One of the best parts about the early season is figuring out who’s played themselves into consideration for the national team pool, who’s played themselves out, who’s improved the upon the weaknesses in their game, and who’s doubled-down on their strengths.
Chris Wondolowski comes to mind, of course. Nobody in the league is better at finding chances – and now he’s finishing them at the highest clip of his career.
Matt Besler, the unsung hero of Sporting KC, is another (Aurelien Collin gets all the pub, but Besler reads the game better and is one of the best backline distributors in the league).
And Darlington Nagbe, once he gets US citizenship, will certainly have hearts fluttering just a bit.
But it’s Kenny Cooper who’s made the biggest jump, and who doubles as the biggest shock. It’s not just that he’s scoring goals for fun – it’s how he’s getting them.
Two weeks ago against the Columbus Crew, Cooper received the ball at midfield, laid it off to Thierry Henry, then did something nobody – at least nobody who’s watched him over the course of his eight-year pro career – expected.
GOAL: Cooper gets the Red Bulls ahead
He ran straight into the box. He turned, back to goal, and received a perfect 30-yard pass from Henry. He kept defender Eric Gehrig on his back, then pivoted, created room and fired home for a 1-0 lead.
It was stunning because it was the play of a true No. 9, a true target forward. And Cooper has simply never, ever played like that. He’s built like a target forward, certainly – 6-foot-3 inches, 210 pounds of it – but in the final third he was always happiest drifting to the wing, facing up, trying to beat a defender then unleashing from 20 yards, Cristiano Ronaldo-style. And while Cooper is talented as hell, he’s not Cristiano Ronaldo.
What frustrated fans and coaches alike was that Cooper wouldn’t change. Yes, he produced some gaudy goal totals – in 2008, his best year as a pro, he scored 18 (including four penalties). That’s a nice haul.
But they were almost uniformly on balls over the top of the defense or on those blasts from outside the box. To put it into perspective: From 2008-2011 Cooper scored 34 goals in all MLS competitions and not one came with a defender on his back. Nearly 40 percent came from outside the 18.
Believe me. I watched the videos. I got spare time.
If you’re wondering why Cooper never figured into Bob Bradley’s USA plans, though, there’s your answer. A striker who plays like that needs tons of service to produce, and the US rarely provides tons of service.
Cooper’s 18 goals in 2008 came on 119 shots, 41 more than anyone else in the league. Bradley’s US – and now Jurgen Klinsmann’s – couldn’t afford to have a guy like that, a guy who dominated the ball and didn’t do any hold-up work in the final third. Few teams can.
But Cooper suddenly looks like a new man with the Red Bulls. Part of it is, of course, that he’s receiving exquisite service from Henry. Part of it is he’s still excellent at outfoxing the opposing offside trap. And yes, part of it is he’s clearly in the zone when finishing, as broken down nicely in this week’s Opta Spotlight and Central Winger columns.
But the other big part of it is that he’s playing like a target now. Cooper has realized he’s 6-foot-3, not 5-foot-6. The goal vs. the Crew is the best example, but there are plenty others of him getting into the box, drawing defenders and playing for the team.
Here’s RBNY head coach Hans Backe describing the big striker’s evolution on ExtraTime Radio a few weeks back:
“It has been mostly a verbal discussion now and then between me and him about how to use his body – he’s a massive guy, he is strong, but also is a little bit too nice,” Backe explained. “I would say in the last few games he’s also looking very strong as a target. We knew when we traded [for him] that he’s not a typical target, he’s more a guy to run the channels. But now – the first goal against Columbus when he holds the ball and turns and finish, that’s a huge difference.”
“Huge” may be underselling it. If Cooper keeps this up, if he spends even half his time out there playing like a true target forward, then he’s going to need a long, long look from Klinsmann. When he cools off (and he will, since no one can keep finishing at a 75 percent clip), this version of Kenny Cooper is still a forward who can and will help his team hold the ball, create space, and create chances for more than himself. This version is a striker who can help his team win.
Eight years is a long time to wait– I, like many others, had written Cooper off after last season. But for a transformation like this, it could prove to be well worth it.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.
ESPN 2 Preview: DC vs NY