Less than one month ago, when news broke that the New York Red Bulls had acquired then Vancouver Whitecap Sebastien Le Toux, there was an assortment of confusion, excitement, and tepid support for bringing in a player who could be a difference maker for a club desperate to win MLS Cup. Since then, Le Toux has started and gone the full ninety in five league matches and also played in the
friendly Barclays New York Cup against Tottenham Hotspur. Despite Hans Backe deserving enormous credit for leading an often battered roster to near the top of the Eastern Conference and within striking distance of the league-leading San Jose Earthquakes for the Supporters' Shield, benching Kenny Cooper in order to start Le Toux alongside Thierry Henry against the Houston Dynamo was a mistake that should not be repeated.
Most of the post-game attention surrounded new designated player Tim Cahill making his MLS debut. Some touched upon how much missing Dax McCarty due to yellow card accumulation hurt the team. But I was a little surprised more wasn't said about benching the team's leading scorer with thirteen goals (five game-winners), which is enough to tie him for second most league wide. He's also tied for most shots on goal with thirty-six. While it's a small sample size, the Red Bulls are 1-3 without Cooper in the starting lineup, with the one win coming in a very low-offensive output 1-0 result against the Chicago Fire.
While Kenny Cooper has started alongside Thierry Henry in seven of the games he's scored in this season, Henry has only scored one of his eleven goals when Cooper wasn't on the field. They work well off of each other, and anytime a pair of MLS forwards has scored twenty-four goals with eleven games left to play, they should start together whenever possible. Cooper also scored in three out of the four matches that Henry missed in May after injuring his hamstring against New England. During a stretch from which Red Bull fans expected the worst, Cooper carried the offense and was crucial to New York winning all four games without Henry and earning thirteen out of a possible fifteen points in May - by far their most effective month in terms of points earned per game all season.
But that was May, and this is now.
Cooper's superb play slowed for a few weeks in late June and early July, but he seemed to have put that behind him scoring both goals the last time the Red Bulls won a game on July 21 against the Philadelphia Union. Cooper started the match on Friday night against the Dynamo on the bench, watching his doppelganger do little alongside Thierry Henry. Fans complain about Henry dropping too far into the midfield to be an effective forward, but anyone who watched the match on Friday (or just looked at the OPTA Chalkboard that shows player movement) will see that Le Toux may have mistakenly thought he was still playing right midfield.
To be fair, New York played an all-around garbage game against an in-form Houston team for which Le Toux cannot be the sole, or even major, source of blame for. But enough about Le Toux, this isn't as much about his slow start with the Red Bulls as it is a call for Cooper to continue to start for New York. The way the Eastern Conference is shaking out, there is no guarantee the Red Bulls will finish first, second, or even third in the standings (although falling below fifth place and missing the playoffs seems like a bit of a stretch). Backe may want to add some speed to the attack on the right wing and Le Toux does not provide that. But over-tinkering with a lineup that got New York to the top of the East is not the answer.
Perhaps Backe was just giving Cooper a rest, but why in such a crucial game against a red-hot Eastern Conference opponent? A lot of names were discussed being left out of the starting eleven with the addition of Le Toux and Cahill: Joel Lindpere, Connor Lade, Jan Gunnar Solli, and even Dax McCarty. This isn't the weaker Eastern Conference of years past, and If the Red Bulls want to score goals and beat teams down the stretch such as Houston, Sporting Kansas City, and even D.C. United and Chicago, they will need Kenny Cooper on the field to help make that happen.
Earlier this season, Red Bull coaches pushed Cooper to use his size to his advantage, and coupled with his surprisingly deft touch for such a physically imposing player, this has helped him have his best season since scoring eighteen goals for FC Dallas in 2008. Do a quick Google News search for "Kenny Cooper" and the top hit is an ESPN story from July 21 titled "Kenny Cooper helps Red Bulls win." I couldn't agree more.