Kenny Cooper's Meteoric Rise from Mediocrity

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 30: Cooper: Night and day experiences lately in MLS. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Chivas USA will have their hands full when they head into Gotham to face off against a familiar face and the New York Red Bulls in a midweek fixture tonight. Not even a week after a flurry of trades and an emotional win over the LA Galaxy, the Goats will be making the 3,000 mile trek to take on the top team in the East points-wise.

Despite injuries to Thierry Henry and Teemu Tainio, the Red Bulls are on a five game winning streak, three of which were shutouts. The Red Bulls are driven by spectacular individual performances. For evidence of this, consider that four of the eight players selected in Steve Davis' Prosoccertalk.com's Players of the Week feature have been Red Bulls players (Henry in week 3 and 4, Kenny Cooper in week 5 and Dax McCarty in week 8).

Perhaps no name in that list is as remarkable as Kenny Cooper's. Vilified by fans in Portland, Cooper was shipped to the Red Bulls in a draft day deal for a pittance: a first round draft pick and the typically undisclosed amount of allocation money.

Where Cooper struggled in Portland, he has thrived in the Big Apple, ironically within the same system that pundits argue stymied Juan Agudelo's growth. Through 12 games, Cooper has ten goals--two more than all of last season with the Timbers--and already two braces. The turnabout may have in fact placed Cooper back into the USMNT fold which would have been unthinkable mere months ago.

A child of a NASL legend and a product of the Manchester United Youth Academy, Cooper is one of three ex-FC Dallas upper echelon players currently playing for the Red Bulls (McCarty and now Heath Pearce being the others). Cooper's performance with Dallas went well enough to earn a transfer to a German second division club. Injuries and playing time caused Cooper to return to MLS where he was snatched by the Timbers in the allocation draft* to much fanfare.

* By sheer happenstance, Cooper's teammate Dax McCarty was a temporary member of the Timbers courtesy of the MLS expansion draft. Left unprotected by FC Dallas, Portland selected McCarty and immediately shipped the midfielder to DC United in exchange for defender Rodney Wallace. McCarty was later traded during the season, straight up, for Dwayne De Rosario, the winner of last year's MVP award.

The fanfare soon subsided and by the time of penalty shot fiasco against DC United last May, it was clear to all that Cooper's time in Portland would be short. Despite immediately apologizing to the team and fans following the game, the sight of Cooper and Spencer jawing on the sideline burnt an indelible image in fans' minds.

Cooper lost his starting job as the trade rumors began flying despite the Portland front offices attempts to quell them. All the while Cooper continued to play for the team in the Reserves and as a late game substitute. Were it not for the freak pre-game concussion injury suffered by Eddie Johnson, it's debatable if Cooper would have ever returned to the starting eleven for the Timbers.

It certainly didn't help matters that Cooper's playing style never seemed to jibe with the plans of Portland coach John Spencer. Spencer, a hard-as-nails striker during his time at Chelsea, wanted a "true number 9 striker" which was a mold Cooper was never really shaped for. Cooper seldom outmuscled defenders and often dropped as far back as to hound opposing strikers into his own penalty box. All the while, Spencer's direct attacking style often found Cooper in an offside position.

New York acquired Cooper as insurance should striker Luke Rodgers' visa issues prevent the English striker from returning to the states, which indeed was the case. Cooper scored in his first Red Bulls game this season--against Dallas as it turned out--despite not starting the match.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, fans, especially in Portland, are struggling for an explanation for Kenny Cooper's recent change in form. At first it seemed obvious: partnering with an international legend like Henry who defenses key in on allowed Cooper to poach goals. But this has been effectively disproved as Cooper's goal tally continues to rise while Henry is on injured reserve.

Another popular theory is revenge, i.e. "I'm going to show Portland what they missed." That hardly sounds plausible for a professional athlete, especially given that Cooper is not only a veteran professional soccer player, but he comes from a family of soccer players.

More to the point: despite the rough year in Portland, Cooper, praised his experience in Portland. In an interview on the NASN podcast Soccer Made in Portland, Cooper said, "John [Spencer] has been really good to me … I'm a better player for having spent time under him." Not exactly the sentiment of a bitter ex-player. In fact Cooper went onto to say it was an "honor" to be part of the inaugural season in MLS.

The answer some Timbers fans suggest is Cooper is getting better service in New York. After all, they conclude, why doesn't Kris Boyd have more than three goals?

Is he just getting better service than in Portland? Not so fast. Soccer Made in Portland host Michael Orr (aka Mao) says the idea is, "absolutely absurd".

Perhaps it's something even simpler. What if Cooper is simply converting a higher percentage of his shots? MLS writer Andrew Wiebe, using data from Opta, posted an intriguing article on April 17, and posited the following on MLSSoccer.com:

On average, MLS sides have converted 18.1 percent of their shots inside the penalty area into goals … New York has finished an astounding 48.4 percent, with Henry and Cooper accounting for 12 of those 14 strikes.

Wiebe goes on to state that he expects the data to regress to the mean. In other words, the Red Bulls have been, for lack of a better word, lucky, and at some point you can reasonably expect their luck to catch up with them. It's similar to the BABIP statistic in baseball--if a player on year has a high batting average against balls in play, you could reasonably expect that player is 1) somewhat lucky and 2) his numbers will decline in the following year.

Since Wiebe's article was posted, Henry injured his hamstring and has missed the last handful of games. The team has gone to a 4-5-1 formation with Cooper as the sole striker. Initially, Cooper went scoreless for three games but now has a three game scoring streak on the line.

Depending whether or not Henry returns, Chivas can contain Cooper but it will take a coordinated effort between the center backs and Dan Kennedy. The key to defending Cooper--without overstating the obvious--is to come at him and play him physically all the while being careful not to collect fouls or cards. Set pieces are times when Cooper is especially dangerous. Last year the majority of Portland's goals came from set pieces. In 2012 Portland just scored with their first set piece of the season on Sunday. It might be a coincidence but I'm inclined to think not.

At 6'3 and 215 pounds Cooper has the markings of an aerial threat. But it's Cooper's legs--not his upper body--where his strength lies--just ask former teammate Troy Perkins who missed the first month of the 2011 MLS season with a kneecap that took a direct hit from a Cooper volley in practice. He'll get an occasional header, but Cooper's goals come from his feet.

Everyone likes a redemption story and Kenny Cooper is certainly a person who has had to overcome setbacks and adversity. As a naturally shy, introverted personality, Cooper is content to be the quiet man to the larger personalities on the team. Being a team leader and face of the franchise in Portland was a burden Cooper accepted though it likely sapped him. It's probably not much of a stretch to say Kenny Cooper is now having as much fun playing soccer now as he ever has.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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