Scoring an acute angle goal against a local rival en route to a big victory is enough to send any striker into massive celebration. Yet Kenny Cooper didn’t. In fact, he chose to be apologetic about his moment of brilliance instead.
And that is part of the problem when talking about the Baltimore native.
As the video above displays, Cooper looked embarrassed after scoring the third goal of the night in New York’s crushing 3-0 victory over the Union this weekend. Clasping his face, you can clearly see him mouth the words “my bad” as Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, who was open on his far left during the play, came to congratulate him.
Is that any kind of reaction for a player who has enjoyed perhaps the most staggering one year turnaround in MLS?
Throughout the season, Thierry Henry and Coach Hans Backe have led a campaign of constructive criticism directed at changing and improving their gentle giant. He doesn’t use his body enough they said. He needs to hold up play and find his teammates they said.
18 goals later, the criticism hasn’t let up.
When asked about Cooper’s play this season after the Union match, Thierry Henry let out an almost exasperated laugh. “That’s what he does best,” he said, before repeating, “That’s what he does best. Dax (McCarty) gave him a great ball, he had a penalty today, but we all have to do a little bit more. As the center forward, sometimes you’ve got to keep the ball better up front.
“It’s not all about scoring goals,” he continued. “You got to keep the ball better sometimes up front and also pass the ball to your teammates,” he emphasized, almost agitated in his response. “That’s also important. But 18 goals, we need that and we are going to need more of his goals and more of him.”
Almost in lock step, Backe was equally reserved in his response. Normally one to heap praise upon his players for any positive actions they add to the team’s play, the Red Bull’s boss instead chose a measured, if not overly explanatory assessment of his strikers play, crediting his teammates more than the forwards’ individual performance itself.
“I don’t look at stats or something like that,” he stated. “I think Kenny Cooper’s a striker that needs good surroundings, needs players that can set him up for finishing.
“I was surprised when he scored the second one. It looked like a mistake from the goalie. I mean, normally, you can’t score from that angle. But still, he’s there and I mean, I think he’s up to 18 (goals) or something like that now, and, of course, he needs good players around him to set him up.”
Do Henry and Backe have a point? Of course (and Cooper would admit it!). Backe has said it all year long; Cooper is “perhaps too nice” for a forward measuring 6’4” and 200 plus pounds of pure muscle. He is more apt to channel his inner Fredy Montero and look for a pretty touch on net than he is to bulldoze defenders on route to a thunderous header. He prefers to take a run up on play despite his lack of speed than he is to hold a ball and shove a defender to the side while waiting for the cavalry to arrive in the box.
He is a small forward trapped in a tank’s body.
Does that make it right to critique a man after nailing a brace just shy of the playoffs? That is where criticism becomes questionable.
Coopers docile demeanor allows him to take critique even after a strong performance. He is the first person in at practice, the last one to leave, and the most helpful guy on the training grounds throughout. In a post game setting, you can practically pan out his answers before he even mutters a word.
He will never credit himself. He will always praise his teammates. He will never neglect to compliment and be in awe of the play of perhaps his biggest critic in Thierry Henry. Most of all, he will never muddy himself in drama. Don’t believe me? Here he is after scoring two on the Union:
“You know, it’s just great service from my teammates,” he said. “Tim (Cahill) did really well to draw (the penalty) and the other goals were right in front of the goal … I have to credit my teammates for the amazing service. You know, there are so many talented guys around me. As a forward, it’s amazing to feel so much confidence in the people around you. When you play with someone like Thierry Henry, it’s an incredible privilege. He has assisted on many of my goals this year. Fortunately I was able to finish a couple today.”
That wasn’t spliced to make a point; that’s his description of his night, verbatim. Not one word about himself. Not one utterance against his teammates.
It is that kind of attitude that prompted Tim Cahill to call him “the ultimate pro.”
“He always puts his body on the line, he’s the first one in and last to leave. Even when he’s not playing, he’s a perfect professional,” Cahill said. “He gets his goals because he works hard. He makes some good runs and as you see today, if we feed him, he’ll score. If we don’t concede, we are going to win a lot of games. I think today was a perfect example of it. Today, we created a hell of a lot. I am so happy for him. I said it to him before the game that it would be good to see him score a couple today and that’s what he did. Fair play.”
Of course, Cahill’s absence through more than half a season forces him to only judge Cooper from a handful of games, an impressive stat line and a class character in the locker room. He wasn’t there when Henry and Backe reluctantly waved goodbye to Luke Rodgers and tried to retool their offense to work through this risky new investment. He didn’t witness the plethora of matches where the duo implored him to be more physical and get his head on the end of set piece situations.
In total, Cahill missed the nurturing stage of Cooper’s rebirth.
For his brace against the Union, the league named Cooper MLS Player of the Week. It is a righteous and deserving honor bestowed upon a man who earned the distinction amongst a field of equally deserving players.
Nevertheless, it will do little to change the team’s perception of him in the locker room.
Does Cooper need to toughen up? Absolutely. Can he use his hulking mass more effectively? Without question. Still, on a night where he manages to score two en route to a thrilling 3-0 victory to close out the season, is it necessary to keep badgering on about his short comings? Does he have to feel guilty about scoring a goal because he has a habit of taking one too many shots?
He may be far from perfect, but 18 goals speak for themselves. And the way he has done it – at times being forced to earn his starting position despite tallying some impressive numbers – deserves plaudits as well. At this stage in the game, with DC United bearing down in a vital home and home playoff series, confidence is key. To slight Cooper’s accomplishments when they need him to be mentally sharp is fool-hardy and counterproductive.
For once, New York should have given the big man his due. He isn’t perfect, but few can deny how vital he is. Cooper may not be looking for a pat on the back – that’s just not his style – but it would surely be more productive than the willful negligence of his accomplishments.