By JOSE M. ROMERO
To hear Jeff Parke tell it, everything he went through to get to today just made him a stronger person.
It was all worth it when he looked up into the stands at Qwest Field earlier this month and saw 31,000 people celebrating the Seattle Sounders' U.S. Open Cup championship, with Parke in the lineup at center back. Parke had a moment, the realization hitting him that he was playing for the most supported club in the United States.
"This is where I want to be," Parke said.
Parke is a starting defender for the playoff-bound Sounders, a major part of a largely anonymous but effective back line. The thing is, he could have been a part of the Sounders' magical first season long before the team ever took the field for its first Major League Soccer match. He could have been living the dream and living in vibrant downtown Seattle with his girlfriend and being recognized by hardcore Sounders fans in the streets even before now. But Parke, now 28, had another dream, and he tried to follow it.
After the Sounders plucked Parke from the New York Red Bulls in the 2008 MLS Expansion Draft, he decided the time was right for him to seek a playing opportunity with a first-division club in Europe, so he opted not to sign with Seattle and go to Europe. With no offers at that level, Parke came back to North America and signed on with the United Soccer Leagues' Vancouver Whitecaps, were he played from April until the end of July 2009.
Then it was off to France to try out for a second-division team that offered him a contract, with Parke still holding out hope for a deal with a bigger club. But Parke felt isolated, far from a major city, and he returned to the United States in August.
"I felt like there could be something, but there was nothing," Parke said.
In early November he went to Kaiserslautern, Germany, on his own dime, but couldn't even get a look from the city's second-division club. He spent several weeks living in a hotel and working out on his own, not even able to train at the team's facility.
"I did everything 'Rocky' style," Parke recalled. "I did yoga and tried to kill time."
Parke returned home to the Philadelphia area for the holidays, and in late January of this year he was invited back to Seattle.
Then the MLS collective bargaining negotiations and impending work stoppage delayed his second round of contract talks with the team and league. Parke joined the Sounders for preseason training and games in Spain, but he turned down another Sounders' offer and headed to Dusseldorf, Germany, for another opportunity. Five days later he was on his way home.
From August 2009 to April of this year, Parke made no money playing soccer.
"The last two years have been brutal," Parke said. "On top of that, no one wanted to take a chance with me because of the banned-substance thing. Everyone that gave me a shot did it as a favor to my agent."
MLS suspended Parke for 10 games in October, 2008, after he tested positive for using a performance-enhancing drug. He said that the positive test was triggered by something in an over-the-counter supplement he took.
Parke learned his lesson as far as trying out for teams.
"Wherever you go, you have to have it set that you're really going to get a look," he said. "Especially as a defender.
"It was a life lesson, and it just taught me how to be stronger."
And then, a breakthrough. Parke made amends with the Sounders and MLS and accepted a lower contract offer than what the league originally gave him in 2008. He signed with the Sounders in early May, and as circumstance would have it, All-Star defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado suffered a season-ending knee injury shortly after Parke signed.
Parke was forced into the starting lineup against Colorado after not playing a real game in almost a year. He wasn't even match-fit yet.
But he was thankful for what he had.
Parke had nothing but good things to say about the Sounders management despite the difficult negotiations. He's played in 20 MLS matches, 24 in all competitions, since joining the team, and he is expected to take his position on the field on Halloween Night when the Sounders host the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal matchup.
"I'm thankful for everything they gave me. Even after I left twice, they fought for me," Parke said. "Seattle could have gave me more [money], but they were going to go to bat for me as much as they could."
"It was never bad blood," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "He was making a decision he felt was right. A professional development decision for him. His opportunities didn't pan out, but we never closed the door."
Hurtado is aching to play again. But the timetable on a full re-attachment of his torn knee tendon is six months after surgery, and Hurtado hasn't hit that point yet since his surgery was in early June.
"We have to slow him down," Schmid said. "In his mind he thinks he can play tomorrow."
That means Hurtado won't play at all until next season, and Parke is in as long as the Sounders can last in the playoffs. Parke, who labeled this season as a "rebuilding" year for him personally, had the benefit of getting back in shape through real games, not in scrimmages or training.
"Things ended up being good for us and for him," Schmid said. "There were probably a couple of games that were too big for him, but…he was out there."
Parke happily accepted his $3,500 share of the Sounders' Open Cup prize money. Now he hopes to win enough favor with his bosses that they decide to protect him from being chosen in next month's expansion draft.