TORONTO – When Roman Torres scored in the 88th minute against Costa Rica on October 10, sending Panama to their first World Cup, Toronto FC midfielder Armando Cooper had no idea what to do with himself.
“[My] initial reaction was to chase after him, celebrate with him,” said Cooper earlier this month, speaking through a translator. “But I never made it anywhere close. I ended up celebrating in the middle of the pitch with somebody else.”
That Torres goal, part of a wild night in CONCACAF that saw the United States miss out on their first World Cup since 1986, booked Los Canaleros a spot in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
“Difficult to explain,” smiled Cooper when asked what that moment meant for his nation and himself. “They are very unique moments. More than anything overjoyed and happiness every day since.”
“[Qualification] means a lot,” continued Cooper. “On a player basis, it elevates the profile more. It does the same for the national team: puts us on the map, earns us more respect. At the same time, [it is] something to build on even more going forward.”
It has been a trying year for Cooper, who joined TFC on loan last summer and helped propel the side to the 2016 MLS Cup final. He started all six matches along the way, registering a goal and an assist in the epic second-leg victory over the Montreal Impact in the 2016 Eastern Conference Championship.
But with Michael Bradley, Marky Delgado and newcomer Victor Vazquez earning the majority of the minutes in Toronto's three-man midfield, Cooper has found playing time hard to come by of late, featuring in 19 matches and amassing less than 1,000 MLS minutes.
Strong in possession, more comfortable on the dribble, Cooper had struggled to find his footing in Toronto's faster rate of midfield play this season, where one- and two-touch passing is preferred.
Events off the field, too, have weighed on the mind.
On April 15 Amilcar Henriquez, his Panama teammate and former club teammate at CD Arabe Unido, who Cooper calls his 'hermano,' was killed back home. Days later, Cooper's second child was born.
Speaking in July, Cooper said it was a 'bittersweet' time, losing his friend and welcoming his daughter.
With a World Cup to look forward to, Cooper has been rounding into form at the right time and is eager to contribute in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. He came on in Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Red Bulls, helping Toronto navigate the final minutes on the road to take home a 2-1 series advantage. Those away goals proved crucial in TFC’s eventual progression.
And when Panama lost 2-1 to Iran in Graz, Austria on Nov. 9, it was Cooper who won the penalty kick that former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gomez converted. Los Canaleros continue their preparations for the World Cup with a friendly against Wales on November 14.
Though always present in MLS, in recent years an influx of players from the CONCACAF region has seen the level of play in both the league and the confederation rise. In this year’s Gold Cup, for example, more than 50 MLS players were named to the final rosters of the regional championship event.
“Definitely, CONCACAF is getting more competitive,” said Cooper, a 10-year veteran of the region. “A lot of it has to do with MLS. With the number of Central Americans coming into the league and the level of play, the competition in CONCACAF is getting higher and higher.
“In the near future, I expect it to get even better.”
TFC coach Greg Vanney has noticed that as well.
“The level of the players continues to increase,” said Vanney. “They are gaining early experience in their domestic leagues, getting into their national teams at young ages, and from there coming into [MLS]. They are adding more to their game here.
“Between CONCACAF, where you can get good value [on players], and the amount of internationals that we're seeing in the league,” he added, “ we're probably doing as good a job in MLS of developing players from other countries as players in North America.”
Increased competition within CONCACAF, previously considered a two-horse race between the US and Mexico, can only bode well for future successes at the World Cup.
Cooper and TFC will look to use the lessons and motivations of the past in the Eastern Conference Championship against Columbus Crew SC, set to kick off on Nov. 21 (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US, TSN, TVAS in Canada).