The Kenny Cooper Conundrum

Sounds like a bad SciFi…er…SyFy movie, doesn’t it?

For Cooper, his recent stints with the US National Team must feel like a bad movie. With the US player pool notably lacking in strong goal-scorers, it’s no wonder he has a throng of fans clamoring for him to get call-ups.

At 6’3, Cooper’s combination of size and skill has made him a standout forward for FC Dallas of MLS. With a classy set of technical skills, including textbook striking technique, great touch, and good shiftiness for a man his size, Cooper would seem to be high on the list of forwards for the USMNT.

But that hasn’t been the case during Bob Bradley’s reign over the National Team – Cooper has scored only 2 goals in 6 appearances Nats. Bradley’s insistence on using “target strikers” has seemed to put an undue expectation on Cooper to play in that manner.

The problem is that Cooper wasn’t raised as a “target”, but rather as a skilled striker. He was brought to Manchester United as a youngster because his skill level was very high for a kid with such a big frame. He moved deftly on the pitch and showed an aptitude for individual skills that sizable strikers don’t normally develop.

However, it’s this particular skill set  that has made him such a divisive character for US fans.

On the one hand, some fans see a 6’3 striker with great strength and wonder why he doesn’t play like a target forward. There is a such a predominant notion that strikers with size can’t play like a smaller striker, that many criticize Cooper for his lack of physical play.

On the other hand, the rest of the fans see a big-time soccer talent with a great set of physical attributes for international soccer. Skill, size, and striking ability are plentiful in Cooper, and it’s rare to find strikers with this combination across the world, let alone in America.

Unfortunately, it’s Cooper’s lack of “target” abilities that has hindered his ascension to the American squad. Bradley doesn’t see a skilled striker, but a big man that doesn’t play like one. His philosophies leave no room for a such a player.

Further impeding Cooper’s success is the context of his call-ups. Of Cooper’s six appearances, none have been with the American “A” team. It’s hard to say he hasn’t warranted the call-up, though, having scored 40 goals in 93 matches for FC Dallas. Guys with worse scoring records like Davy Arnaud, Josh Wolff, Conor Casey, and Eddie Johnson have all been given more chances than Cooper.

Cooper’s play in the Gold Cup has been less than stellar so far, certainly adding fuel to the “Cooper is overrated” contingent, but I find it obtuse to criticize him too heavily for his start against Haiti.

He spent the game generally on the right-hand side, flanked by the enigmatic Santino Quaranta. Where Colin Clark was struggling, and thus allowing Davy Arnaud more touches near the left, Quaranta was dominating the ball on the right. This caused quite a few problems for Cooper, as Quaranta’s instincts to attack defenders in a 1v1 situation often brought him to the middle of the field, crowding Cooper’s space. The few times Cooper did manage to touch the ball, he was moving outward to the flank, both creating space for Quaranta’s dangerous, if selfish, runs inside and for himself. While it was smart for him to get out wide and actually get some touches, it also meant he was put in position to do very little to affect the game. Cooper is not an adept winger in any sense of the word, and was left with little options in his few touches.

Compounding the problem was Stuart Holden’s presence as an offensive-minded midfielder in the center, something highly unusual for a Bob Bradley team. Holden’s push through the middle, and his penchant for turning it over, made it that much tougher for Cooper to see any of the ball.

It’s these situations that make it tough to accurately judge Cooper’s value to the national team. Yes, he had little to no affect on the game, but it’s a bit foolish to think that the performance was entirely Cooper’s fault. There were plenty of other reasons and situations that led to Cooper’s lack of impact, rather than simple incompetence.

Personally, I’d much rather see Cooper get a few chances to pair up with Charlie Davies or Jozy Altidore (or even, gasp, Brian Ching) and play in a more traditional Bob Bradley formation, meaning a withdrawn set of midfielders in  the “empty bucket” formation. The lack of a true #10 presence (basically what Stu Holden was against Haiti) opens up a lot of space in the middle of attack for the strikers to work, as well as forces the outside midfielders to use their strikers, rather than ignore them.

Will the Kenny Cooper Conundrum be solved anytime soon? Probably not, but Cooper is only just 24 and still improving as a striker. The decline of our “target” players like Ching and Casey, and an eventual move overseas for Cooper means his days with the national team certainly aren’t numbered, they’re just not here yet.


8 Responses

  1. “Guys with worse scoring records like Davy Arnaud, Josh Wolff, Conor Casey, and Eddie Johnson have all been given more chances than Cooper.”

    Do u just make things up? EJ and Cooper have about the same goal rate for the nats at about 1 ever 3 games (not to mention EJ now plays in a much better league). Arnaud has less caps and scored in his only start. Josh Wolff hasnt been called in since Cooper was on the radar. If you havent noticed either, small strikers are fast, Cooper is not.

    Ability to adapt and play different styles is part of the game. Because Cooper played bad you act like a guy like Arnaud is garbage despite the fact he has more skill in the fields you credited Cooper for and can actually play phyiscal to boot.

