By JOSE M. ROMERO
The Kenny Cooper who has showed up in recent matches is exactly the player the Portland Timbers hoped they were getting when they grabbed the veteran forward with their place in the MLS allocation order prior to their expansion season.
The timing of Cooper's resurgence couldn't be better for a team that badly needs wins in order to crash the MLS playoff party.
Cooper, the target forward who returned to MLS this year as one of the cornerstones of the first-year Portland side, has three goals in his last four matches. One helped salvage a point for a draw against San Jose, a game in which the Timbers were outplayed, and another proved to be the winner in a road victory at Vancouver on Oct. 2.
Though Cooper's seven goals this season might be considered somewhat of a disappointment, consider this — he scored just once in a four-month span from early May to early September. Now, with the Timbers down to their final three games of the regular season and facing a must-win match at home against the Houston Dynamo Friday, Cooper hopes to keep his recent form and help Portland get to the postseason.
"I have to give my teammates a lot of credit for the great services I've been getting these last couple of games," Cooper said. "Fortunately I've been able to get on the end of some things lately."
Cooper cites a good support system including coaches, teammates and those close to him for helping him get through the scoreless drought, which indicates it was kind of hard on him.
"It coincided with the team not going well," Timbers coach John Spencer said of Cooper's struggles. Then he brought up two serious injuries for Cooper in recent years that slowed his progress.
"It takes bigger guys a little bit longer to come back from bad injuries," Spencer said.
Cooper isn't lamenting what is in the past.
"You may always be frustrated whenever you miss an opportunity," he said. "All goal scorers feel that way. It's important just to stay positive and… keep working hard and trying to do the right things.
"Always believe and hope, and good things are right around the corner," Cooper added.
The Timbers faithful can only hope for as much from their team.
Spencer feels Portland is going to need nine points — three wins — to get to the playoffs. The Timbers have been successful at home but road points have been harder to come by, and their final two matches are at D.C. United and at Real Salt Lake. D.C. is also in need of as many points as it can get with its playoff chances in the balance, while RSL has already clinched a spot.
Spencer, not one to settle for just the last of 10 playoff spots, thinks the Timbers could finish even higher if they secure nine points.
"We're trying to get maximum points in the next three games," he said. "It gives us a better shot in the playoffs. "
The ultra-positive Spencer, like Cooper, wants to get into the postseason for the fans. Looking back on the season, Spencer has had enjoyed his first season as a head coach and enjoyed watching his players come together.
"There needs to be something wrong with you if you come to Jeld-Wen to watch a game and you don't get taken away with the atmosphere, whether you're a player, a coach, a fan. That's one of the great things about being in Portland," Spencer said.
"The best way to describe this, and I hope no one takes it the wrong way, is this is a proper European football club," Spencer added, pausing for effect, "In a nutshell… I actually feel on a day-to-day basis, it feels like I'm managing in the EPL, to be honest. The club's that big."
Cooper considers it an "honor and privilege" to play in Portland, he said.
"We're all really hungry and really determined to get to the playoffs," Cooper said. "Our fans deserve to be there and I think we want our fans to be able to watch us play in playoff games and get there and do well. The support that we've had all year has been absolutely incredible.
"I can tell you that they're really appreciated and we want to get into the playoffs for them."