Goalkeeper is the foundational position on any team, and one of the great questions surrounding the Charleston Battery this offseason has been which of the team’s two talented keepers would win the starting position. Would it be returning 2012 opening day starter Kevin Klasila, or the intimidating newcomer, former Cuban international Odisnel Cooper?
Twelve matches and nine goals later, after a series of notable performances by both players, it appears that Cooper has edged into the lead with a week remaining before the Battery season-opener at Richmond.
If that winds up the case, Battery fans can be sure that neither the Battery, nor Klasila, simply handed the job to the talented 21-year-old.
The case for Klasila
At 6-1, 185 pounds, Kevin “Godzilla” Klasila is on the larger end of the soccer-player continuum, but a bit on the smallish side for a professional goalkeeper. What he lacks in wingspan and glowering monstrosity, however, he makes up in quickness, intelligence and distribution.
A four-year starter at Santa Clara State, Klasila was one of two rookie keepers signed by the Battery in 2012. Former Furman keeper Alex Kann seemed to have the inside track on the job despite a solid preseason by Klasila, but when Kann went down with a bad knee, Klasila stepped up. The Los Angeles native made his first start and professional debut in the season-opener against Richmond, giving up one goal the Battery’s 2-1 win.
It was an auspicious start for a young player who had already impressed local fans with his considerable personal charm, but it was also the moment when the 2012 Battery season almost went off the rails. Klasila tore ligaments in his hand, an injury that would make him unavailable to the team for most of the summer. In desperation, the club turned to the 2011 keeper Klasila had replaced, D.C. United back-up Andrew Dykstra.
Hence, it was Dykstra, not Klasila, in goal for the Battery during their championship 2012 season.
The Battery looked at several keepers during the 2013 offseason, including a couple trialists, but Klasila was the unchallenged leader of the group through the first two matches of the Carolina Challenge Cup.
He found himself instantly under fire against Vancouver as the Battery defense played poorly in the opening minutes, surrendering two quick goals. Coach Mike Anhaeuser juggled his back line and eventually settled things down, but with the defense on the verge of collapse for the first half hour, Klasila kept the Battery in the game with a series of dramatic saves.
He would surrender one more goal in the 50th minute, but Klasila was a rock during the final 40 as the Battery mounted a surprising comeback that fell just short of finding the equalizer in a 3-2 loss. Four days later, Klasila was even better against the Chicago Fire, giving up just one goal in 90 minutes before a stoppage-time breakdown yielded the 2-1 winner.
Klasila made way for Cooper in Game 3 of the CCC, but as the club entered the non-MLS portion of the preseason, Klasila remained the undisputed top keeper for most of the team’s 10-match unbeatened streak. Anhaeuser established a rotation in which Klasila would typically start the match and then give way to Cooper during the second half. Klasila would surrender only three goals in 10 matches as the pair combined for seven clean sheets.
The case for Cooper
Though listed as only an inch taller and five pounds lighter than Klasila, Odisnel “El Gato” Cooper registers instantly as an athletic, physical presence in the box. With long arms, broad shoulders and an intense stare, Cooper certainly looks the part.
But several things worked against him in February.
First was his health. Cooper looked fluid enough on the first day of practice, but quickly joined fellow Cubans Heviel Cordoves and Maikel Chang on the injured list. The second issue was language. No matter how talented and intelligent, a goalkeeper who cannot communicate with his field players and organize the defense is of little use. And unlike the well-spoken Klasila, Cooper is only beginning to pick up conversational English after defecting to Canada from the Cuban national team in October.
The final issue is, in a sense, the most surprising. Cooper is nearsighted. Despite playing for his country’s national team, Cooper had always taken off his glasses before matches and played with his vision uncorrected. After figuring this out, the Battery had him fitted for contact lenses, which he now wears on the field.
All of which made Cooper’s professional debut against Houston on February 23 all the more memorable. Playing on a still-aching knee, with halting English and uncorrected myopia, the political refugee served notice that he would be a competitor for the 2013 starting keeper job.
Cooper yielded an early goal as the MLS-runners-up pushed hard for a quick lead, but he rallied to stand repeatedly between the Battery and disaster, fending off at least half a dozen threats in the first half alone. It was already a heroic performance by the time Cooper saved a penalty kick by MLS All Star and U.S. international Brad Davis in the 34th minute, preserving a 1-1 tie into the half.
Protecting a 2-1 lead from the 75th minute, Cooper came up big over and over, saving shots or snuffing out chances in the 81st, 83rd, 85th and 89th minutes. He was named Man of the Match, and the MLS writers in attendance uniformly praised his standout turn in goal, largely crediting him with the Battery’s upset win. Fans, many of them speaking excitedly in Spanish, mobbed him as he walked beneath the bleachers back to the locker room.
Cooper has yet to equal that dramatic performance in the matches that followed, but with the Battery’s defense playing great ball throughout the month of March, both he and Klasila made it through several matches without seeing much action.
Still, there’s one stat that it’s hard for Anhaeuser to overlook. In the nine games since Houston, his gutsy Cuban keeper surrendered no goals in part-time duty. And as the preseason wound down, Anhaeuser signaled a shift in his thinking by reversing the rotation. In the final two home matches it was Cooper in goal to start the game, with Klasila coming on in relief.
Despite his shutout record in March, Cooper’s play has not been flawless. His distribution lags behind the remarkably accurate Klasila, and a moment of inattention in the waning moments of the Battery’s 0-0 tie with the College of Charleston would have resulted in defeat had captain Colin Falvey not backstopped the young keeper with a kick-save off the line.
It’s also worth noting that Cooper is surprisingly experienced and mentally tough for a 21-year-old. He started for the Cuban U23 team during the 2012 Olympic qualification tournament in Nashville last March. And not only was the 20-year-old on the senior side for Cuba when the team traveled to Toronto last fall, his teammates Heviel Cordoves and Maikel Chang told Live 5 News that they followed Cooper’s lead when it came to slipping away from their national team handlers.
That’s a quality most teams would like to have in their keeper.
What the coach said
When asked whether he’s decided on a starting keeper for opening day, Coach Anhaeuser winced a bit Thursday as he considered his answer.
“Both of them have done very well, in fairness, but I think Cooper is really starting to push to the forefront,” Anhaeuser said. “I played him in the (Railhawks game at Blackbuad) most of the game. And of course we’ll make a decision. But he’s pushing up there and right now, if I had to make a decision, he’s probably the starting goalkeeper.
“I mean Cooper hasn’t even given up any goals,” Anhaeuser said. “He’s really, since getting his contacts, he’s stepped up, and he’s starting to show a bit of his experience. Even though he’s younger, he’s starting to show his calmness, experience and his leadership back there… And he’s had a few little issues (with his contact lenses), but I’ll tell you what, he’s definitely seeing the ball better.”
If there’s an area where Klasila enjoys a clear advantage, it’s as a communicator. Cooper’s English is improving, but he’s still far from a confident speaker in his new language.
“We’re working (on Cooper’s communication), little by little,” Anhaeuser said. “Keeper terminology is not always English. It’s sayings and things. So we’re trying to do the little things first. Out. Away. Tight. Things with your defender. But it’s hard, because some of those words aren’t vocabulary words that you use in sentences that he’s learning or hearing through his general day-to-day things.
“I think he’s doing a great job. The defenders are pretty content with him. We haven’t seen too many problems because he’s very calm back there, and he still makes his noise. If a keeper makes a noise, that usually means something, even if it’s not always the right noise. So he’ll be good.”
It’s one of the tougher choices Anhaeuser will make this season. But sometimes the coaching cliches are simply true. It really is the kind of problem any coach wants.