It was around midseason when the Kenny Cooper rumblings started.
Had the Portland Timbers forward seen his best days past? Would the five-year MLS veteran, a prolific goal scorer with Dallas who was tapped as the lynchpin signing by the expansion club, be traded?
Now, those grumbles are a distant memory.
Cooper scored for the third time in the last four games with his 25th-minute strike Sunday in Portland’s 1-0 victory over Vancouver, a stretch of top-notch play that has come just at the right time as the Timbers push toward the playoffs.
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Cooper, always quick to deflect praise, said his play is merely emblematic of the team’s desire to make the playoffs in appreciation for the organization and city.
“At the moment, I think the whole team is really, really determined to get in the playoffs,” Cooper said. “I think our fans deserve to be there. The support they’ve showed us all year, at home and away, has been fantastic... It’s such a great privilege to be a Timber and play in front of them, and I think they deserve to be there.:
Of Cooper’s seven goals this season, Sunday’s was the sweetest. He collected a cross-field pass from midfielder Diego Chara and hammered a right-footed shot past Vancouver goalkeeper Joe Cannon into the far, top corner.
“[Chara] is such a great two-way player, defensively and going forward, and he really showed his great offensive qualities there and picked me out well and fortunately it ended up in the back of the net,” Cooper said. “I have to give him a lot of credit because he did well to put me in a great position.”
It gave the Timbers just their second road victory of the season and put them in a tie with New York for the 10th and final playoff spot with 40 points. New York holds an advantage on head-to-head and goal differential tiebreakers.
“It definitely feels good to be going home with three points,” Cooper said. “I thought the team really battled hard and put in a quality performance.”
Earlier this season, Cooper, who played for two years in Germany before coming to Portland, wasn’t describing goals in post-game interviews but rather explaining a stretch of unproductive play. He went without a goal for 14 games, a stretch that spanned from May to August.
“He’s coming into a little bit of form at the right time,” head coach John Spencer said. “He’s came back after two years of injuries in Germany. A lot of people were criticizing him, and he was criticizing himself early on in the season because he wanted to score goals for us.”
The road victory was hard earned against a bitter rival – despite Vancouver’s last-place standing – was a good sign going forward. Two out of the Timbers’ last three games are on the road, and all are against teams in the playoff mix.
“I think we can take a lot of confidence from this game today,” Cooper said. “We’ve been real strong at home all year. And it definitely feels good to get another road win. It wasn’t just another away game.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @dan_itel