When growing up kicking balls around the soccer fields in the Dallas area, Kenny Cooper had a lot of dreams and goals to accomplish.
In his career as a professional, he’s had a chance to fulfill many of those dreams. He started his professional career by signing with one of the biggest clubs in the world in Manchester United. He played some of his best soccer in his career in front of his friends and family while at FC Dallas. He played in one of the world’s biggest markets with one of the game’s biggest stars when he suited up alongside Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls. And over the weekend he checked another one off the list when he scored his first goal for Sounders FC, celebrating his 73rd career MLS goal with a crowd of 38,469 at CenturyLink Field.
“Here we have something incredibly special with our fanbase and I think as a kid when you dream of being a pro, you dream of playing in a packed stadium that is full of passionate fans,” Cooper said. “Living that dream right now is awesome and I really cherish any opportunity I have to be out on the field in front of those fans. It’s just an amazing thrill.”
It’s been an incredible journey for Cooper that ultimately landed him in Seattle this past offseason. And it all started back in Baltimore, where he watched his father, Kenny Cooper Sr., coach the Baltimore Blast before later moving to Dallas.
The coach would bring his young son to training sessions for the indoor club. When the family moved to Dallas, Cooper would eventually learn under the tutelage of former NASL players like Neil Cohen, Charlie Delong, Mike Renshaw and Billy Phillips in addition to his father, who is an Indoor Soccer Hall of Famer.
“I had opportunities to watch him coach and going to his training sessions was a lot of fun. He was a great pro and a passionate player and he coached the same way,” Cooper said. “It was a lot of fun and I’ve always had a passion for the game and a drive to become a professional. To be able to have some insight from some former professionals and to have exposure to the professional game at a young age was a great advantage and something that not a lot of kids were able to have. It was always fun to hear stories and those are guys that I still keep in touch with and consider mentors. I really appreciate the relationships that I have with those guys.”
In Dallas, Cooper was a star at the youth level before committing to Southern Methodist University to play for then-Head Coach Schellas Hyndman. Under Hyndman, SMU was a perennially strong team, however, a late call from England changed those plans in a hurry.
On the recommendation from some of his father’s friends who had seen him play and train so regularly in Texas, Sir Alex Ferguson brought the aspiring young striker to Manchester United for a trial. He was also slated to train with Benfica in Portugal, but instead came back to Dallas to mull over an offer from Ferguson to play for the Red Devils.
It was another thrill for Cooper to make the decision to sign with Manchester United, but it didn’t come without some difficulty, as he also had to inform Hyndman, whom he held great respect for, that he would not be joining him at SMU.
“It was a big decision for me to walk away from that commitment and a great opportunity. SMU was a great college, it had a great soccer program and an amazing coach and it was close to home. Those are all things that I thought were awesome,” Cooper said. “Then I had the opportunity to go overseas and it was too good to turn down.”
In England, Cooper played with Manchester United’s reserves and also spent time on loan with Oldham Athletic and another club in Portugal. Eventually, though, he was enticed to return home to play for FC Dallas and at 21 years old, he set the league alight with 11 goals in 31 matches in his first season. After an injury-shortened season in 2007, he exploded for 18 goals and an MLS Best XI selection in 2008, again drawing attention from Europe. In 2009, he left home again to play for 1860 Munich in Germany’s second division.
In 2011, he returned to MLS with the expansion Portland Timbers, scored the club’s first goal as an MLS club and led the team in scoring with eight goals, but was traded to the New York Red Bulls after the season. There he teamed with Thierry Henry to run roughshod of the Eastern Conference, again netting 18 goals.
However, he was again traded after the season, this time returning to FC Dallas for another stint in front of his hometown fans. And while leaving the club once was difficult, Cooper struggled with the decision to leave again when he was traded to Sounders FC.
“It’s tough to move away from people that you love,” said Cooper, whose wife, Molly, has family in the New York area. “We are fortunate that we both come from close, loving families. I think we cherish the time that we had around them and to be able to share my career with them...it is tough to leave them, but you look forward to those games that they are in the stands again.”
Over the next two weekends, Cooper will have the chance to see old friends on the field and family in the stands as Sounders FC takes the road to meet the Timbers and FC Dallas. While the Timbers match is important for the rivalry perspective and Cooper looks forward to seeing the fans and staff that supported him in his one season in the Rose City, it is the trip back to Dallas that he really has circled on the schedule.
“I definitely look forward to it. I have a lot of great memories playing in Dallas. I kind of consider it my hometown. I went to high school there. My parents still live there. It’s a real joy to be able to play in front of family and friends for as many years as I did and it’s definitely something that I mark on the calendar and I look forward to,” Cooper said. “To play a game with your family in the stands is really special. You don’t always get to do that. That opportunity is something that I look forward to.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s match against Portland is scheduled for 12 pm PT, with national television coverage on NBC Sports.