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It ain't all about Titi, pt 2: Kenny Cooper is the cause, not the effect

In which it is proposed the "Henry effect" is looking at the evidence all wrong...

Miss ya, big man
Miss ya, big man
Jeff Zelevansky

If you're looking for the "Henry effect" in the scoring success of RBNY strikers of recent years, Kenny Cooper would appear to be your man: 19 goals in all competitions for the New York Red Bulls in 2012, seven of them assisted by Henry.

And several of them not merely assisted so much as gift-wrapped:


That was so nice, Titi did it again - in the same game:


There is no denying that Kenny Cooper scored most of his goals from close range in 2012, and many were set up by the captain. In fact, toss out his goal in US Open Cup (when Henry didn't play), as well as three penalties and two unassisted strikes, and you're left with 13 goals - of which more than half were assisted by Thierry Henry. Effect!

Sure.

Oh - one thing before you go, though: you know he'd done it before?

In 2008, Kenny Cooper scored 19 goals while playing for a MLS team: FC Dallas. That broke down to 18 in MLS and 1 in US Open Cup, just like his 2012 for RBNY. And Thierry Henry wasn't on Dallas's roster in 2008 - I checked.

Nor was that a fluke (can a player fluke 19 goals in a season?). Cooper showed up in MLS in 2006, after turning pro with Manchester United and spending a season or two not really doing much on loan. But he quickly hit his stride in MLS, scoring 11 goals in his debut season for FC Dallas (aka Burn). He was FCD's MVP that year.

In keeping with a man who doesn't seem to have the best luck professionally, he was injured in 2007 - just as he was getting attention from the US national team - but still managed four goals in 14 appearances. In 2008, fully fit again, he had that 19-goal season. In 2009, he lingered long enough with Dallas to score seven goals in 15 league appearances, and then he took off to have another crack at Europe.

Kenny is a proven goalscorer who is extremely active in the box -Sigi Schmid after trading for Cooper in 2013 (soundersfc.com)

It didn't work out. Cooper was back in MLS for the 2011 season, with Portland Timbers. He had tried his luck abroad for the second time in his career and he'd won a few caps for USMNT. But he was back in the only league where he could reasonably be described as a success. He only scored eight goals (all in the league), but the Timbers weren't good that year (their first in MLS) - and he was the team's joint-leading scorer.

To summarize, by the end of the 2011, Cooper had played five MLS seasons and finished three of them (coincidentally, the three for which he was fit or available throughout) as his team's top scorer.

The subsequent rebuilding of Portland's team for 2012 saw Cooper land in New York, alongside Thierry Henry.

Kenny was a hell of a goalscorer -Thierry Henry (empireofsoccer.com)

One more thing: you remember the high point of that season for RBNY? It was the first 12 games. Henry had spent the winter on loan at Arsenal, and came back in extraordinary form. RBNY lost its first two matches of the season, but won eight of the next 10 (it would only win another eight in total for the rest of the year). Henry scored nine goals in the first five games of that stretch.

And then he got injured. RBNY won all four of the matches Henry missed through injury. Cooper scored in three of them.

Indeed, if you take those three goals, add in the one in US Open Cup (when Henry didn't play), as well as three penalties and two unassisted strikes, you're left with nine goals that had virtually nothing to do with Thierry Henry.

Effect? Hardly. Kenny Cooper scored a lot of goals for RBNY in 2012. It is not surprising that several were assisted by Henry. Were it not for Chris Wondolowski's 27-goal season, the captain would have been the league MVP in 2012: he was the only player in MLS to register double-digit goals and assists that season; it was (until we see how 2014 plays out) RBNY's year of peak Henry.

But it also isn't surprising that several of Cooper's were not provided by TH14. On balance, Cooper and the Red Bulls were much better with Henry. But they weren't helpless without him.

With or without Henry's presence on the pitch, Cooper scored mostly from close range. Because that was Cooper's role for the team in 2012: he was the king of the six-yard box.

He had a deft touch on occasion. The big man's first goal for RBNY was a clever lob under pressure that wouldn't look out of place on Juan Agudelo's highlight reel.

