ASA) ranks Parks as the best in the league in terms of passes completed above expectation.

He’s making the types of passes players might not be expected to make more often than anyone else in MLS. This again suggests high risk but high reward passing which contributes to those good progressive passing numbers, and shows that a lot of his work is done under pressure in busy areas of the pitch.

FBref also has Parks above the 91st percentile as a “pass target,” meaning teammates will regularly look for him when they have the ball, especially in the buildup. This is reinforced by SmarterScout’s Style Ratings, which support what we already know but further highlight his attacking output and ability to get into space to receive the ball.

Keaton Parks SmerterScout style ratings
Keaton Parks SmarterScout style ratings

Despite saying earlier that Parks is never top of any rankings, we have found a couple of areas courtesy of ASA’s xPass and FBref’s goal creation data where he actually emerges as the best in MLS (for the former) and the best in his position (latter).

It might be obvious to anyone who watches NYCFC regularly that Parks is strong in these areas, but the data and the visuals help paint a picture of this, showing he passes the stats test as well as the eye test.

Does this sound like the type of player the USMNT might need? Surely it does.

But for the moment Parks will continue to be most appreciated by the MLS Cup champions as he looks set to play a key role in continuing the team’s attractive style of play and push for success under Cushing.