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Mar 4, 2004

Cooper thriving with Red Devil reserves

Editor's note: ESPN Soccernet.com writer Marc Connolly spent five days in England last week visiting American players who are part of the growing U.S. contingent who play professionally for top-notch clubs on both the first-team and reserve sides. CARRINGTON, England -- Even among the dozens of teenage players walking around the immaculate training grounds of Manchester United, Kenny Cooper is impossible to miss on this 30-degree afternoon in late February. Just 19, the American striker stands at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds. Forget comparisons to other tall U.S. target strikers such as Brian McBride or Edson Buddle. Picture instead Adin Brown without the beard and a baby face. The first question is simple: "What have you been eating, son?" "I've grown since I've been here, yeah," says Cooper with a slightly embarrassed tone. That time period has only been six months, actually, after the powerful striker impressed the Manchester United youth coaches while on trial over the summer. Since arriving in Manchester in September, Cooper has quickly made a name for himself as a goal-scorer for the Reserve Team, notching a total of eight goals in 20 matches. Many of those matches Cooper has found himself lining up next to Norwegian striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has spent a lot of time with the reserves this season while rehabbing a knee injury. What's almost as remarkable as the 19-year-old's progress, is the way he ended up in Manchester. "It certainly wasn't traditional," says Manchester United's Director of Youth Football Jimmy Ryan. "We never even saw him play before he came over on trial." Instead, Ryan went on the word of two former Dallas Tornado players of the North American Soccer League -- Neil Cohen and Mike Renshaw -- who e-mailed and called him several times last spring after Cooper wowed those in attendance at the famed Dallas Cup that features international sides from all over the world while playing for the Solar Soccer Club. What helped was that Benfica had already expressed their interest, as well, on the heels of the Portuguese club's U-18s match against Solar in Dallas, plus the fact that Ryan played for the Tornadoes with Ken Cooper, Sr. So there was a definite connection there, but one that the Cooper family didn't know was being utilized.

Connolly in England
The series of articles that Marc Connolly is writing from his travels in England during the last week of February will be published as follows:

Thurs, March 4: Jonathan Spector on the Man. United way
Thurs., March 4: Kenny Cooper thriving for Man. United's reserves
Mon., March 8: Zak Whitbread's life at Liverpool
Thurs., March 11: Claudio Reyna is the toast of the town at Man. City
Fri., March 12: Lone Wolf: Juan Osorio is carrying the flag for U.S. coaches at Man. City

