Twelve games into the 2017 season and Armando Cooper’s performance is nowhere near expectations: 10 appearances, no goals, no assists, 19 turnovers, only 24 passes per game and an average of one shot every 104 minutes.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After his strong performance in the MLS playoffs, and after Toronto FC signed Victor Vazquez, Cooper was supposed to provide offensive support through the middle. His ability to protect the ball and hound the opposition (remember the David Villa incident last year?) was supposed to complement Vazquez’s vision. His proficiency in completing short passes was supposed to be one of TFC’s assets in navigating through a clogged midfield. But rather than build on his success in the playoffs, Cooper has resorted to the frustrating displays that plagued the start of his TFC career.
When he first joined the Reds late in 2016, Cooper was not at his best. He spent a lot of time diving and rolling on the ground in an attempt to draw fouls. His flair for the dramatic also spilled over to his dribbling. Rather than choosing the most efficient route to advance the ball, Cooper tried to make every run an homage to Cristiano Ronaldo. Often dispossessed, he would saunter back to help his team defend, rather than racing to cover his mistake. That may not have been a bad thing, though. On defence, his skills were less than effective. He frequently looked lost in the back half of the field, seeming more of a liability than anything else. Sound familiar?
Cooper’s latest performance against Minnesota United encapsulated all of the above negative traits. The ‘All for One’ spirit that allowed him to succeed in the playoffs has been replaced with that ‘all for me’ mentality that frustrated so many TFC fans early in his tenure. Case in point: the 60th minute. Just after Nick Hagglund’s injury, Cooper was fouled near the corner flag. It was a benign tackle that should have resulted in him promptly rising to his feet and defending the ensuing corner. Instead, he lay on the ground for several seconds, then dramatically waved his arm at the referee and made no attempt to impede the Loons’ attempt on goal. All the while the Reds were desperately holding on to a one-goal lead, with only 10 men on the pitch.
The moment was further underscored by Hagglund. Hagglund continued to try to help the team, but couldn’t. His torn MCL was too much to bear. Despite the pain, he rejected the stretcher that was brought on to the field and left the game under his own power. The moment was poetic. There was Hagglund, hobbling along the sideline, looking pained and definitely struggling. There was Cooper, lying on the ground, grabbing at a phantom injury.
Some have argued that the addition of Vazquez has made Cooper redundant. That’s not true. Cooper is not a first-string No. 10. He was placed in that role last year as a stopgap. Toronto didn’t have anyone else at the time who they thought could fill that role consistently. Now, in Vazquez, the Reds have their man. Cooper’s role is to play the No. 8 and, based on his experience, perform as a suitable back-up to Vazquez when needed. Such a role requires vision, quick passing and tenacity. So far this season Cooper has been sorely lacking in all three aspects.
That is not a statement relative to the good performances of Jay Chapman and Marky Delgado; it is a base assessment of his form compared to what we saw from the man himself during TFC’s mighty playoff run a mere seven months ago.
So, do the Reds abandon Cooper? Not just yet. In fact, like an underperforming stock, now is the time to invest in him. He turned his game around last year. Give him the time and the tools, and he might be able to do it again this year. But in order to do so, Cooper needs to work on the three aspects mentioned above.
Tenacity is a soft skill. It is not something that can be readily taught. It sounds cliché, but you need to want the ball more than the opposition, and you need to want to win more than the opposition. Raheem Edwards, Jozy Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts have all demonstrated this over the past few weeks. Throw in the likes of Michael Bradley, Hagglund and Justin Morrow, and there are ample examples for Cooper to follow. To further light the spark within, all Cooper needs to do is re-watch his performances from the playoffs. He needs to do whatever it takes to imbed this in his nature. That is up to him.
Vision and quick passing, however, are skills that need to be developed with experience. Right now, the MLS game seems to be moving too fast for Cooper. Gaps are closing faster than he can see them and players are moving faster than he can react. This, coupled with his habit of dribbling with his head down, leads to dispossession and wasted opportunities. Perhaps Cooper needs to compete at a slower pace, where he can see the play develop with a little more clarity. To this end, Cooper might benefit from play against USL opposition. Starts in the Canadian Championship semi-finals against Ottawa coupled with a stint with TFC II should give him the opportunity to hone his skills.
There is no better time than now to conduct this experiment. At the time of writing, Vazquez is healthy and able to play. Chapman, Delgado and Benoit Cheyrou are all playing well in central midfield. Giving Cooper time to find his game should not hurt the first team now, and may pay dividends later in the season.
If Toronto remains healthy in midfield, Cooper could easily start the seven games for TFC II between now and the Gold Cup. The expectation would be for him to continue to enhance his tenacity, vision and passing while playing for Panama, and then return to the big club an improved player, capable of contributing at the MLS level. If such a development plan fails to net the required results, or if Cooper is reluctant to undergo the necessary steps to transform his game, then TFC’s decision is clear.