It wasn’t all that long ago that Kenny Cooper was supposed to be the next great American striker. But to say this season leading into the 2010 World Cup hasn't gone quite as he planned would be putting it mildly.
Nevertheless, the American forward, on loan from 1860 Munich to Plymouth Argyle, is sticking to positive thoughts of summer ambition as spring begins.
It all began so well, too. Recruited from FC Dallas last summer, the U.S. international opened the 2009-10 campaign as an 1860’s starting striker. He bagged goals in two of the squad’s first three German second-division games, and scored in a late September German Cup upset of Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin.
Then it went a little sour. Cooper went cold, which resulted in losing his place in the lineup. That was followed by a knee injury that dragged on for weeks. Just as he was approaching full fitness, Cooper was told by understandably cautious 1860 boss Ewald Lienen that his return to the pitch would be gradual. That didn’t sit well with the 6-foot-3 forward, who knew his opportunities were limited.
"Even if it wasn’t a World Cup year, I think this is what I would want to do, because I want to play," he told Dallas Soccer News after rolling the dice on a winter loan move to Plymouth in the English League Championship. "I love playing and don't want to sit on the bench."
But that’s exactly where he ended up. After appearing four times for the Pilgrims in February, Cooper watched seven straight matches from the dugout. He has now featured in two of the last three, but his Championship marks for the semester are disappointing: no goals in six substitute outings, totaling 135 minutes.
To make matters worse, Cooper’s lack of minutes forced him of the national-team rotation. He made only one appearance for the U.S. in the final Hexagonal phase of World Cup qualifying (a late sub in the finale against Costa Rica last October) after appearing in all five CONCACAF Gold Cup games last summer.
If that much inactivity and concerns over missing the World Cup weren't enough reason to get a man down, Plymouth won just one of the first nine with the American on board to slip into the relegation mire.
Cooper, though, has kept his chin up and his ambitions high.
"I like to think I'm an optimistic person," he told MLSsoccer.com by phone after Monday's home loss to Middlesbrough. "There's still four games left. My mind set is to try and be a good professional every day and work hard. I hope I get an opportunity to get out on the field in these four games."
Plymouth could certainly use his help about now. They stand next-to-last in the table and have the worst scoring record in the league, largely due to a frustrating inefficiency in front of goal at home.
Recently, manager Paul Mariner has been finding Cooper minutes by playing him wide right. Last weekend, the 25-year-old was on the field when Plymouth grabbed a late winner at Doncaster Rovers.
"It's a position I'm familiar with," he said. "I've played it before at FC Dallas and with Munich. It's a position I'm comfortable in, so I was just glad to get on the field."
Cooper, who melds qualities found in both target and support strikers without being fully one or the other, says he has grown accustomed to shifting around formations.
"I've played different positions," he explained. "In MLS, I spent a lot of my time up front. I like to think I'm comfortable with different attacking positions. I hope that for whatever team I'm playing for, I can give the coaches what they ask for. I like to bring different things to the table in a match."
For his part, Mariner seems to wish he had more time to attune Cooper to the English second flight. The former New England Revolution assistant coach admits it’s taking time to literally get the Texan up to speed.
"He has all the tools to a certain degree," Mariner told MLSsoccer.com. "If we had more time this season, he would feature more."
Cooper has had previous brushes with Steve Nicol’s former right-hand man, whom he respects greatly.
"I knew Paul from playing under him in the [2008 MLS] All-Star Game in Toronto, and obviously, from playing against him with New England," he recalled. "He's a very passionate coach. He expects a high standard every day when we come into training and wants us prepared when the matches come."
And despite Plymouth’s current standing, Cooper is also full of praise for the squad.
"There's a lot of quality in the team," he said. "It's a good group of guys and I've enjoyed being around them so far."
The looming loan return to the blue side Allianz Arena appears further away than it actually is to the American, who wants to get something out of his time with Plymouth.
"I still have two years left on my contract [with 1860] and it's a great club," he said. "They've been doing well, and that means a lot to me. But, obviously, I still have the four weeks here to focus on -- right now, I'm part of Plymouth and I want to give my best to them."
And so what now of those World Cup dreams? Has a questionable gamble dashed Cooper's hopes? Despite not having heard from U.S. coach Bob Bradley of late ... nope.
"I’m full of hope in regards to the World Cup," declared Cooper. "I feel privileged to have been able to represent my country a couple of times in the last couple of years, and obviously really want to be a part of Bob's plans for the summer."
Greg Seltzer’s “Postcards from Europe” appears every Tuesday onMLSsoccer.com.