  2. I want to raise another point:

    Last winter, the Hunts (FC Dallas owners) refused to sell Cooper to one of several European clubs who were interested in him. This, I think, frustrated him a lot as he obviously wanted out, and hindered the development of this skills quite a bit. It’s a shame. He’s being wasted there in Dallas and, unlike Landon Donovan, he isn’t independent enough to develop his skills in such a mediocre league (I love MLS as much as anyone; I’m a rabid DC United fan. But it really is a mediocre league). This unfortunate (and selfish) move by the Dallas FO has hurt Cooper more than it has helped the team, as the team sits near the bottom of the pack in the West and overall.

  3. thats a fair point Kevin

    and also fair to the Hunts and the MLS the offers were exteremly low ba

  4. ‘On the other hand, the rest of the fans…” So this is a black and white issue? I don’t agree with that. i for one would like him to add more physicality so he can use his skill set better. He’s not able to handle physical challenges. (he’ll never be a target guy)

    “Bradley doesn’t see a skilled striker,..” How do you know this? Have you interviewed Bob Bradley about this?

    “His (Bob Bradley’s)philosophies leave no room for a such a player…” Is Charlie Davies a target forward? When Dempsey moves up top is he then, in your opinion, being used by Bob Bradley as a target forward? When LD is playing as a forward is also being forced by Bob Bradley to play as target forward? The fact is that kenny has choked on every opportunity to secure his spot as the OFF forward. The one the target forward holds the balls up for. The one who is suppose to split the back four of the opposing team.

    “Guys with worse scoring records like Davy Arnaud, Josh Wolff, Conor Casey, and Eddie Johnson have all been given more chances than Cooper…” DAvy Arnaud, c’mon you are really stretching here. Josh Wolff and Eddie Johnson are WC veterans who has performed for the USMNT and delivered in big games. neither have been recenlty called in, thereby depriving KC a cap. Conor Casey was, selected for his ability to be a target player (as a replacement for an injured Ching). Cooper cannot do that. he is NOT competing for that spot. He is competing for the OFF position because of his skill set. The two have nothing to do with each other.

    “Cooper’s play in the Gold Cup has been less than stellar so far……Quaranta’s instincts to attack defenders in a 1v1 situation often brought him to the middle of the field, crowding Cooper’s space….. Compounding the problem was Stuart Holden’s presence as an offensive-minded midfielder in the center…” If you want a winger to stay on the wings and whip in endless crosses you are going to need a target forward. Cooper needs to be able to put himself in better positions to work with a winger like Quaranta. These are the type of players who should be able to work well off one another. KC is not Messi. You can’t give him the ball and expect him to take on the type of defenses he will see at the international level. He’s not that special. He’s used to being able to take apart MLS defenders like that but it’s not going to happen in WC or even WCQ for that matter.

    I do agree that he needs a look with Altidore or Ching with our more traditional set up. The guy has great skills. There is still a Forward position open for WC 2010 (after Jozy, Davies and Ching). I don’t have any other suggestions for that spot – EJ if he comes around for Fulham (they just sold a forward), Adu as a withdrawn striker? I have no answer. I’d love to see KC get the job. He’s choking right now and I think your argument misses the mark by a mile. The blame shouldn’t be on BB. He needs to look in the mirror and at tape of games. His positioning needs to improve – IMO, that’s all it will take.

    • Travis, thanks for the detailed response.

      I’m going to take issue with a few things, notably that you’ve misconstrued a few points in such a way as to elevate your argument.

      First of all, I didn’t mean to imply it’s a “black and white” issue – nothing is. It’s a bit dense to take those generalizations and think I’m painting a very specific picture of two parties toeing the same line. For the most part, I was trying to use a broad message there about the “debate” over Cooper that rages across message boards.

      I don’t have to interview Bob Bradley to see that he doesn’t rate Kenny Cooper. If Bradley saw skill and ability, he’d be calling in Cooper long before guys like Arnaud, Casey, and Eddie Johnson. Instead, it appears that Bradley sees a “target striker” that isn’t very good at being a target (like his favorites Ching and Casey).

      What’s the point of your criticism on the “philosophies”? Bradley uses a target striker whenever possible, and we have a plethora of talented other strikers that aren’t “targets” like Davies, Dempsey, and Donovan (when they actually play up top). The problem is that Cooper can’t play alongside Davies or Donovan because, in Bradley’s eyes, he’s not a good enough target man. If Bradley thought higher of him, we’d see him more. If Bradley thought his team should play with no target striker, we’d see him more.

      I’d like you to explain exactly how Kenny has “choked” in his 6 appearances? 2 appearances were as late substitutes (after the 80th minute), and he scored 2 goals in the other 4 appearances, none of which he was allowed to play the full 90.

      Arnaud, Wolff, and Johnson are all guys with worse professional scoring records than Cooper, but with far more chances to make an impression with the national team.
      To be clear, though, you’re argument again Cooper is “for” Eddie Johnson? Eddie Johnson who was lambasted for the past 2 years?
      And Eddie Johnson hasn’t been “playing” in a better league than Cooper, because Johnson hasn’t been “playing” hardly at all. He got a few late runouts for Cardiff last season, but that was it.

