Jeff Parke woke up every morning for a month in a small 12-by-12 hotel room wondering when his chance would come.
It felt like a prison cell, both literally and figuratively.
It was November of 2009 and he hit rock bottom.
He missed his family. He missed his girlfriend. He missed the feeling of being at home. More than anything, though, he missed the feeling of competing week-in and week-out.
Trapped in a world where he wasn’t sure who he could trust his future with, Parke woke up each morning hoping that all of his hard work wouldn’t be thrown away because of a simple mistake.
Now, he’s on the other end of that spectrum, starting at center back for the red-hot Sounders FC and sporting a 2010 US Open Cup championship on a team now preparing to go on what is hoped to be a deep run in the playoffs and add an MLS Cup to their trophy case.
How he fell so far, and subsequently climbed back to the top, is a story of bull-headed determination – a blessing and a curse for the 28-year-old Pennsylvania native.
A five-year veteran with the New York Red Bulls who was garnering respect around the league as a top-flight MLS defender, Parke was gearing toward the 2008 playoffs when he was called by the league office.
On October 16, 2008, Parke and goalkeeper Jon Conway were suspended for ten games and fined ten percent of their salaries by MLS for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs that were found in an over-the-counter supplement they each had taken.
Parke hoped to find the backing of the club, but instead found himself on his own to fight the perception that he was a cheater. The reality was far from that perception.
Feeling betrayed by the only club and league he’d played for, he wasn’t sure exactly where he’d play his next match, but he knew he didn’t want it to be in MLS.
So began his year-and-a-half in self-inflicted exile.
The Sounders FC selected him in the expansion draft, but because of his ill-will toward MLS, he wanted to pursue other opportunities. So he went to Belgium, where he tried out with three teams. However, the advice given to him by his then-agent led him to two clubs who couldn’t use him and a third who was on the brink of relegation and, according to players on the team who had talked with Parke, was not a great place to play anyway.
At that point, in March of 2009, he went to Seattle, but when a contract couldn’t be reached, he instead signed a short-term contract with the Vancouver Whitecaps to buy him some time before taking another run at playing in Europe.
He played 11 games with the Whitecaps and enjoyed his time there, but ultimately, it wasn’t the best fit for him, so he went to France, where he was offered a contract with a second-division club. However, he wasn’t comfortable in the countryside of France, so he returned home to Pennsylvania. He continued a rigorous workout schedule while waiting for a call from his agent. When that call came, he knew he had to be ready to impress.
On November 2, that opportunity arose. Or so he thought.
Teams in Germany would be looking to sign a player of his skill and ability, his agent told him. Just get to Germany and the rest would be taken care of.
He flew to Kaiserslautern and made his home for the next month and a half in a hotel that was a converted jail. His room consisted of a bed, a desk and a toilet. It was, for all intents and purposes, a prison cell.
“When you’re waiting on your dream, you’re hoping that something comes along, but that’s what I had to go through,” Parke said. “I look back on it now and I’m an idiot. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that again. It was long. Once I got settled I could look back and say that it’s a road I didn’t want to take, but you could tell everyone how not to take it. I’ve been through some uncertain times when people didn’t believe in me and I had to believe in myself and prove myself. Every day it killed me to have to tell the people around me that I wasn’t sure when I would be home or if I would be playing. They felt my pain and knew that I deserved more.”
More, for Parke, was waiting for him in Seattle as soon as he was willing to swallow a bit of pride and bury his grudge with MLS.
“I hold onto things too long and I realize that now, but at the time I couldn’t see the positives of the situation - Seattle wanted me on their team,” Parke said.
A contract was finally reached in Seattle in May, right as the Sounders were entering their toughest stretch of games. Even still, it took some time to settle in. Still staying at a hotel near the Sounders training grounds at Starfire in Tukwila, Parke was living out of a suitcase and eating the breakfast buffet every morning.
Once his girlfriend relocated to Seattle and the two got an apartment, things started to get easier for Parke. And it reflected on the field. Thrust into a starting role when Jhon Kennedy Hurtado suffered a season-ending knee injury, Parke was adjusting to his new teammates while regaining his form from his days with the Red Bulls. But just getting back to where he was when Seattle selected him in the expansion draft wasn’t enough.
“In my heart, I wanted to be better than when I last played. I didn’t want to pick up where I left off, but get better. That was ultimately what I was thinking,” he said. “Seattle gave me that chance, the opportunity to play the way I am capable of playing.”
If the Sounders seemed to show a lot of faith in Parke, it was for good reason. Technical director Chris Henderson played with Parke in New York in 2006 and thought that he might have been the best player available in the expansion draft. Asked to describe Parke’s playing style, Henderson elaborates on a perfectly constructed center back – “very athletic, believes in his abilities, good man-marker, he reads situations well, he can jump through the roof, good speed” - while noting that he still had room for improvement.
Even over the course of the 2010 season, Parke has shown dramatic improvements. Take the matchup with Colorado as an example. In Colorado on May 29, Conor Casey got the best of Parke on a game-deciding play for the only goal of the match. In the rematch July 25, Casey was visibly frustrated by the lockdown defense imposed by Parke and Patrick Ianni.
Forward Nate Jaqua squared off against Parke several times while Jaqua was with the Chicago Fire. Like in Casey’s case, they were often heated matchups, but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment Jaqua got in playing against him – nor in the relief he got in learning that they’d be on the same side.
“It was fun battling against him, but I definitely like having him on my team more,” said Jaqua. “He’s always been a very good player and very smart. He never looks like he’s using maximum effort, but he always gets there in front of the guy. He’s smart positionally and does exactly what he needs to do.”
He’s got a ruggedness to him as well that goes beyond his five o’clock shadow that seems a permanent fixture. When racing back to attempt to stop Dwayne De Rosario in a match against Toronto FC on October 2, Parke dislocated a finger on his left hand. With his hand pointed one way and his finger pointing another, he waited on the field for the trainer. When the trainer told him that he would need the team physician to reset his finger before he could tape it, Parke asked them to hurry so he could get back on the field.
Minutes later, he assisted on Seattle’s first goal in a 3-2 win.
After the match, head coach Sigi Schmid and goalkeeper Kasey Keller laughed and downplayed the incident, but still Keller points to Parke as one of the key elements in transforming the fortunes of the Sounders FC season.
“He really, since the World Cup break, has been a stalwart in the back for us and that’s a big reason why we’ve been on the run that we’re on,” Keller said, going on to echo the compliments of Henderson. “You could see that rustiness, but he’s very fast, he’s good in the air, he’s a good passer of the ball.”
Either way, Parke is making up for a lost year with his play for the Sounders in 2010. And with the playoffs just two weeks away, it couldn’t come at a better time for a team that is suddenly becoming a chic pick to go far in the playoffs.
“It is redemption. After spending a year off, it just feels good to play. This is a good group of guys, a great team, a good coaching staff and a great city that appreciates soccer,” Parke said. “It’s been a great ride so far and I hope it keeps going.”