Many folks are a bit puzzled as to why U.S. coach Bob Bradley didn't pick FC Dallas forward Kenny Cooper for the qualifier in Guatemala City on Wednesday.
A fair question, since he's scored 13 goals in 20 league games this season, but stranger still is why Cooper apparently didn't get any consideration at all from Coach Peter Nowak for the Olympic squad, and that's no disrespect to forward Brian McBride, whose rugged, selfless play and unquenchable spirit certainly merited his selection.
However, a look at the other two over-age choices - keeper Brad Guzan and defender Michael Parkhurst - reflects a much different philosophy than to take a veteran leader like McBride, age 36.
Guzan and Parkhurst, both 24 this year, are narrowly over the Olympic age limit, and in their fourth seasons as professional players. Accelerating their development at this critical phase of their careers is as much a factor in naming them to the U.S. team as their quality, and playing tough international competition on a stage as grand as the Olympic Games presents an intense challenge.
Because the pace, sophistication and tactical acumen of MLS are still well below the world's best leagues, the jump to the international level is a steep one, even at the under-23 tier. Ostensibly, U.S. Soccer coaches picked McBride to add leadership and experience to a young team in an effort to land the Americans a medal. For the past two years, Bradley has expressed a need to find another player like McBride, and Cooper certainly fits the bill, at least physically.
Cooper (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) is bigger than McBride (6-feet, 175 pounds) if not nearly as accomplished. Like Parkhurst and Guzan, he turns 24 this year; is it safe to his assume he'd have derived the same benefits as them from playing tough games in pressure conditions?
Bradley did take Houston forward Brian Ching, 31, to Guatemala City. Ching (6-foot-1, 195) is cut much from the same mold as McBride, and has also taken his share of physical abuse, with facial, hamstring, and Achilles' tendon injuries blotting his pro career. In the eight U.S. games this year, Ching has played twice and scored two goals, upping his totals to seven goals in 27 appearances. He's certainly deserving of inclusion to face difficult conditions in Guatemala City.
What Cooper doesn't have, supposedly, is the McBride reputation of toughness, fearlessness, and absolute devotion to the U.S. cause. He's been criticized for not using his size to its fullest advantage, for not mixing it up more in the mixer, for not flailing and flying around to scrap at every loose ball.
Yet his numbers are good enough that Norwegian club Rosenborg would have paid more than $3 million for him. Welsh club Cardiff City bid even more than that, but FC Dallas management isn't willing to sell. At least not yet.
The Olympic roster limit is 18 players, and Nowak's selection problems were compounded by players unavailable due to their club situations and injuries. Rumors of Cooper heading overseas were swirling during the All-Star Game, but during the preceding months amid all the speculation about who Nowak would take to fill the over-age slots - Landon Donovan, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu - Cooper's name never came up.
Cooper scored on his U.S. debut, a 3-1 win over Denmark in January, 2007, and came on as a sub again two months later in a 0-0 tie against Guatemala at Pizza Hut Park. A broken leg limited him to 14 MLS games last season, so his exclusion from subsequent U.S. matches could be explained by the injury. But his impressive numbers this year would seem to have earned a callup or two, at least.
It's not unknown for a prolific scorer be excluded by his national team coach. Marco Van Basten didn't name Roy Makaay to the 2006 Dutch World Cup squad even though he'd been scoring regularly for a little German club named Bayern Munich. Ironically, Makaay did make it to the 2008 Olympics and suffered a foot injury in the Dutch opener against Nigeria, but recovered in time to play against the USA.
The Olympic opportunity is gone - at least until 2012, assuming the Americans qualify - and the slim margin of error in the semifinal qualifying phase, with only six matches played and two of four teams advancing to the Hexagonal, might preclude Cooper from getting a chance this year.
One aspect of his game is sure to improve under new Coach Schellas Hyndman: concentration, focus, staying tuned in, which are all critical elements at the international level. His finishing could be sharper, his footwork needs to be cleaner. He leads the league with 85 shots, 25 more than runner-up Dwayne DeRosario.
But should his prolific scoring continue, further exclusion would require explanation. Big, strong forwards who can score goals don't grow on trees, especially in America.