      You are arguing now that Cooper is competing for the “OFF” position, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. It appears that Bradley thinks Cooper is a “target” man, and a bad one at that.

      I’m not sure I quite understand your argument\criticism about the play of Quaranta. Quaranta is not a traditional wi and was never expected to play as one. He’s an attacking player that thrives on beating defenders off the dribble and attacking the inside of the box. He rarely uses his skill to hit the bylines and make crosses – it’s not his game.
      So how, exactly, is it Cooper’s fault?
      It was simply poor management of this lineup that led to an unbalanced field.
      There’s not much fault on Bradley there, though, since he was merely using a throwaway game to get everyone a start.

      Where did anyone mention Lionel Messi and Kenny Cooper in the same sentence? No one is expecting that level or style of play from Cooper (well, except the extreme Cooper fans). He’s a striker, through and through. He’s not a back-to-the-goal, post-up, target striker (like Ching or Casey) and he’s not a playmaker (like Deuce or Donovan) – he’s a finisher with good pace, size, and technical skill.
      I’m unsure of what you’re getting it with those remarks.

      Again, labeling Cooper as a “choker” right now is just being obtuse. You sound like someone who lives and dies by what Ives Galarcep says, and that’s not way to analyze soccer.

      Did he play particularly well against Haiti? Not really.
      Was there a whole lot he could have done to change that? Probably not.

      He spent the game playing his position, but the team behind him was turnover prone and far from cohesive. Cooper is not a workman-like player like Arnaud is, who makes up for his lack of skill\ability by outworking other players. He’s a purebred striker with a specific set of (good) abilities, notably his finishing, 1v1 skill, and movement into space.
      With the team he played with on Saturday, none of those abilities were able to shine, because he just wasn’t ever put in a position to be effective.

      The criticism of Cooper is harsh, and I understand it stems from a somewhat absurd throng of Cooper fans and the expectations placed on him, but good grief people need to lay off of the guy.

  5. Firstly, Who is Ives Galarcep?

    And your language did paint this as black and white. Either one is an idiot who think KC needs to leave behind his skills and be a target guy or one of the correct “fans see a big-time soccer talent with a great set of physical attributes for international soccer. ”

    I think in your reply you hit on the reason why BB doesn’t rate him – his work rate – not his skill set. I don’t know this for sure either but it seems obvious to everyone that KC is skilled technically. He has a lot in common with Freddy Adu. We need both of their skill sets to elevate our team however, we are not good enough as a whole to allow for players who do not have a well rounded game. I’m not sure I’m saying that right but hopefully you get the idea.

    I like Cooper. I want him to get the spot in 2010. He, just like Adu, need to get the work rate up. he in particular, IMO needs to check his positioning. My Messi analogy is directed at this belief. In order for KC to be effective at this level he must make himself available in better spaces on the pitch. In MLS this isn’t something he needs to do because he can, in essence, “Messi” his way passed defefnders. So the point that his development would be better served in a different league I agree with.

    Choking may have been harsh, however, when a normally confident player looks lost and tenative on the field, I label that choking. That’s what I’ve seen in his international appearances. Am i the only one? He hasn’t looked nearly the KC we see with Dallas – even against the weak teams he’s faced. Remember that Charlie Davies had proved himself agaisnt Copa America competition as well as with his club team. KC needs to make the most of these trials against lower level competition.

    I guess I totally disagree with your main point that BB is forcing him to play as a target guy.

    Quaranta plays on the wing with DC. About EJ? I brought him up as a possibility for the same position IF…I said IF, he gets himself together with Fulham. Like I said I would prefer a confident hard working KC there.

  6. Mr. Noel,

    Bradley is at the point where he has to think primarily about players for the 2010 WC.

    In terms of forwards, Jozy and Charlie are the only locks at this point.. Neither of them is a target forward per se. Both are quick and dangerous. Jozy is powerful while Charlie is speedy. Both have done well lately but both are very much works in progress. They could both do much better with their ball control and first touch. This will come as they play more because, at this level, that is usually mental.

    Right now I would bet Charlie comes into the WC the more polished player. Cooper’s main “competitor” for playing time is Jozy, the non-target forward. If Jozy flames out in Europe this year, that will be who Cooper would replace, not Davies.

    KCooper should work better with Charlie than with Jozy. Perhaps this is the reason KC has had so few opportunities; after all, even now, Jozy needs all the work he can get. This is why I think he may get a call up if we get to the semifinals and if his loan status remains unclear. For all his rawness, Jozy is hard to leave off the team because he is so potentially dangerous.

    The other problem for KC and any other forward candidate is Bradley is likely to take only three (Ching would be the other one) or maybe even two forwards due to Donovan and Demspey’s versatility. The versatile Stuart Holden’s emergence also is bad news for KC.

    At this point, if things stay the same, Cooper, Adu and all those other candidates look to be out of contention for 2010. On the other hand, 11 months is a long, long time in soccer terms so all these guys should just keep their nose to the grindstone and hope for the best.


    • much better said than the long blathering on that I did….but pretty much my intended message. Thanks for being more eloquent than me! LOL!

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