TORONTO — Win or lose on Saturday, Armando Cooper wants to stay right where he is at.
The MLS Cup Final is set for Saturday night at BMO Field, and the match between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders will officially mark the last game in Cooper’s current loan deal with the Canadian club. The 29-year-old midfielder was acquired back in mid-August via a loan deal from Panamanian outfit Arabe Unido that runs through the end of the year, but he wants to make the move a more permanent one.
“That’s what I hope and dream for,” Cooper told SBI. “I’ve been doing things well from a personal standpoint, and I expect that to help me or at least open the doors for me to stay.”
The MLS salary cap could ultimately prevent that from happening in the offseason when Toronto FC has to weigh which players to keep and drop ahead of 2017, but the good news for Cooper is that the positive feelings are mutual.
“Our intent is to try to have him here for the long haul,” said Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney, who Cooper called one of top two coaches in his career. “That’s why we brought him. We never really bring anybody thinking we’re going to use him for a short term. We bring him because we want him to be a part of this and to buy in and really help this team win not just one championship but as many as we can.”
That first MLS Cup trophy could be hoisted by Toronto FC as soon as this weekend following a strong showing in both the regular season and playoffs, and Cooper has played a part in the club’s run at the title. Yes, the Panamanian international with 75 caps has not had contributions that mirror those of more established Toronto FC regulars, but Cooper has played a valuable complementary role in the midfield.
Since making his debut on Sept. 10, Cooper has played in a combined 11 games during the campaign and postseason. He has started in nine of those appearances, providing one goal and three assists. Those statistics might not be overwhelming for a player who was known as more of an attacking midfielder earlier in his career, but they are not as important when other characteristics that he brings to the table.
“What he adds for us is another guy in midfield who competes physically,” said Vanney. “He covers a lot of ground, he’s not afraid to take the ball under pressure and manage a situation and play himself out of it through passes, sometimes through turning guys. He’s given us another guy who’s confident and a real man in the midfield. He’s really adapted himself well to the group and to his move here and we enjoy him.
“He’s been fantastic. It’s not usually easy for players to come from outside the league to adapt as quickly as he’s been able to and have a nice impact on a group, but because of his personality, his work rate, and his abilities he’s been able to do so.”
As solid as Cooper has been at times since joining Toronto FC this year, his best might still be to come. Players from abroad tend to have to go through an adaptation period in MLS before really hitting their groove, usually in their second seasons, and Cooper believes he has not found his top form just yet.
There are signs that Cooper is getting there, including him opening his MLS scoring account in the wild second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship vs. the Montreal Impact last week. He is not quite there, however.
“I feel very, very, very comfortable here in the general sense, but I think there’s a lot more for me to give,” said Cooper. “I came without doing a preseason in quite some time and I think with a preseason under my belt I can reach a better level and I expect to be fine. I’m happy, comfortable, calm here, and I don’t have any problems.”
Having an even better Cooper next year would be a welcome development for Toronto FC, but the focus is on the here and now. The MLS Cup is up for grabs on Saturday, and Cooper will need to use the skills he has developed as a two-way midfielder to not only help Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in the attack but also to aid Michael Bradley in trying to stymie Sounders playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro.
“I like the attack more, I like to be in the attack more, but I also have that ability to sacrifice to be able to help my teammates defensively,” said Cooper. “It’s one of the qualities that I have developed in the last, maybe, three years because before then I was more offensive-minded and I didn’t have that aspect in my game. I have developed it to help the group, the team I’m with and it is reflected today.”
Cooper will want to bring all his qualities and experience to the field on Saturday, as he aims to punctuate his first few months in MLS by bringing a championship to Toronto. Accomplishing that would not only put a perfect bow on his solid debut campaign in the league, but it would also help his case for cementing a return in 2017.
“To finish 2016 like that would be marvelous,” said Cooper. “It was a year that improved and to finish it like that would be spectacular. It would be one the biggest blessings that God could give me to as a gift. We hope to finish it that way.”