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Tim Parker is embracing the fight on and off the field

In year two with the Red Bulls, the MLS veteran is accepting hard truths, mastering new skills and sick of the league’s status quo.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Vancouver Whitecaps
Tim Parker during the Red Bulls’ match in Vancouver last August - his first return since his trade to New York in March 2018.
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

As MLS clubs evolve, road trips become even more regimented, all-encompassing endeavors – from meals to trainings to video and other forms of prep – that span from virtually sunrise to sunset. So, it is understandable that a day being killed at a terminal – in part because of a league-mandated limit on charter flights – not only seems miserable, but counterintuitive to the very evolution of Major League Soccer.

Tim Parker recognizes that inconsistency and put a voice to it Monday on Twitter, when he and his New York Red Bulls teammates endured several weather-related cancellations spanning over 12 hours while flying back commercial from Orlando International Airport, following their 1-0 win at Exploria Stadium the night before.

While it may have seemed slightly out of character for Parker – far from the most active on social media – to take charge in an online protest of sorts, the act speaks to a side of the 26-year-old that few fans and observers have recognized yet, but soon will.

Even a year and a half into his Red Bulls tenure, the perception of Parker seems incomplete. His extraordinary athleticism jumps off the page. He has a Herculean build and physicality that plays into his admittedly old school approach, but a fifth-gear that allows him to operate in a cutting-edge high press system and recover against some of the fastest attackers in MLS.

When coming across an athlete who hit the genetics jackpot in such a way, it’s easy to focus on the sheer strength and speed, and ignore the brain. What makes overcoming that trope even harder is the fact that Parker embraces the brash tough guy persona, wearing short sleeves in frigid February matches at Red Bull Arena and relentlessly barking at teammates during training sessions.

MLS: Champions League-Santos Laguna at New York Red Bulls
Not even well below subfreezing temperatures in February at Red Bull Arena could faze Tim Parker.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

But beneath all that macho is a thoughtful, introspective person who is ready to assume as big a role as ever in his club’s title chase in the fall, as well as his colleague’s labor fight in the winter.

There are several confounding factors that have led Parker to this point – at peace with his club but at odds with some of the arcane mechanisms of his league. From an on-field standpoint, the Long Island native returned home to New York last March and found instant chemistry with his center back partner Aaron Long.

“I think, whether it was me telling him something early on that he started to trust me, or he did something that I started to trust him, it just kind of started pretty early that we were going to be like, ‘Alright, I know he’s going to be there’,” Parker said in a recent sit-down at training.

The undisputed best center back pair in MLS last season – with a league-low 33 goals allowed – made a combined $189,060. From the perspective of managing a tight salary cap, it was a stroke of mastery for Red Bulls technical director Denis Hamlett. From the perspective of merit-based compensation, it was an absurd undervaluing.

Both Parker and Long signed new contracts this off-season with deservedly upgraded salaries – Parker a pro-rated deal starting at $752,200 this year, Long a multi-year deal starting at $800,000 in 2019. But beyond their commonalities in athleticism and salary, Parker and Long are two very different cases, with two unique personalities, experiencing two distinct career trajectories.

Tim Parker (old school) and Aaron Long (new school), both supreme athletes, combine to form the ideal center back pairing for New York’s high press.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

While the slightly older Long – also 26, but four months Parker’s senior – has become a fixture in the U.S. national team and the subject of rumored moves to Europe, Parker is coming to terms with an increasingly likely future as an MLS lifer, and one that may be on the outside, looking in with the national team.

“I spoke with [Gregg Berhalter] in January when I didn’t get called into camp and that’s kind of the last time I’ve heard from him,” Parker said. “So, for me, I’m kind of – I can’t really change the player I am. I think, there’s a point where some coaches, if they like you, they like you, and if they don’t really see you in their system, I understand that as well.”

“When Jürgen [Klinsmann] was the coach, Jürgen liked me and brought me in. And then, Bruce [Arena] became the coach, and Bruce didn’t like me as much. So, it kind of became a back and forth thing. It’s kind of one of those things where you’ve got to keep riding the wave and hopefully the right coach likes you at the right time.”

In a way, it must be hard for a player with seemingly every physical gift to accept certain limitations; not being the new-era center back where possessing the ball up the field comes naturally. One year ago, Parker did get a chance with interim U.S. manager Dave Sarachan, and became a footnote in history as the United States earned a 1-1 draw with eventual World Cup champions France in Lyon.

But that was the last on-field taste of the national team Parker has gotten. And while the indifference from Berhalter is difficult to take, Parker has not become downtrodden or complacent.

