CARSON, Calif. - An odyssey involving a long suspension, a personal crisis, and trips to three different countries finally brought Jeff Parke into a safe harbor.
The Downingtown native and former Drexel standout is participating in his first camp with the United States men's soccer team following perhaps his best season in six years.
Parke, a defender with the Seattle Sounders, made 28 starts and played 2,387 minutes - his highest figures since 2006, when he played for the New York Red Bulls.
Yet Parke's presence in camp began as an afterthought. He replaced the Los Angeles Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez, the Major League Soccer defender of the year, who left the U.S. squad after being sent on loan to Germany's FC Nuremberg, where he was injured in training.
Nevertheless, Parke feels profound gratitude for the call-up.
"To be at the very bottom and work yourself to the top . . . ," Parke said, his voice breaking. "You have to start all over and reestablish your name and your character."
Michael Parkhurst, who was an MLS defender of the year before moving to Denmark's FC Nordsjælland in 2008, believes Parke has achieved those goals.
"He's a natural leader," Parkhurst said. "He's vocal and that picks up the team, definitely. He's a confident guy and he fits into the locker room real well. We all respect him."
Respect for Parke reached its lowest point in October 2008, when he and Red Bulls teammate Jon Conway were suspended after testing positive for two banned substances, androstatrienedione and boldenone, found in a supplement they purchased over the counter at a vitamin store.
Each player was hit with a 10-game suspension and fined 10 percent of his salary. The suspension became the longest in MLS history and forced Parke to miss the 2008 MLS Cup final, which the Red Bulls lost to the Columbus Crew.
"[Because of that suspension], nobody wants to talk to you, be around you anymore or take a chance with you," said Parke, who turned the crisis to his advantage.
"It makes you mature real fast," Parke said. "I realize that everything you have that's important can be gone that fast. It definitely makes you look at yourself."
That newfound maturity provided inner strength.
"It's given me the character I have now," Parke said. "I don't care what people say about me or what I read in the papers. All I care about are the people who know me and [that] they know what kind of person I am."
One month after the suspension, the Sounders chose Parke in the expansion draft, then released him before he ever played a game for his new team.
"After a long time in the league and after getting [unsatisfactory] contracts, I finally felt like I was due to get a better contract," Parke said. "We were arguing numbers, going back and forth. I was getting fed up and I wasn't getting anywhere. So I took the step to go somewhere else."
Parke auditioned for two Belgian clubs, including perennial power Anderlecht, but to no avail. In March 2009, Parke signed a unique contract with the Vancouver Whitecaps, who were playing in the United Soccer League's First Division.
That contract allowed Parke to pursue other offers after half a season. But a turf-toe injury limited Parke to 11 games.
"It was good that I got to keep playing," Parke said. "You don't take a leap. You just keep taking steps to get to the top."
After leaving Vancouver, Parke received interest from a second-division team in Sedan, France.
"It was a very small city in the wine country, like 30,000 people," Parke said. "The closest city was Luxembourg, over an hour and a half away.
"They wanted to sign me. But I'm not going to a country where nobody speaks any English. I totally had to adapt to a different language and a different culture in the middle of nowhere."
So in 2010, Parke joined the Sounders with a reinvigorated attitude.
"It was [time to] get back to work," Parke said, "reestablish yourself and win back the position so you can show that you belong here, that you're one of the better defenders in the league and you want to help your team climb."
Two years later, Parke has the chance to represent the United States in World Cup qualifying if he makes a significant impression in camp, which will end later this month with friendlies against Venezuela and Panama.
"It's pretty much everything to me in my sport," Parke said of representing the United States. "If you can get to the highest level, especially in your country, you've said a lot and you've done your job."