"It came out of the clear blue," said Cooper, Sr., while standing within earshot of his son since he was on vacation visiting him. "It was completely unbeknownst to me that they had been corresponding with Jimmy. When I finally knew about it and called Jimmy, he offered him to come over on trial." "I trusted the opinions of the people who contacted me on behalf of Cooper, but what helped the process the most was that his dad was from England," said Ryan. "Most of the boys we like in America can't get a work permit to come and play here, but that wasn't the case with Kenny, so the only question was whether he could play or not." That question was quickly answered. After two weeks of staying with fellow American Jonathan Spector's host family, and training with the U-19s and the Reserves in July, the Man. United staff put him in the ultimate sink-or-swim situation: They threw him into an 11 v. 11 match with the first-team on the eve of the club's trip to the United States for their exhibition tour. The next thing Cooper knew, he was partnered with Ruud van Nistelrooy, and playing on the same side as Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Juan Sebastian Veron. Marking him was vaunted English defender Rio Ferdinand and John O'Shea. When Cooper, Sr., heard about this opportunity, he jumped on a plane from Dallas to try and catch the match. Though he missed the game by only an hour, he knew right away how his son fared. "He was sitting on the steps outside of the training center, and he was just beaming," recalled Cooper, Sr. "He said, 'Dad, I know I can play with these guys. I know I can do it.' And he had the biggest smile you could imagine." That smile only grew larger a week later when he was back in the U.S. and the phone rang. On the other line was none other than Sir Alex Ferguson, the famed manager of Manchester United, which practically holds as much power as that of Tony Blair or the Queen over in England. His dad took the phone and got the exciting news. "Sir Alex said that Kenny did well, and how he's big, he's powerful, good with both feet, and has a lot of potential as a player," said Cooper, Sr. "Then he said he'd like to offer him a three-year contract." Here he was a recent high school graduate, who wasn't even in the pool for the U-20 National Team, and had only gone as far as being in the regional pool with the Olympic Developmental Program, getting an offer from Fergie. All of a sudden, his plans of going to play at Southern Methodist University changed, as did nearly every facet of his life. "I was committed to SMU and was really looking forward to it," said Cooper. "Schellas Hyndman is a great coach, it's a great school and everything, so we did sit down as a family and discuss it. But we quickly figured that going to Manchester was the best opportunity I could possibly have, so we decided this was what I was going to do." From the confident, yet humble, feeling that Cooper exudes while walking around Manchester's vast campus, it's apparent that he's made the right choice, and is soaking everything in. "Every day here is a new day to get better," says Cooper, while sitting on a couch inside the team's fitness center. "They give you every opportunity to succeed here, as you get the best of everything." That includes a lot more than simply training, as well. Playing for Manchester United means eating exactly what their dietician tells you to eat; hitting the weight room each day; going to Yoga classes to improve your flexibility and strengthen your concentration; having one day off a week during the season; and a relatively short "off-season" of five or six weeks between the end of May and the beginning of July. It also means, even as a Reserve team player, getting to train with Roy Keane, as Cooper did last week, or going against first-team defenders such as Ferdinand or Gary Neville, as he did on Friday. "Just seeing those guys on a daily basis is a huge help," said Cooper. "The wisdom they have, and the advice that they can pass on, alone, makes us all better players." There's time for fun, as well, though it doesn't come anywhere near as regularly as it does for his friends at SMU or most other teenagers. For one, he's not in a dorm, but rather his "digs," as it is called in England, consists of a home provided by a host family that he shares with two other players just down the road from the farm-like area where the club's training facilities are located on the outskirts of Manchester. Cooper mostly hangs out with his teammates, anyway, especially Spector, who he has become close with since they both joined Man. United at the same time last fall. "We were just over in Hale the other day at a restaurant called the American Bar & Grill," he said. "We were laughing about how funny it is that two Americans were sitting in there when there are so many other places for us to go." It's probably better that Cooper keeps it simple, as he admits to not having fully figured out how to drive on the left side of the street, and navigate his way through the endless roundabouts around England. He said his best driving still comes when the team takes trip to ride the go-karts now and then. "Of course, some of the guys here think I ride horses since I came from Texas," jokes Cooper. "They always ask 'what's the ranch like?'" What his teammates don't realize is that he only lived in Texas for five years, and spent much of his youth in Tampa Bay, where he would go to Mutiny games to watch Carlos Valderrama. They also probably don't realize that Cooper grew up in a family as much immersed in the sport as they might have been, since his dad played in the NASL and MISL as a goalkeeper, and coached indoor soccer once his playing career ended. "When I was young, he'd bring me to the Baltimore Blast practices and let me join in sometimes," recalls Cooper. "He has so much knowledge about the game. We always talk about the games and he shows me things all the time, still to this day. He's always been a great coach for me. I feel very lucky." Cooper, Sr., says that he and his wife never pushed Kenny to play. But once he did and got serious about the sport, a sense of dedication and a hard work ethic were always instilled. He would always point out to his son how the great athletes of our time such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Martina Navratilova and Wayne Gretzky were also the hardest working in their respective sports. From the age of five I recognized that talent was there," said Cooper, Sr. "And he's always scored goals, whether it was at age eight, 10, 12, 14, 16 and it's continued over here, thank God, but what I'm really proud of is his dedication and the focus he has. It's only grown stronger since he's been here." So has his game, as Cooper is quickly learning the differences between the way soccer is played in the U.S. and the way it is played in England. "Things in the English game are different, and you have to get used to it," he said. "You have to challenge for more balls in the air here. I'm definitely getting better at that." His prowess in the air is comparable to that of McBride's, say his father, but his technical abilities for his size are what caught the eyes of the Man. United coaching staff. "To see a big kid like Kenny be comfortable on the ball the way he is impressed us," says Ryan. "The potential for big things is there. We all see it. We felt it was worth looking at for a couple of years." Hopefully, at the end of that time, Cooper has impressed the coaching staff enough to warrant a full contract as part of the first-team. If he keeps finding the back of the net at the rate he's been doing, it won't be long before Ferguson summons the tall striker to play with the full team, perhaps even this summer for their second U.S. Exhibition Tour. In the meantime, he also hopes to get a call for one of the U.S. National Teams, whether it's down the line for the U-23s or from Bruce Arena, who doesn't exactly have a cupboard filled with big, strong forwards. (He was invited to play with Thomas Rongen's U-20s at the XIX Torneo Internacional de Futbol de l'Alcudia in Valencia, Spain last August, but was in the process of moving to Manchester, so he had to politely decline.) As he and his dad leave the complex to get some lunch and watch some of the Premiership matches in the afternoon, Cooper, Sr., sums up his son's soccer career best. "Kenny and Jonathan and all the other young Americans are quietly carrying the American flag, trying to stick it in the ground and say, 'We're here.' They're making great progress doing that, too. "It's a long and winding road, but Kenny is in the Reserves, scoring goals, playing well, and is where he needs to be." And where every soccer player, whether in the U.S. or England, wants to be. Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.