TORONTO – Armando Cooper sat hunched in his locker room stall, face down and completely oblivious of the horde of reporters standing near him as he stared into the screen on his cell phone.
Drew Moor saw Cooper from across the room, and walked over to his beleaguered teammate, putting his hand on the Panamanian’s shoulder as he whispered into his ear. A few moments later, assistant coach Robin Fraser did the same thing. Both times Cooper didn’t so much as look up. He was just too inconsolable.
With Toronto FC sitting on a 1-0 lead against the Colorado Rapids last Saturday, Cooper, a second-half substitute, gave away the ball as he tried to force a pass up the middle of the pitch. Following Cooper’s miscue, Colorado turned around and went on the counter to level the score, and then hung on to earn a 1-1 draw after being outplayed for most of the game.
It was, without question, two points dropped by TFC, a fact not lost on the home fans at BMO Field who groaned in collective disappointment after the final whistle. They knew Toronto should have won that game. Cooper knew it, too.
“I told Armando to keep his head up. He’s such an important member of our team. He was disappointed with his performance on Saturday, and I’m sure like most of us he’s his own worst critic. When things don’t go his way, he’s hard on himself. I just reminded him that he’s an important member of this team,” Moor said.
Almost a week has passed, but Cooper is still bothered by his mistake.
“I was trying to play a pass out. If the ball went through, it’d have been an amazing ball. Unfortunately, it didn’t go through and it cost us a goal and it cost us three points. I take full responsibility for that,” the Panamanian said through a translator after Friday’s practice.
The error that led to the Colorado goal was another disappointing moment in what has been, it’s fair to say, a disappointing campaign from Cooper.
Signed on loan last summer from Panamanian club Arabe Unido, Cooper brought quickness and a fleet-footed style of play to TFC. He displaced no less a calibre of player than MLS veteran Will Johnson from the starting line-up, playing a key role in the Reds’ late season surge and magical run to the MLS Cup final. Management was so impressed with him that they decided to buy his permanent rights from Arabe Unido.
This year, though, has been a different story. With the off-season addition of Spaniard Victor Vazquez, TFC’s stacked midfield corps became even more crowded, with competition for playing time at an all-time high, and Cooper has found opportunities somewhat scarce. When the Panamanian has played, he hasn’t looked close to the player he was in 2016.
“It’s been a season where I’ve been coming from less to more. I’ve been working hard to try to find the form I had last year and be the Armando Cooper of last year,” Cooper admitted.
So, the obvious question is: What’s wrong with Armando Cooper?
Part of the issue is that TFC coach Greg Vanney has put an emphasis on quick ball movement this season. He wants his players to be efficient with their touches on the ball, and not to linger too long while in possession. The goal is to keep the ball moving and get it to forwards Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, and Vazquez as quickly as possible.
Cooper likes to hold on to the ball, take on defenders, and invite pressure and then work his way out of it. Needless to say, that approach doesn’t always fit with what Vanney is preaching, and he’s had a difficult time making the adjustment.
“I’ve taken a very serious role in trying to accommodate that difference in what the coaches expect of me. It’s brought me into a different personality; I’m trying to adapt,” Cooper said.
“It’s affected me in such a way that I’m a player who likes to hold the ball a little bit more, so me trying to adapt and be a little quicker, I find the opposite is happening – I tend to lose a little bit more of the ball.”
Vanney has noticed how hard Cooper has worked in training sessions in trying to get the ball out of his feet with greater speed. But it’s a process, and the Panamanian is still working on it.
“It’s not about us changing who he is; it’s about [a few] moments in a game when he needs to be a little bit quicker. For us, we want to try to win time for our forwards, for victor and for our attacking players to have that extra little bit of time to make a play, to unbalance a defence. We don’t want to lose that time in midfield in the setup of actions,” Vanney explained.
“So, it’s not about changing who he is, it’s just recognizing these few times in the game when the ball has to get out of his feet and on to the next quicker. That’s what I think he’s trying to get used to, he’s trying to adjust to that. That’s what’s been in his head.”
What it basically comes down to is better decision making. There are situations in games when Vanney wants Cooper to use his natural skills and hold onto the ball a bit longer. But the Panamanian just has to be more judicious about it.
“It’s a skill to do what he does. To be able to bring pressure, to open up some space for somebody else, is also a skill. It’s just a matter of what choice do you make in what moment and how does that impact the game and the team. … His ability to take on pressure and still get out of it, it’s high level. It’s just a matter of when do we use that and when do we keep the game moving fast,” Vanney said.
Life off the pitch has also had an adverse effect on Cooper’s play this season.
On April 15, Panamanian midfielder Amílcar Henríquez was killed in a drive-by-shooting just outside his house. Cooper played with Henríquez at Arabe Unido and with Panama’s national team, and considered him a brother. The murder took place on the same day as TFC’s 2-1 road loss to the Columbus Crew. The very next day, Cooper’s wife gave birth to the couple’s second daughter.
It was a crazy 24-hour period for Cooper, with the emotional highs and lows of that time still wreaking havoc on his psyche.
“When my good friend passed away, I found out just right after the [Columbus] game,” Cooper said. “Emotionally, it was very taxing on me. The day after the baby was born. It was a whirlwind of emotions having to deal with all of that – having to lose a brother who I spent so much time with, and so many important moments, and then you have the birth of a child.
It was bittersweet and it impacted life on the pitch.”