MLSsoccer.com resumes its 18-part series "Faces of First Kick," in which we profile a player on each team ahead of his home opener. We continue with Portland Timbers forward Kenny Cooper.
Kenny Cooper's near-obsessive dedication to the game he loves has left at least one newspaper reporter bristling.
Shortly after the Portland Timbers knocked off Cascadia rivals the Seattle Sounders 2-0 in a preseason game in early March, a handful of media members gathered to interview Cooper, and for good reason. The imposing 6-foot-3, 210-pound forward had just scored his first goal in a Timbers jersey.
Cooper didn't immediately appear. Fearing he wouldn't show, the reporters dropped off one by one, eager to make deadline with their postgame articles.
“Is this going to be like last time I waited for him?” one reporter griped. “Last time they told me 10 minutes, he was out there on the practice field for at least another 45 minutes. I can't wait around like that this time.”
It's a common refrain, but also a common sight for those who have spent time around Cooper. Naturally shy and about as far from being a media diva as humanly possible, it's clear the 26-year-old would rather work on shooting drills than toss around sound bytes to assembled hacks.
“He's a very reserved person — kind of quiet,” Schellas Hyndman told MLSsoccer.com. “He respects other people's opinions; that's why he's not loud or interacting or dominating conversations. But when he does get on the field, it seems like that really is his comfort zone.”
Hyndman, currently head coach at FC Dallas, would know. He’s probably spent more time around Cooper than most people in Major League Soccer.
As head coach of Texas college powerhouse Southern Methodist University, Hyndman recruited him heavily when the Dallas-raised Cooper was a high school star in 2003. Hyndman later coached Cooper during his career MLS season in 2008, when he scored 18 goals for FC Dallas and earned a place on the league's Best XI.
“After training he was always sticking around doing more,” Hyndman said. “He gets coaches to work with him on finishing, heading or passing, or on making runs or first-time shots. I honestly cannot remember a day that he didn't stick around.
“If we trained from 9 to 11,” Hyndman said, “you normally saw Kenny back in the locker room about 12.”
Now, as Cooper enters his seventh season as a professional with the newly minted Portland Timbers, he probably needs all the extra practice he can get. He hadn’t played much in the 18 months prior to signing with the Timbers in January, and now his new club expects him to regain the fitness — and the form — that once made him one of the most feared strikers in MLS.
Cooper is no stranger to those kinds of expectations, but that doesn't mean he's well-equipped to deal with them.
As an 18-year-old he turned down an offer to play for Hyndman at SMU, and understandably so. After a brief trial with Manchester United in 2004, he earned a three-year contract with the Premier League giants — a transaction that turned a few heads stateside as he'd yet to figure on a single US national-team youth roster.
Cooper quickly impressed while playing on the Manchester United reserve team, and suddenly US soccer fans took notice of their American Red Devil. Understandably, expectations for the young star were running high.
But Cooper, seemingly an introvert, becomes noticeably uncomfortable when fans, and especially media, ponder his value as a player.
At his Timbers unveiling in January, a reporter insinuated that Cooper would be “the face of the franchise” — not an outlandish suggestion, given the striker’s US national-team pedigree and, frankly, the lack of another big name on the inaugural Portland MLS roster.
Cooper fidgeted before volleying away the comment as though it were a quick one-two with a teammate.
“I understand that it's a team game and it takes all the players out on the field and all the coaches and everyone involved to be successful,” he said. “But in regards to the pressure … I think there's pressure in anything that you do, in all walks of life and in any job. That's no different for me than it is with any of my other teammates.”
Similarly, shortly after signing a loan deal with second-tier English side Plymouth Argyle in February last year, the BBC asked Cooper what he can do to help the relegation-doomed strugglers.
“Yeah, um … phew,” he said as if just realizing the gravity of his task. “Well, obviously, I hope to make big impact here and, if I can, get some goals for the team … and help the cause.”
A Dream Unfulfilled
Unfortunately for Cooper and for Plymouth, he couldn't help the cause. He managed just 132 minutes in seven appearances with no starts and no scores, and Plymouth were relegated.
Still, at the time of his Plymouth signing, Cooper was just weeks removed from a tough year in which serious injuries had derailed his second attempt at a career in Europe.
Cooper joined German second division outfit TSV 1860 Munich midway through the 2009 MLS season, leaving a Dallas side for whom he scored a staggering 40 goals in 90 appearances and earned the nickname “Super Cooper.”
Tabbed as a burgeoning star with an international future — he had, by this point, edged his way into US coach Bob Bradley's squad — Cooper had been courted by a slew of lower-division European teams, including English Championship promotion hopefuls Cardiff City, who reportedly made a seven-figure cash offer for the striker that was turned down.
However, Dallas reluctantly announced on July 31, 2009, that Cooper would join TSV 1860.
