It was a wet moment. It was a cold moment. But for Armando Cooper and Toronto FC, it was a key moment. It was the second leg of the Eastern Conference final. Down 1-0 in the game and 4-2 on aggregate, things did not look good for the Reds. Then, in the 37th minute, Sebastian Giovinco’s corner found the middle of the six-yard box and, a few touches later, the ball was in the back of the net. Cue the comeback.
But more than the goal itself, it was Cooper’s reaction that stood out. It was his first goal for TFC. Indeed, it was his first goal in MLS. Yet, there were no boisterous or flamboyant celebrations. There was momentary jubilation, but then a look of stern resolve as he urged his teammates back to the centre circle as if to say: “Let’s go. There’s still work to be done.”
All for one.
What a far cry (pun intended) from Cooper’s initial appearances with the club in September. In his first match, Cooper flipped and flopped all over the field, trying to use his flair for the dramatic to draw fouls. Run, fall, roll, cry, repeat. It was, at times, quite comical. There were no shots on target, no assists and most certainly no goals. Just a bit of speed and plenty of theatrics.
Then came his second match. More flopping, coupled with a reckless and selfish decision. In the 90th minute, Cooper kicked New York Red Bulls midfielder Felipe in his back as he lay writhing on the pitch. True, Felipe was over-acting. True, it had been a tense match that ended in a draw. True, the ‘kick’ was more of a ‘love-tap’. But why aim a sly boot at an opponent while he’s on the ground? Why take the risk of being sent off and miss the remaining four minutes of added time? Why put your team in that position?
All for me.
Cooper was fined for that incident, and was suspended for TFC’s next match. During his suspension, something revolutionary must have happened. Whether it was an epiphany, or frank discussions with Greg Vanney and Tim Bezbatchenko, Cooper returned a changed man. He started all of TFC’s remaining 10 games, the playoffs included. He showed ball skills that left opposing defenders flat-footed and his shots-on-goal and shots-on-target stats jumped appreciably, resulting in a goal and three assists. There were still a few dives, but just a handful.
Especially during the final games of 2016, Cooper agitated the opposition and defended his teammates. In the opening leg against New York City he got under the skin of the league’s Most Valuable Player - so much so that David Villa lashed out with a kick to the back of Cooper’s right knee, an offence for which he should have been sent off and suspended for the return game. After the incident, Cooper told reporters: “A few plays earlier David had fouled [Sebastian Giovinco]. I told David it was a strong foul. I did not do it politely.” Cooper took one for the team.
All for one.
Cooper’s performances gained high praise from his teammates. Jozy Altidore told the media: “(Armando) has been a quality, quality signing… he’s a guy that you look towards next year and you hope he’s around.” Done deal. Shortly after the MLS Cup final, Cooper was signed on a permanent basis. His loan from Arabe Unido of Panama was over and he was a full-time Red - an honour well-earned.
Heading into 2017, what is Cooper’s ideal role? Since the offseason began, TFC fans and media alike have been beating the drum for a new attacking midfielder to play the No. 10 role. Given that we are less than a month away from the start of the season, and the January transfer window has closed, perhaps Vanney and Bezbatchenko are planning to start Cooper in this spot.
This will be a stretch right out of the gate, but maybe it’s a role that Cooper can grow into as the year progresses. In order to do that, however, he will need to improve both his vision and passing. During his brief stint in 2016, he lacked the ability to routinely lead his forwards into defence-splitting passes into open space. Too often, they were weak and telegraphed. Because he often played it short, however, his pass-completion rate ended up at a very high 80.5%.
At 29 years of age, Cooper is in his prime. This, coupled with the steady progression shown over his first 12 MLS appearances, bodes well for the 2017 campaign. Whether Cooper plays the No. 10 or the No. 8, he is an integral piece of TFC’s midfield. There is no doubt that he will play the role assigned to him to the best of his abilities. Through an interpreter, Cooper proclaimed: “This is a gorgeous city and a great club. I really hope to be here longer… I’m excited about it.” He wants to be here and, more importantly, his teammates want him here.
Todos para uno.