[MLS] Kenny Cooper is fired up about just about everything he's seen and felt in his new home city, but it's the billboards around Portland he just has to talk about.
“I’ve been so impressed with the support for the team since I’ve come to the city with all the billboards and everything,” he said a few days after being formally introduced Feb. 10 at a press conference. “Without even playing a game for them, I feel a real tangible excitement for the team. As players we all crave to be in that kind of atmosphere, when you’re playing in front of fans who really love and support the game.
On Friday, he and the Timbers get their first MLS test against bitter Northwest rival Seattle. It won’t be at Qwest Field, but rather at the Sounders’ training facility in Tukwila in the Cascadia Summit preseason tournament that also includes Vancouver, which is joining MLS this season along with Portland. The Timbers play Vancouver Saturday, and the round-robin event concludes Sunday when the Sounders and Whitecaps square off.
Last September, a billboard – resplendent with a large axe and Timbers logo -- placed a few blocks from Qwest Field proclaimed Portland as “Soccer City USA 2011,” and ratcheted up a rivalry that dates back to the old North American Soccer League. Since the NASL’s demise in 1984, the teams have gone through various incarnations. Seattle and Portland have played a few times in the U.S. Open Cup, and both teams have met Vancouver in lower-division play.
As the son of former NASL goalkeeper Ken Cooper, who played for the Dallas Tornado, he’s heard tales of the Great Northwest Rivalry and is eager to see it, and live it, first-hand.
“The love for the game in the Pacific Northwest is the same it was in the days of the NASL,” says the younger Cooper. “It’s cool, as the son of a former NASL player, so share some of the experiences that my father had. To hear stories of his career and relate stories to each other is a unique thing, and I’ve been so impressed with the support for the team since I’ve come to the city with all the billboards.”
Portland used its spot atop the allocation rankings to acquire Cooper, who left MLS during the 2009 season in a transfer to German club 1860 Munich. Injuries and coaching changes prompted him to seek a better alternative, and the league negotiated a deal to bring him back despite a year and a half remaining on his contract.
“I was still under contract, so I had the opportunity to stay there, but this feels right,” he says. “Being at training and being with the players and going around the city, I’m ecstatic to be here and be part of this organization. There’s a real, tangible excitement in the city. It’s a unique opportunity to be part of a new team in a city that has embraced the game like Portland has. It feels like a great fit.”
Forty goals in 90 MLS league matches and five goals in 11 national team appearances were good reasons for Coach John Spencer to seek his services, and his importance to the Timbers’ attack is magnified by a sports-hernia surgery that will sideline Darlington Nagbe, the No. 2 overall SuperDraft pick, at the start of the season, and a torn Achilles' tendon suffered by Bright Dike that will keep him out until mid-summer. Three forwards, including Colombian Jorge Perlaza, are on the preseason roster but have yet to sign MLS contracts.
With season kicking off in just two weeks, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound native of Baltimore -- who spent much of his youth in locker rooms and training sessions as his dad played and coached – is ready to do whatever is needed.
“Having been in the league for about four years, one of the great things about coming to play for someone who’s also been in the league is that there’s a great familiarity there,” says Cooper of Spencer, a former Glasgow Rangers and Chelsea player who ended his career in Colorado before taking an assistant coaching job with Houston in 2006.
“At the end of the day, John’s the boss and I want to be able to give him whatever he wants from me. I hope that I’m not a one-dimensional player and I can give him some different options, and bring a lot of energy into the team and some leadership. I just want to give him whatever he wants, whether that’s up front or out wide or wherever.”
Spencer concurs that the large-lad-you-lump-the-ball-to role some observers envision for 6-foot-3 Cooper unfairly limits him.
“He’s not just a big target man you stand up top and knock long balls to,” says Spencer, who as a Dynamo assistant plotted ways to thwart his recent signing. “He’s someone who can get through the channels, he’s got great mobility, two good feet, and he can score goals. He can play well with his back to goal, he can run the channel, he holds the ball up, he’s good in the air, and obviously he’s good on set pieces for and against.
“I just think he has the ability to be a top player in this league. We wouldn’t have brought him here otherwise.”