But perhaps the goal most representative of Cooper's work in a Red Bulls shirt was his match-winner against Houston, scored during Henry's injury-enforced absence in May 2012:


That is a man scoring a goal in spite of himself. Cooper loses the ball twice. Mehdi Ballouchy wins it back for him the first time; the second time, perhaps enraged by his own carelessness, Cooper charges after the ball that just doesn't want to be with him. Ever a considerate man, he checks his run slightly to avoid trampling Dynamo 'keeper Tally Hall. He successfully blocks Hall's attempted clearance, but Cooper doesn't see the ball cross the goal line because he is busy making sure he hasn't inadvertently stomped on his opponent.

Kenny Cooper 2012, ladies and gentlemen: too caring to be called clinical, still extremely effective.

Those are the sort of goals that get you pegged as a "lucky" striker. The sort of goals that cause people to forget you are an elite forward in your league - Cooper is currently one of MLS's all-time top-20 goal scorers. But he's the sort of player whose achievements are so often attributed to factors other than himself, even he has trouble remembering he's quite good at his job:


Hans Backe had started 2012, as he had 2011, with Juan Agudelo partnering Henry up front. There was still talk at the beginning of the season of retrieving Luke Rodgers from the regrettable immigration snafu that had curtailed his tenure at RBNY (didn't work out). Cooper, despite his past achievements, looked like the club's fourth-choice striker, behind Henry, Agudelo and a man who was legally prohibited from returning to work in the US.

But Rodgers never came back to RBNY. And Agudelo never worked out; he was traded to Chivas in May, after four appearances, of which only the first was a start.

It wasn't about whether or not I was going to play or not. I just felt like I wasn't developing -Juan Agudelo on why he left RBNY (goal.com)

The reason for Agudelo's transfer: for the second season in a row, he was stuck behind a player who was more experienced and had formed a remarkable partnership with Thierry Henry. That is the true "Henry effect": for as long as he's willing to play for the team, RBNY's priority has to be getting the most of its most talented player. Anything else would be a waste.

The priority means many good players, who didn't click with the system built around Henry, have simply had to move on. In 2012, after Agudelo, the team acquired Sebastien Le Toux, a Frenchman who has twice proven he can carry a MLS attack.

Le Toux had 25 goals and 20 assists in two seasons (2010 and 2011) with Philadelphia Union. He never should have been allowed to leave. In a place where he is comfortable, with a team able to accommodate his talents, Le Toux is a menace. Since returning to Philly in 2013, he has scored 14 goals and made 18 assists in 55 regular season appearances. Henry's numbers for the same period: 17 goals and 20 assists.

Does that make Le Toux as good as Thierry Henry? Of course not. But in the right system, a lesser player can be just as effective as a great one. Le Toux is as effective for Philly as Henry is for RBNY. Combine the two, as happened briefly in 2012, and...Le Toux had one goal and one assist in 15 appearances for the Red Bulls.

He just wasn't the same player for either RBNY or Vancouver (the other team he played for during his miserable separation from the Union). It happens, even to teams not trying to extract every possible advantage out of having a true all-time great of the game on their roster.

It's not easy to play [strike] partner alongside someone like Thierry. And I mean that in a good way, because Thierry is a guy that likes to drop and he's so creative that a lot of the times only one guy is up front. It's not an easy task for somebody. -Mike Petke on BWP's success with RBNY (goal.com)

One suspects RBNY would have preferred to have Agudelo developing alongside Henry up front. He's an academy product, a homegrown success story in the making. But, not unreasonably, he wanted to play in a team interested in developing his talents, not molding them to fit with a living legend (an ambition, one suspects, urgently shared by MLS), so he moved on to Chivas USA and subsequently New England Revolution - teams willing to let him start and be the focal point of their attacking systems.

Agudelo is currently looking for a new club. Things haven't worked out so well for him since he moved to Europe, largely to do with factors beyond his control, such as British regulations for issuing work permits to footballers. To date, his greatest success as a goalscorer has been a run of seven goals in 14 appearances for the Revs.

