Whatever Hunt Sports Group ends up doing with Kenny Cooper it is playing two very risky games.
With European clubs trying to buy him, it is playing hardball. With Cooper himself, HSG is dealing low-ball. Since it holds the cards at both tables as well as the backing of MLS, HSG may win both games yet lose out in a third game, that of public opinion.
On the one hand, HSG doesn't want to lose Cooper, at least not yet, which is a sensible stance competitively as well as from publicity standpoint. The strapping, affable Cooper scores goals and is proud to represent the team. "The face of the franchise" is cliché that grates on the nerves, yet Cooper is just that, and especially vital for a team whose attempts to stamp itself with an identity include a knuckleheaded quasi-nickname, to wit, "Hoops."
That good nature, though, is being tested by HSG. It has so far refused to offer Cooper, who has scored 33 goals in 75 games and after netting 18 goals in 2008 was named Comeback Player of the Year, with a salary anything close to what he could earn in Europe. It has tossed out numbers in the neighborhood of $300,000, which is less than one-half of what Norwegian club Rosenborg was prepared to pay, but a staggering increase from his current base salary of $80,000.
Last summer, a $3 million offer from Rosenborg was turned down, and inquiries from Cardiff City - which either did or didn't up the ante to $4 million, depending on who you believe - also petered out. Cooper stayed with FC Dallas and as he continued to score, HSG and MLS upped the ante as well.
When Bundesliga club Eintracht Frankfurt inquired about Cooper two months ago, it calculated the fee would be in the neighborhood of $3 million. HSG and Eintracht agreed Cooper would visit for a week and train while negotiations continued, but the German club balked when HSG also insisted Eintracht take out an insurance policy in case Cooper was injured.
HSG asked the policy be valued at $5 million, which is also the high end of the transfer fee it was seeking. In any case, the price would be no lower than $4.5 million, and Eintracht officials declined to pursue the matter.
There's no evidence HSG blind-sided Eintracht by jacking up the price on Cooper during negotiations, and only HSG officials know what they would have done had Eintracht agreed to their terms. Cooper is certainly a valuable commodity HSG is keen to keep, and it wouldn't be the first MLS group to low-ball one of its top players while it still can.
HSG and the other MLS operator-investors are not compelled, nor committed, to bid against foreign clubs, and only one American player, Claudio Reyna, has been classified as a Designated Player. Historically and currently, American players don't make that much in MLS, aside from Reyna and Landon Donovan and a few others.
Reyna's long list of injuries eventually forced him to retire after playing just 27 MLS games; Donovan has won three MLS Cups while scoring 84 goals and registering 49 assists in eight MLS seasons, and has joined Bayern Munich on a very peculiar loan.
To back up its penurious stance regarding Cooper, HSG officials can cite cases such as Taylor Twellman, who has scored 109 goals (including playoffs) and received two huge increases during his MLS career, yet plays for the maximum salary ($325,000 base). The Revolution operator-investor, Kraft Sports, also rebuffed efforts a year ago by a foreign team, in this case Preston North End, to acquire him for a transfer fee reported to be $2.5 million. Ah, precedent!
Fortunately for HSG and the FCD fans, they have a loyal soldier in Cooper, who didn't publicly express anger and disappointment, a la Twellman, when foreign deals broke down. Cooper has yet to equal the accomplishments of Twellman or Donovan, but as those cases illustrate, production doesn't necessarily relate to salary.
Cooper holds a few valuable cards of his own: a contract that expires at the end of 2010, the adoration and affection of the Dallas fans, a commitment to club instead of self, and a recall to the U.S. national team, for which he scored his second goal - in three appearances - two months ago against Guatemala.
Team management is acutely aware that of the original MLS teams, it is the only one not to play in an MLS Cup, thanks to Columbus and New York meeting at Home Depot Center on Nov. 23. It may be lonely at the top, but it's absolute isolation at the bottom.
If no transfer deal is done in 2009, the fee MLS and FCD can command for him may drop as the remaining portion of his contract shrinks, no matter how many goals he scores. HSG will get him at a bargain price if he doesn't sign a new MLS contract, but it probably has just this one year to use a valuable asset.