“I always think it was something he wanted to do — to play in Europe and excel there,” Hyndman said. “Quite honestly, I think there were feelings that if you were going to be a national-team player, and you were going to play as a striker in the World Cup, then you needed to do something at the international level, and I think that he took that to heart.”
And with the World Cup just around the corner, his 2.Bundesliga career couldn't have started better.
Cooper scored just 17 minutes into his league debut on Aug. 9, 2009, before adding another tally two weeks later and then one more in the German cup. However, his form soon dipped, and in mid-November he suffered an MCL injury that sidelined him for two months.
Unable to break back into TSV 1860's starting 11, Cooper joined Plymouth with the hopes of keeping in the national-team picture ahead of the World Cup.
He didn't make Bradley’s roster and eventually suffered another major injury, this time breaking his ankle on the first day of preseason training after rejoining TSV 1860 for the 2010-'11 campaign.
Cooper's European adventure was essentially over, but TSV 1860's loss was, in fact, the Portland Timbers’ gain.
“What he should take positives from is that his move to Europe wasn't a failure,” Timbers coach John Spencer told MLSsoccer.com. “His career in Europe never worked out down to health issues, and health issues alone. He picked up a couple of bad injuries, and I have no doubt in my mind that if he was healthy that whole time, he would have been a success.”
New Beginnings in the Rose City
The expansion Timbers — who were next in the allocation order for returning US internationals after the Vancouver Whitecaps picked up Jay DeMerit — immediately swooped in on Cooper upon hearing that he was interested in returning home.
It wasn't easy landing the striker, who was still under contract at 1860. A fee had to be negotiated, and there was a chance the Texas native would try to engineer a move back to FC Dallas — something to which Hyndman was more than open.
“FC Dallas worked extremely, extremely hard to get him back to Dallas,” Hyndman said. “This is his home. I think he and I had a wonderful relationship — we still do — but the way it turned out, the cards were all in Portland's hands … and coach John Spencer recognized that Kenny was a player he wanted and he wasn't about to budge on that.”
Cooper was exactly what Spencer and his bosses were looking for: an MLS veteran who can score goals in double figures.
“Kenny can put the ball in the back of the net,” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said during Cooper's unveiling. “We've got a proven goal-scorer here. When we talk about building an entertaining, exciting and up-tempo attacking team — well to do that, we've got to be able to score goals.”
The question, though, remains whether Cooper can find the net with the same voracity that made him such a valuable player for Dallas in 2008.
Cooper’s large frame certainly terrorizes opposing defenses, but that body shape is misleading to coaches and fans unaware of his complete skill set. Tall and broad-shouldered, he looks like a classic target forward.
But limiting him to that role would be a criminal waste of his talents.
Quick-footed and laden with ball-handling abilities, Cooper can operate with his back to goal, holding up play as he seeks out onrushing attackers. Or he can dash out to the flank to center a dangerous pass. Sometimes he'll forage deep into the midfield, scooping up turnovers the way he’s already done plenty of times during the Timbers' young season. And he's never afraid to take on players with the ball at his feet.
“People say, ‘Oh, he's an old-school center forward,’” Spencer said. “For us, there's going to be times when we might want him to play the old-fashioned No. 9, but there's going to be times when he's going to be given the freedom. But I think he's got great mobility. I would probably class him as a modern-day center forward.”
Still, his fitness levels will always be questioned, especially given the seriousness of the ankle injury and the layoff that followed. However, recent performances suggest he's approaching 100 percent, though he's often the target of brutal tackles as defenders struggle to contain his marauding runs.
“He's still finding his feet after what was a serious injury,” Spencer said. “He's started to get sharper, stronger every day. [But] the big thing for him is keeping healthy, which I don't think is going to be a problem, and building that confidence and self-esteem again. He feels he can be one of the top players in the league, and we believe in that.”
But if there’s hope in all this, look no further than that the events that preceded that magical 2008 season that made Cooper such a star in the first place.
On June 9, 2007, then-LA Galaxy defender Tyrone Marshall flung himself recklessly at Cooper in the late stages of a 3-1 defeat to Dallas. The challenge left Cooper with a broken right tibia and Marshall with a fine and a three-match ban. (Shortly after the incident, Marshall was traded to Toronto FC, though he reportedly called Cooper to apologize.)
The Dallas forward didn't see the field again for four months, all but ending his season. However, the following year — that now-famous 2008 campaign — remains his best to date, and he deservedly picked up the Comeback Player of the Year honor.
Portland's fans — and likely those fans of the league and the US national team — will hope that's a harbinger for things to come.
“I came back from a [serious] injury in MLS and had what may have been my best season, and I hope that I can make a similar return to MLS this year,” Cooper told MLSsoccer.com's ExtraTime Radio podcast prior to the 2011 season. “I hope that I've grown myself on and off the field. I hope that I'm coming back to MLS as a better player. I've been away for a year-and-a-half and I feel I've done a lot of growing in that time.”