Since then, his achievements have been modest. Is he missing the "Tierney effect" (Chris Tierney assisted Agudelo twice in 2013) or the  "Fagundez effect" (Diego Fagundez also provided key passes for two Agudelo goals for the Revs)? Of course not. He's a young player looking for the right situation.

Kenny Cooper found the right situation at 21 - the same age Agudelo is now. His three-and-a-half seasons with FC Dallas established his reputation.

He struggled to replicate the circumstances of those years with FCD, but his season at RBNY demonstrates he can still bring high-volume goals to a team that is willing to adapt to his strengths. For Cooper, that strength is pouncing on opportunities in the six-yard box.

Even after a couple of quiet seasons, Cooper has still top-scored for his team in four of the eight MLS seasons he's played.

Henry and RBNY, to their credit, adapted admirably to Cooper in 2012. He wasn't as mobile as Luke Rodgers, nor as technically adept as Juan Pablo Angel. His passing and vision is nothing close to that of Henry. But he is a good and effective finisher, and his movement is under-rated.


He is tall enough to win 50/50 headers with most center backs (though Cooper scored just four with his head in 2012), but rarely needed to for RBNY, since he could make the runs to get himself in position to be first to the ball.

And he is capable of converting chances of any sort at a high rate (he had a 21.4% scoring chance percentage in 2012; Tim Cahill's was 20% in 2013; Bradley Wright-Phillips currently converts at a rate of just over 25%), so why fret about the things he can't do?

The Red Bulls couldn't use Cooper the way they had used Rodgers. He wasn't quick. Rodgers could keep defenses from pushing too high and restricting space on the pitch because he was a constant threat to chase the long ball and score. To make use of Cooper, RBNY had to push defensive lines back with the threat of their more skilled players - Henry, Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards - running at them. And Cooper would simply stick with the back line until it was time to move for the ball.

It's not all about scoring goals. You've got to keep the ball better sometimes up front and also pass the ball to your teammates -Thierry Henry (empireofsoccer.com)

The Red Bulls, never at great distance from absurdity, did, of course, fret over Cooper's scoring. There was suggestion he wasn't entirely to Henry's satisfaction, though this may simply have been misinterpretation of the captain's relentless quest for improvement. Henry's comments about BWP could similarly be presented as the grumblings of an unhappy teammate by an unsympathetic reporter.

Whatever the truth of the situation, Cooper's last goal for RBNY was followed by the unlikely sight of an apology, rather than celebration, for putting the ball in the net.


He says "my bad", doesn't he? After scoring his 18th league goal of the season.

One suspects the apology came about because RBNY had become sensitive to Tim Cahill's lack of scoring for the team. Due to Cooper's goals, there was no great reason to put the new big-money signing up front, so Cahill played a familiar position: midfield marauder alongside Dax McCarty. He didn't score much (one goal in 17 regular-season appearances in 2012) and this became a source of criticism (sound familiar?). Cooper's last goal for the Red Bulls was a great shot to the far post, but it could equally have been a cross to Cahill, who was lurking on the doorstep for the tap-in.

Oh, RBNY...the situations you create for yourself.

Did Henry provide many of the passes Cooper turned into goals? Yes. Was it an "Henry effect"? Yes, in the sense it was reflective of a very sensible and successful way to win football matches when you have an all-around attacking genius and a somewhat limited but capable finisher.

Has Cooper lost his ability since leaving Harrison? No.

His big year for the Red Bulls meant he earned a big payday. RBNY couldn't afford to give it to him, and Cooper ended up in Dallas, playing for a team that got steadily worse throughout the year. Cooper is a finisher, not a creator. He got eight goals in all competitions and wasn't great, much like the rest of FCD's players in 2013. He moved on, to Seattle.

In Seattle this year, he has so far scored three goals in MLS. Also not great. However, part of that is explained by the fact that the Sounders have built a fluid, dynamic attacking system around Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. Cooper's particular talents don't seem to fit well, despite being given ample opportunity (he's had 11 starts and 20 appearances in the league). He's a big man, but not a brawler like Chad Barrett (who has been a significant role player in the Sounders' season to date), and he's a notch below Lamar Neagle if the team needs someone to fill in for the movement and passing of Dempsey or Martins.

