5:25 pm Apr. 16, 2012
Kenny Cooper, who plays striker for the New York Red Bulls, really belongs at the center of attention in a concentrated media campaign.
Cooper, a muscular 6'3", quick to smile and overflowing with joy that he gets to play soccer after growing up in, as he put it, "a soccer family", is tied for the scoring lead in Major League Soccer this season, with seven goals. (He scored his seventh Saturday night, in a 2-2 tie against San Jose.)
His success is nothing new; back in 2008, he was named to M.L.S.'s Best XI while playing for FC Dallas, and spent several years with Machester United after a talent scout recommended him to the Premier League giant.
But it is Cooper's fate, at the moment, to be playing next to the world-class Thierry Henry, who also has seven goals. The world-famous Henry, former star of Arsenal and Barcelona and an idol of Cooper's, gets the majority of media attention bestowed upon the Red Bulls. Henry was named the M.L.S. Player of the Month for March, and won the Player of the Week award three weeks in a row.
Not that Cooper minds, now that he is once again healthy, playing as well as he ever has, and scoring goals in bunches for the most dynamic attack in the league.
"He's just been exceptional," Cooper said of Henry, in an interview at Red Bull Arena, following practice last Thursday. "He's been leading by example. He does everything. He scores goals, he creates them. It's a real privilege to be out there on the same field as him."
But if Cooper sounds like Henry's biggest fan—and with the chances Henry is creating for Cooper, it would be understandable—Henry was also lavish in his praise for Cooper, whose skill in finishing has opened up the field for Henry in a way he hasn't seen since arriving in New York back in 2010.
"You've got to give him credit," Henry said of Cooper to the media scrum on the sideline following Thursday's practice. "He played all the friendly games, scoring goals, and then suddenly he's on the bench, beginning of the season ... He kept on working, and he's been scoring goals. For him to not drop his head when he was doing, I think, really well, and to show the boss yet again that he should be playing, that's when I think you have to give him credit for his mentality."
As Henry noted, Cooper wasn't even supposed to receive this chance. The Red Bulls traded for him on draft day this winter as a backup to prodigy Juan Agudelo and last year's best attacking partner for Henry, Luke Rodgers. But Agudelo is out with a knee injury, and the Red Bulls terminated Rodgers' contract after his work visa was not renewed.
Cooper excelled in the preseason, but coach Hans Backe started Agudelo instead in the season's first two games. New York scored a single goal; by Cooper, as a substitute. Over the past four games, with Cooper and Henry playing every minute, New York has scored 15.
Cooper has had plenty of practice navigating the ups and downs of a career with so many of them, particularly given the fact that he's just 27 years old. He was signed by Manchester United right out of high school, but never got the chance to appear with the first team. He returned to the United States, became a star for his hometown team, FC Dallas, doing so not only in his hometown, but the place where his father, Kenny Cooper Sr., had been a standout goalkeeper with the NASL's Dallas Tornado.
"It was a bit of a unique situation, playing in Dallas, my home town," Cooper said, smiling at the memory of it. "It's memories I cherish, looking up in the stands and seeing my family up there, being able to share the good times with them, and have their support for the good times and bad times was really special."
But after getting sold to the German Bundesliga's 1860 Munich, he again battled for playing time and through injuries, finding himself out of both his various club team and worse, the United States national team's plans.
Finally returning to the States, he played with the expansion Portland Timbers last season, proving he was healthy by playing in all 34 regular season games. But the once-prolific scorer, who tallied 40 goals in 90 appearances with FC Dallas, managed just eight goals all season.
His goal-scoring this year serves as a reminder: even the most talented finisher needs proper service to put the ball in the back of the net. One gets the feeling the relentlessly positive Cooper would sooner cut off his arm than criticize his former teammates, but he is obviously thrilled by his new circumstances.
"As a striker, it's great to feel confidence in the guys around you, and I certainly feel that with each and every player out there," Cooper said.
And even playing in New York has been a family homecoming of sorts for Cooper.
"It's kind of funny, because I have my wife's family out here on the East coast," Cooper said. "So it's been nice for them to have a turn, to share all these experiences from my career. It's nice to be somewhere where I have the support of family and friends, and fortunately I have that here."
If this current run of form continues, it will be awfully difficult for U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann to ignore Cooper, whose size and accuracy would make him a formidable weapon on the national stage.
"I saw the boss recently talk about him going to the national team," Henry said of Cooper. "Kenny could have a good chance for the next—I mean, I'm not the boss, I'm not giving any advice to anybody here. I'm just saying, the guy deserves it, what he's been doing recently."
But if Cooper is frustrated by any of the detours his career has taken, he's not showing it.
"My career has been a great journey so far," Cooper said. "It's taken me around the world. There's been good experiences, there's been bad ones, but all things I think I've been able to learn from. I've had amazing opportunities to travel the world, and be around heroes of mine. And I'm in that situation now."