Jeff Parke was been given many labels throughout his career:
Defender of the Year
Hall of Famer
But the name that carried the most weight during the dawn of his professional career—Mr. Irrelevant.
Following Parke’s illustrious career at Drexel, the New York Red Bulls, then Metrostars, took the Downingtown High School graduate and Abington, Pa. native with the final pick of the 2004 MLS Super Draft. He later wore number 60 as a reminder of the hard work it took to become Mr. Relevant.
The 11-year pro ranks second in MLS appearances among Philadelphia-area players with 267, including playoffs, trailing only fellow FC Delco alum Jeff Larentowicz, who is second all-time in the league among field players. Parke also played in 12 U.S. Open Cup games, winning the competition in 2010 and 2011 with the Seattle Sounders and appeared in 11 Concacaf Champions League games, third among all the Philly MLS 25 players featured in this Brotherly Game series.
Throughout Parke’s career, he was regarded as a top central defender in the league. Listed at 6’1’’ and 180 pounds, he had a rare combination of size, skill, and an athletic ability that his former Drexel teammates called freakish. A converted forward in college, Parke scored 2 goals and had 6 assists in ten MLS seasons, one in which he played for the Union in 2013 and started all 33 games he appeared in, going 90 minutes in every game but one.
Parke’s path toward MLS began as a youth playing for FC Delco Black II alongside future pros Jeremiah White, Ryan Kelly, Terry McNelis, and Vincente Bastidas. The team finished third in the USYSA National Championship in 1998 and won the title in 1999. While at Downingtown, Parke won back-to-back PIAA State Championships in 1998 and 1999 with Aaron Thomas and Kirk Johnson, two players who are also in the FC Delco Hall of Fame.
His college career was just as successful but not as recognized. Playing for Lew Meehl during Drexel’s switch from the America East to the Colonial Athletic Association, Parke’s Drexel teams won the Soccer Six twice but struggled to make an impact in the more competitive CAA. He was named to the All-America East first team as a freshman and earned Mid-Atlantic Regional All-American honors as a junior. He was also a two-time Soccer Six All-Star, Team MVP his senior year, and is the only Dragon to be drafted into MLS.
In previously reported stories, Parke described the post-draft process as chaotic. He had to search the internet for Metrostars contacts after he’d been selected and later recalled breaking down on the Pennsylvania Turnpike driving to his first preseason training session. But once he settled into his first season with New York, Parke became a mainstay at central defense, starting 27 out of 28 games and earning the Newcomer of the Year Award as the Red Bulls lost in the playoff quarterfinals to D.C. United. Over the next three years, Parke emerged a keystone of the franchise, edging the club closer to winning its first hardware. Despite the Red Bulls bowing out in three-straight conference semi-finals, Parke started 76 out of 80 games, playing ninety minutes in most, and earned the club’s Ironman of the Year award in 2006 after logging a team-high 2,771 minutes in the regular season. In 2007, he was named the Red Bulls Defender of the Year.
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The 2008 season for Parke was one filled with both a tremendous amount of hope and despair. After starting 23 out of 24 games, Parke was forced to watch the Red Bulls upset the Houston Dynamo in the quarterfinals and Real Salt Lake in the semis to reach its first MLS Cup, where they dropped a close 2-1 game to the Columbus Crew. In late October of the regular season, MLS suspended Parke and teammate Jon Conway ten games and fined them each ten percent of their salaries for failing a drug test, the first related suspension in MLS history. The pair purchased a nutritional supplement over the counter at a national chain that contained androstenedione and boldenone, two ingredients not listed on the supplement label. Both ingredients had been banned by every major sport for their anabolic-like properties in boosting testosterone in the body and aiding muscle regeneration and recovery.
Parke has since admitted his mistake, but the fallout from the suspension derailed his career. At the time, he was closing in on Mike Petke’s club record for appearances and preparing for a new contract. But the suspension left him somewhat ostracized and off-limits. The Red Bulls left him exposed in the expansion draft where he was picked up by the Seattle Sounders, but after failing to reach a deal with Seattle, Parke played the 2009 season with the Vancouver Whitecaps in the USL on a deal that allowed him to trial with several clubs in Europe.
Rebuilding his career and his reputation, Parke signed with Seattle in 2010 and was responsible for the expansion franchise’s rapid rise in the American soccer landscape. He started 77 out of 78 games, including almost every minute of the playoffs in each of his three years with the club. He started and played the entirety of both U.S. Open Cup finals in 2010 and 2011 and was named Defender of the Year in 2011 and 2012. In January 2012, Parke earned his first cap with the U.S. national team when he appeared as a second-half substitute in a 1-0 win against Panama.
With the Sounders, Parke also played in the Concacaf Champions League three straight years, playing over 900 minutes. In 2012, the Sounders lost 8-2 on aggregate in the quarterfinals to Santos Laguna, who reached the finals. The following season, Parke helped the Sounders reach the knockout stage before he returned home with the Philadelphia Union in an offseason trade in early 2013. The Sounders lost to Santos in the semifinals, and Santos went on to win the competition.
Playing for the Union, a young team still trying to form a culture and an identity while growing its fanbase, Parke started every game he played in and almost matched his career high in minutes with 2,745. The Union finished 12-12-10 and lost in the round of 16 of the U.S. Open Cup, a year before they’d reach back-to-back finals under then assistant coach Jim Curtin.
The 2013 season was Parke’s lone season in Philly playing in front of his hometown crowd. In 2014, he was traded to D.C. United and played every minute but eight in his 13 games until he was diagnosed with a perilymphatic fistula, which can cause hearing loss and balance and coordination issues. A surgery to repair the condition ended Parke’s season in the summer, and he retired after his contract with D.C. was not renewed.
Like many of the players in the Philly MLS 25, Parke’s career has been defined by his work ethic and durability, qualities that were fostered in environments where he played for elite programs in which he wasn’t always the featured star. But he developed into one of the best center backs the area has ever produced, and spent a lengthy MLS career stabilizing backlines and franchises, the one reliable player who could cause ninety minutes of trouble for opposing strikers. His greatest contribution to the game has been one of setting a higher standard as a locker-room guy whom teammates admired, like in Seattle where he is still revered and in New York and Philadelphia where his former clubs went on to compete for major trophies after he’d gone.