In a late May training session, in between his red card against Atlanta and a midweek match against Vancouver for which he was suspended, Parker spent an extra 45 minutes afterward drilling his distribution with head coach Chris Armas and assistant coaches Bradley Carnell and C.J. Brown.

It was intense, with Parker receiving zipped passes from Armas in the center of the field and quickly spraying long balls to Carnell and Brown, who were stationed on opposite sidelines 25 yards or so up the field. It was repetitive, akin to a tennis pro practicing his return with a machine. And it also wasn’t perfect, which illustrated the need for practice and his ongoing struggle to improve that side of his game.

“I think, right now, the way we’re trying to play, we want to try to build out of the back more,” Parker said. “For me, having Amir [Murillo] on my side most of the time, you know, he’s so good on the ball, so getting him on the ball and getting him in spots where he can kind of bring the ball up the field, and me leading him into that kind of path, is important for us to build up attacks.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at FC Cincinnati
Tim Parker is emphasizing his distribution to help aid in Michael Amir Murillo’s overlapping runs. Murillo is second on the team in assists with 5.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

“So, just working on, making sure I’m giving him good passes that he can take forward and start stuff, trying to find my way in between old school and new school, but not really being the new school guy yet.”

Parallel to that focus of improving his quality on the field, Parker is honing in on another crucial matter – the expiration of MLS’s Collective Bargaining Agreement this off-season.

Parker became involved with the Players Association during his 2015 rookie season in Vancouver, and in only a year-and-a-half became the main voice for the Whitecaps in the MLSPA. Upon his arrival in New York, however, Parker took a backseat, as the Red Bulls had established representation in Sean Davis, Ryan Meara and Luis Robles.

Perhaps he was also uncertain of his future last season – would he be in MLS long-term and would he be with the Red Bulls long-term? Now, with a multi-year deal that answers both, Parker seems more empowered than he was to commit to quite possibly the biggest labor negotiation in MLS’s history.

The main points on the agenda for Parker and company are clear. Targeted and General Allocation Money (TAM and GAM) that allow teams to pay down player salaries (such as Parker’s) below the maximum budget charge of $530,000 (for salary cap purposes) were introduced after the previous CBA had been signed and blindsided the MLSPA.

“The introduction of new money we don’t want,” Parker said. “We did the CBA the last time and then, the league introduced this new concept of TAM. And that was like, well we thought we knew the numbers and the financials, but we obviously didn’t because the league wanted to introduce new money.”

Parker and others still want to maintain the Designated Player Rule, often referred to as the “Beckham Rule,” which allows for a limited number of players per team (currently three) to sign for any number wage but only count (for salary cap purposes) as the maximum budget charge. Apart from that, though, Parker and the players aim to simplify what are laughably complex salary guidelines.

“The TAM, GAM, fake money, we want it just the salary cap,” Parker said. “We don’t want to have to go through the league approval for teams to pay players what they think their value is. I think that’s the biggest thing for us. We want, if a team values you at this, they should be able to pay you this.

“They shouldn’t have to go through the league to get TAM approval to then get that money involved. And then, it’s the whole discretionary and mandatory stuff. Like, we think it should all be in a pot, and if a team doesn’t want to spend eight million dollars that year, they don’t have to, but at least the cap is eight million, and it’s they’re say in how they spend their money.”

The Red Bulls’ airport nightmare on Monday brought into focus another main objective for players heading into labor negotiations this winter: charter flights. Currently, clubs are limited to three per season – a luxury often reserved to alleviate cross-country treks or multi-game stretches on the road.

Having experienced some of the worst of MLS travel with Vancouver – a city that requires connecting flights on many of its road trips – Parker is particularly passionate about the topic, which is why such a response from him on Monday was not surprising. From Parker’s very introduction on camera as a Red Bulls player, in an exchange with former head coach Jesse Marsch at Tijuana International Airport in March 2018, this issue has been front and center.

As seen in the video “MATCHDAY: Club Tijuana vs. New York Red Bulls,” Parker tells Marsch how he “didn’t expect there to be a straight flight from Vancouver to Tijuana.”

There, he was in a more forgiving mood, shrugging off the six-hour, zig-zag connecting flight from Vancouver to Cabo San Lucas to Tijuana that brought him to his new team. But, on Monday, his patience had run thin, and he took the adversity as an opportunity to make his first public stance ahead of CBA negotiations this winter.

It is clear that, over the course of the last year, Parker has found his voice in more ways than one. In training sessions, he has become arguably the loudest, most demanding player, stamping himself as one of a couple emerging vice-captains within this steadying Red Bulls club. And in terms of his role as a spokesman for change, ahead of a pivotal juncture in league history, the fifth-year veteran is coming into his own at just the right time.