VANCOUVER, BC – Tim Parker did a lot of soul-searching this offseason.
That’s what happens you when spend four straight days in a car driving across the continent alone, as the Hicksville, New York native did on his road trip back to Vancouver in January.
That, and a lot of audiobooks.
For Parker, the entire offseason – and the trip to Vancouver – was a time for reflection. A time to look back on his first two years as a professional, but more importantly, a time to look forward.
A time to ask himself: “Who do I want to be?”
“The first year in the league, it’s so easy to just get by and do well because there’s no real level for you to hit,” Parker told whitecapsfc.com. “The second year, it’s kind of figuring out what a full season is actually like. This year, it’s about finding yourself and determining what kind of a player you want to be. Do you want to be a guy that just gets by and does his job? Or do you want to be someone that can control a game and take it to the next level?”
It’s certainly been the latter so far in 2017.
Parker has arguably been Vancouver’s most valuable player through the first eight matches of the season. He was voted by fans as the team’s player of the month in March and was a nominee again for April. Among his notable performances include keeping French international striker Andre-Pierre Gignac quiet for about 179 of 180 minutes over two legs vs. Tigres and preventing Sounders FC striker Jordan Morris from attempting a single shot in a 2-1 win over Seattle.
“It’s one of those things, where soccer, as much as it is physical and everything, it’s a mental thing,” Parker said when asked how he’s grown as a player. “Just making good decisions, knowing what to do when you get stuck in tough spots, being a little calmer instead of being frantic, it’s just those little things that can really help you as a player.”
The numbers, in this case, don’t lie.
Parker has improved in almost every relevant statistical category compared to last year on a per-90 minute rate, including clearances, interceptions, aerials won, and passing accuracy. He’s either first or second on the team in each category.
“The way he’s started the season has been absolutely outstanding,” said Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson. “I think he’s shown a composure and maturity about him … he’s come back fit, strong, and very, very composed.”
And that’s no coincidence.
Parker worked hard in the offseason – very hard. After the MLS season, he went back home to New York and kept training with his old university team at St. John’s for most of November.
Then, at the end of the month, he spent a couple weeks training with then English Football League Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion FC, who have since been promoted to the English Premier League, before finally taking some time off in December.
“I had to take at least two weeks,” he said, “but I was starting to lose my mind at 10 days.”
Parker has always been a physical specimen.
As Robinson said, he’s fast, fit, and strong – one of the fastest players on the team, according to data recorded in training. And this year, he said he feels even better physically, which may have a little something to do with some changes he made in his nutrition.
The changes, he said, started with the observance of Lent at the beginning of March.
“I gave up all sweets, desserts and chocolate,” Parker said. “I gave up everything. I definitely feel a difference in my body. It was just for Lent. On Easter Sunday I may have had a couple sweets. But it’s something I want to keep going with because I feel great and I think it’s showing on the field.”
It certainly is.
Robinson has also seen Parker become more of a leader this year, which was exactly what he intended when gave the 24-year-old the captain’s armband in Vancouver’s first preseason match.
“He took it on board, he understood it, and it didn’t faze him whatsoever,” Robinson said. “I genuinely do think at some stage in his career he’ll be the captain. Hopefully at this club.”
At some stage in his career, Parker is also hoping to become a mainstay for his country.
Last year, Parker started the two U.S. U-23 men’s national team matches in their home-and-home Olympic qualifying playoff against Colombia and received his first two U.S. senior men’s national team call-ups. He’s still awaiting his senior national team debut, however.
“I think getting that one call-up is sometimes fulfilling for some people and sometimes it’s not,” Parker said. “I think for me, it’s a little taste in my mouth that I want more and more of. The debut would be a dream come true, but I feel like it would be the same feeling. Once I get my debut, I’ll want to play again and play again.”
If he keeps playing like he has to start the season, you’d have to think that time will come. It has certainly come in Vancouver, where Parker has now started 11 of the team’s 12 matches in all competitions so far in 2017.
“I wanted to come into my own this year,” he said. “I think just growing up and turning into the young man that I want to be on the soccer field and off the soccer field has really helped.”
Sometimes, a little soul-searching can go a long way.