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Toronto FC’s Armando Cooper shall not pass (but really should)

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Through the first two games of the season, the midfielder’s decision-making has been off.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

This week, it feels like most Toronto FC articles have been prefaced with something along the lines of “two points from two road games is nothing to be disappointed about”. I agree with that, too.

TFC’s two performances so far are absolutely not above criticism, though. There are definitely a few things worth being concerned about, prominent among which is the hot-and-cold showings we’ve seen from Armando Cooper.

As we learned last week, Cooper is one of the pricier players in TFC’s lineup. Does that make it fair to hold him to a higher standard than Jonathan Osorio, for instance?

Maybe. Who knows.

Either way, Cooper has been among the culprits in Toronto’s lacklustre midfield through the first two games.

Cooper is, without a doubt, a talented dribbler. There’s an argument to be made that he can beat defenders one-on-one better than any other player on the roster.

He also tends to go down fairly easily, though. Watch him here in a game last year against D.C. United (one of his best performances, in my opinion):

Great show of skill along the touchline, and a nutmeg that’s worth the price of admission. Not much to cause him to go down in the box like that, though. That, to me, is a prototypical Cooper play.

The thing is, he’s also pretty good out in the open, with decent pace and good passing ability. We can see that from these two plays in that same D.C. game:

Beats the defender, finds Mo Babouli and switches over toward the 18-yard box to find space for a cross. Babouli and Mark Bloom don’t make anything of it on that occasion, but again:

Cooper uses his body to secure control, gets ahead a little bit, and finds Jonathan Osorio well.

This season, it seems like he’s had some trouble with decision-making. In the first game against Real Salt Lake, he managed just one successful dribble, high in midfield, and four unsuccessful. The Philadelphia game was a little better, with three successful dribbles, but he was dispossessed five times and made two unsuccessful touches.

Against Philly, Cooper had the best pass accuracy on the team, with 87.5% of his passes finding a teammate. He only made 32 though, fewer than any other midfielder or defender.

From the RSL game, here’s a telling clip of Cooper’s decision-making:

TFC have players forward in attack - including Jozy Altidore, who’s onside behind the defence - but Cooper runs directly at the RSL centre-backs and loses the ball.

He’s done things like that a lot this season, choosing to try and beat a defender himself rather than looking for a pass.

Here, against Philly, he goes down easily as a last resort when his dribble doesn’t work, but it seems referees may no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. This clip might be the worst one, as pretty much everything Cooper does is head-scratching at best.

TFC’s defenders do well to break up the Union attack and Michael Bradley comes up with the ball. This could be a good opportunity to counter-attack, and Bradley may have been looking for Cooper to make a run down the wing.

Cooper hangs behind Bradley, though, who at that point has no choice but to dish to him. Left with no passing option, Cooper runs straight at the Union player, putting the ball well ahead of himself, and goes down hard. No foul, and Philadelphia go back on attack.

That mistake led to the Union’s tying goal, by the way.

Again here, watch Cooper try to make the pretty play rather than pass:

In this case Cooper actually gets called for a foul himself, and picks up a booking for it.

What’s most confusing about all this is that Cooper very much has the capacity to run smart passing plays.

First of all, here was a good little play when TFC had a solid numerical advantage down the side. This is probably an ideal picture of what can happen when he links up well with Sebastian Giovinco and Altidore, as he is able to do:

That play let to Giovinco’s penalty, of course.

This one, too, against Philly, shows how useful Cooper can be when he helps calm down the attack and circulate possession. This was one of Toronto’s best chances in that game and maybe the best passing move we’ve seen from them this season:

That is pretty football. Cooper takes charge here by laying off to Victor Vazquez and immediately pointing where he wants the return pass before feeding Altidore beautifully.

This play is a serious cause for optimism, because if Cooper and Vazquez can combine like that more consistently they will be a formidable midfield partnership moving forward.

Ultimately, Cooper is a very valuable player for TFC but either his decision-making or his skill on the ball has been lacking too often this season. Hopefully this is something that improves as the team begins to shake off some early-season rust.