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Serie A season preview: AC Milan

AC Milan about an hour ago
Read
Apr 26, 2006

A breath of fresh air

It's been said that there are two kinds of people in the world. Some see the proverbial glass as half full, while others see it as half empty. But FC Dallas forward Kenny Cooper is looking to create a completely new category. In his world, the glass is always filled to the point of overflowing, and given the hot start by Cooper and his Dallas teammates, it's an attitude that doesn't look likely to change anytime soon.

The Hoops sit atop the Western Conference standings with 10 points from four matches, and Cooper has been at the heart of Dallas' success. The Maryland native's late goal gave his side a pulsating 3-2 opening-day victory over Brimstone Cup rival Chicago. Cooper also chipped in with goals in the other two home matches, including an opportunistic header that opened the scoring in Sunday's 2-1 win over previously unbeaten Kansas City.

But Cooper has been contributing off the field, as well. On a team for which chemistry has been borderline toxic over the years, the former high school All-American has brought an upbeat attitude to everything, whether it's his own play, that of his teammates or even his 2½ year stint with Manchester United. It's an approach that amounts to a colossal breath of fresh air for Dallas head coach Colin Clarke, who in prior years presided over a locker room that appeared to be littered with Simon Cowell wannabes.

"[Cooper] is a very bubbly character," Clarke says. "He just loves to have fun with the game and that comes across in his play. And it's had a positive impact [on the team]. When you see someone out there enjoying coming to work every day, it rubs off on everybody."

Cooper credits his father, Kenny Sr., who played with the NASL's Dallas Tornado, with instilling that positive mind-set.

"My father is nothing but positive," Cooper says. "It's something that my family has been raised with. We always try to see the positive side of things. My dad always taught us to set our goals high and that we can do anything."

That attitude has come in handy on a couple of occasions. Signed out of high school by Manchester United, Cooper spent 30 months in England without even a sniff of first-team action. Of course, had Cooper managed to supplant the likes of Wayne Rooney or Ruud van Nistelrooy, that would have been an upset of "Miracle On Ice" proportions. Instead, Cooper was stuck in the reserves and endured a few loan spells, as well. In the meantime, he tried to expand his game both on and off the field.

"I'd like to think that I matured physically a little bit," Cooper says of his time overseas. "I feel a lot stronger. It really opens your mind, too, in terms of handling the pressures of the game and the day-to-day things."

Cooper also cites the professionalism of Rooney and Van Nistelrooy as inspiration. Of course, in Rooney's case, Cooper got a crash course in what not to do, but even with Rooney's warts, the admiration Cooper has for United's striking pair is clear.

"I just have so much respect for [Rooney and Van Nistelrooy] as players," says Cooper. "When you see them off the field, and you talk to them, they're just so personable. They are always willing to talk to you or offer advice. They're just great people. I can't give enough praise to the club. It was such a great time in my life, and I just really enjoyed it."

Cooper's stint in England may have been a great time, but it coincided with perhaps the biggest incongruity of his career. Despite playing for a club as illustrious as United, Cooper was never called in to play for a U.S. youth national team at any level. It's a snub that puzzles him, although it doesn't appear to have inflicted any long-term damage. And the fringe benefit was that it allowed Dallas to slap a "discovery player" tag on Cooper after last season, giving the Hoops the right of first refusal if he decided to return home. If Cooper had been capped at youth level, he would have been thrown into a weighted lottery (as happened with Danny Szetela and David Arvizu).

As it turned out, Cooper did opt to return home, deciding that the siren call of possible first-team action was too good an offer to pass up. The progress that MLS has made over the years and being closer to family played a part, as well.

"I believe in American soccer, and I wouldn't have come back if I didn't," Cooper says. "I just really thought it was a great opportunity for me to come back home and play at an incredibly high standard."

While that standard is still far short of what exists at United, the move did allow Dallas to acquire a striker with a unique set of gifts. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Cooper has an imposing build, but his game is more along the lines of a Nate Jaqua, another tall attacking player with quick feet. Due to these attributes, the United coaching staff used Cooper in a variety of roles, including out wide in midfield. That trend has continued in Dallas, where Clarke has used him both as a striker and on the wing. And if you believe Clarke, Cooper is more likely to beat someone with his feet than with his aerial game.

"[Cooper] loves to run at people and take people on," Clarke says. "He strikes the ball well with both feet. Probably his strength is not in the air. That's something that we've talked to him about working at and getting better."

That would be news to the folks at Real Salt Lake, who were victimized three weeks ago when Cooper's flick-on found Carlos Ruiz on the run, and the Guatemalan's cheeky back-heel left Cooper with a glorious opportunity that he duly finished.

That play epitomizes the impact Cooper is having in the season's opening weeks, vindicating his decision to leave the bright lights of Europe for the less glamorous climes of MLS.

"Coming back, it wasn't the hardest transition I've ever had to do, with my family being here," Cooper says. "And I feel like I'm really enjoying this team and my teammates. It's just been a lot of fun."

And with Cooper's mental approach, even if the goals weren't coming, he would probably look at it the same way.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com