The New York Red Bulls boast the best defense in Major League Soccer, by a considerable margin, and while he may not receive as much notoriety as some of his teammates, Tim Parker has been as big a part of the Red Bulls' defensive success as anyone else.
That is what made it odd to see Parker not be chosen among the finalists for the MLS defender of the year award. Due to league rules limiting the number of candidates a team could put up for the award to two, Parker was passed over by his own team's front office, which nominated fellow defensive standouts Aaron Long and Kemar Lawrence. Though both Long and Lawrence have had outstanding seasons, it was Parker's arrival earlier in 2018 that truly helped transform the Red Bulls defense from a good one to best in the league.
"Tim Parker, for me, has been the best centerback (in MLS) this year, and it's not really close," Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin said after Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Red Bulls. "He eats everything up."
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"That means a lot, especially coming from an opposing coach," Parker told Goal. "It shows that what we're doing here is getting recognized, not only as a team, but as individuals."
Parker's prowess was on full display in Sunday's win against the Union. He helped effectively neutralize Union striker Cory Burke, and also stepped up to assist Michael Murillo with handling dangerous Union left winger Fafa Picault. Parker finished with a game-high eight clearances and six interceptions to help the Red Bulls record their league-best 14th shutout.
Those types of performances have become the norm for Parker, who joined the Red Bulls in an early-season trade from Vancouver, a deal that sent midfielder Felipe Martins to the Whitecaps along with $500,000 in allocation money. The deal came about after Parker requested a trade from Vancouver when it became clear he and the Whitecaps were far apart in talks on a new contract. Parker's current contract expires at the end of the 2018 season.
Parker has been worth every penny, helping the Red Bulls go from allowing the seventh-fewest goals in 2017 to the fewest in MLS in 2018. Meanwhile, the Whitecaps have gone from being tied for 11th-fewest goals allowed in MLS to having allowed the fourth-most goals in the league. They are also on the verge of missing out on the playoffs a year after finishing third in the Western Conference with Parker in the lineup.
"You look at that trade and it's been the best trade all year, across the league," Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles told Goal "For us to get a guy that solidifies our spine, to be such a character guy, and a huge addition to our locker room. He's had a great year, gets called up to the national team, but the plaudits aren't there. He just continues about his business because he knows it's about the team being successful.
"We knew when we went to go get Tim he was going to be a game-changer for us," Robles said. "But the most important part is he fits into the locker room, and our culture of the team being the star."
Robles took particular issue with Parker's exclusion from the MLS defender of the year candidates list.
"It's crazy when you look at the candidates and you're like 'San Jose has two candidates? Orlando has two candidates? Didn't they just set the record for the most goals conceded?'," Robles said. "We should have had all four guys on there. Obviously the rules are the rules, but it is frustrating."
A no-nonsense New York native, Parker could be playing his final season with the Red Bulls given the fact his contract is up at the end of the season. Contract talks with the Red Bulls have stalled, and it is looking more and more like the 25-year-old defender will test the international market in January. Given the likelihood that the Red Bulls are expected to lose U.S. national team midfielder Tyler Adams this winter to a move to the Bundesliga, losing Parker as well could be a big blow for a team that could remain a title contender if it can keep it's defensive core together.
Parker isn't thinking about the offseason just yet though, not with a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup still targets within the Red Bulls grasp. Though they may not catch Atlanta United in the race for the Supporters' Shield, the Red Bulls are still going to head into the playoffs considered MLS Cup favorites, and it will be because of a defense that Parker has helped turn into the toughest in MLS.
"We want to be labeled as the best defense in the league," Parker told Goal. "We take pride in our goals against, and everything that goes into being a good defense."