But, in US Open Cup, where Cooper has been a regular starter for the second-tier side Seattle has used to get to the final, he is the competition's top scorer: six goals in four matches. Indeed, Kenny Cooper is currently the second-highest scorer of all time in US Open Cup's Modern Pro Era (1995-present). He has 13 in the tournament for his career to date. The competition's highest scorer? Sebastien Le Toux.

He is on the brink of history as no one has been able to eclipse the six-goal mark in the Modern Professional Era...a single goal in the Final will break the record -Nick Schiffler on Kenny Cooper's 2014 US Open Cup (thecup.us)

Is US Open Cup a lower level of soccer than MLS? Most of the time, yes: it features teams from most levels of the game in this country, and the top squads rarely field their best players until the final.

It is also a tournament that has never featured Thierry Henry. At the top of USOC's all-time scoring chart since 1995, two reliable goal scorers: one who fit into a tactical system featuring Henry, one who did not.

Cooper currently has 75 career regular-season goals in MLS. Of active players who haven't scored 100 goals in the league, he is second only to Chris Wondolowski (89 for his career so far). He scored all but seven of those goals without direct assistance from Thierry Henry. And, with a bit of luck, he might retire as the all-time top scorer in the history of US Open Cup, a competition which has never seen any contribution from Henry.

Since 2011, RBNY has lived or died by its ability to reap the bounty of the captain's ability. But Cooper's goals in 2012 weren't the effect of Henry's best season, statistically, for RBNY to date. They were its catalyst.

When Hans Backe paired Henry with Luke Rodgers, RBNY learned it didn't need an elite talent next to the captain for him to thrive. Rodgers was willing, hard-working, experienced, and largely functioned as a decoy, giving Henry space to run, shoot and score.

In 2012, RBNY discovered a slightly different tactic: with a more efficient target man up front, Henry could drop a little deeper, still find occasion to score plenty (15 - his highest total for a RBNY regular season to date) but also multiply his effectiveness as a playmaker dramatically. Henry trebled his assists from 2011 (four) to 2012 (12), and more than doubled the goals he set up for his primary strike partner (three for Rodgers; seven for Cooper).

Cooper was a force multiplier on Henry's attacking threat. In the 2011 regular season, Henry took 65 shots; Rodgers had 45. In 2012, Henry attempted 88 shots; Cooper had 84. The rest of the team played a part as well, but the simple observation is that having Henry set up a little deeper and his forward partner stake out a position a little higher up the pitch appeared to be a better way of getting the most out of Henry, and the other guy up front.

But the other guy had to be willing and able to play the role of finisher.

When Backe experimented with pairing Le Toux in 2012, arguably more of a Luke Rodgers sort of player, it didn't work as well. It wasn't just the goals scored by the individuals in question, it was the results those goals provided. RBNY won 16 matches in 2012. Cooper scored in 10 of those wins; Henry scored in eight of them; Le Toux's solitary goal for the club came in a 2-2 draw with Seattle.

The 2012 formula is being applied again in 2014 with Bradley Wright-Phillips.

And Kenny Cooper is the man who showed Henry and Mike Petke (who was part of Hans Backe's coaching team in 2012) how it could be done. BWP is more like Rodgers in stature and speed, but has been playing a role closer to Cooper's, hanging as close to goal as the defense will allow, gently pushing forward as defenders retreat to cover Henry, Lloyd Sam, Ambroise Oyongo, or whoever is bringing the ball up the field.

BWP is a better all-around player than either Cooper or Rodgers. At least, his form to date has been based largely on a first touch that is, more often than not, a shot on target. That takes some fiercely good off-the-ball work, which in part relies on good passing. Henry can provide the latter, only BWP is responsible for the former. The end result is much the same as we saw in 2012: lots of goals scored from close range, often teed up by the captain.


The stats don't lie, and we have seen this combination in action before, albeit with a different player doing the finishing. But perhaps the interpretation could use some work. We are seeing this again because it worked in the past.

Kenny Cooper isn't part of a trend, he started it. He is cause, not effect.