About 30 minutes into Odisnel Cooper’s first practice with the Charleston Battery, head coach Mike Anhaeuser noticed a strange tendency in the young Cuban keeper’s game.
Los Angeles Blues vs. Charleston Battery
What: USL Pro Division playoffs
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Blackbaud Stadium
When a cross or a corner kick would come near the six-yard box, Cooper would either punch the ball out of danger or block the ball down to the field. In similar situations, most keepers tend to catch the ball to end the scoring threat.
When Anhaeuser asked the rookie keeper about this peculiarity, Cooper just shrugged. Anhaeuser assumed it was just the way Cooper had been taught to play when he was with the Cuban national team.
As it turned, the answer was much simpler.
Cooper could barely see the ball. He wore glasses when he wasn’t on the field, but as soon as he stepped onto the pitch, the glasses came off.
A visit to the eye doctor revealed that he was legally blind.
“It was almost a relief to find out that he couldn’t see,” Anhaeuser said. “Had we not asked him about it, I would have been very hesitant to put him into a game because of the way he played. Too many bad things could happen if he was allowed to play the way he did.”
Cooper said when he played for the Cuban national team, the ball was often just a small blur. The easiest solution, he surmised, was to either punch the ball as far away from the six-yard box as he could or just knock it to the ground where he could see it.
Cooper knew his eyesight was an issue, but getting a pair of contacts meant mountains of paperwork and red tape with the country’s national health care system, not to mention money that he didn’t have.
“It was just easier to play without contacts,” Cooper said through an interpreter. “It was like playing with an injury. You compensate for it to protect yourself, but you still play. That’s how I thought about it.”
His first practice with contacts was literally an eye-opening experience for Cooper.
“It was like I was playing a different game,” Cooper said. “I could finally see the ball and see the players and everything in front of me. I was so much more confident going after balls and being aggressive. I felt like I was a different player.”
With his eyesight issues behind him, Cooper set out to win the starting job with the Battery. He made two spectacular saves against Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo during the Battery’s Carolina Challenge Cup preseason tournament.
“I think that Houston game was kind of what separated him and earned him the starting job,” Anhaeuser said. “He proved he could make a big save in a crucial situation.”
Going into Saturday night’s USL Pro playoff game with Los Angeles, Cooper is 11-6-5 with a goals against average of 1.09 and seven shutouts. He was third in the USL Pro in wins and fourth in shutouts. He was voted the team’s top newcomer by Battery fans.
“Odisnel had played for the national team, so you hoped he had that extra bit of quality that we could use,” Anhaeuser said. “He’s really come in here and exceeded our expectations. I thought he’d compete for a starting job, but he’s had a tremendous season.”
Having escaped from Cuba more than a year ago, the transition to American life hasn’t always been easy. Cooper hasn’t seen his wife Schenet in more than a year. He begins the process of becoming an American citizen in October, and hopes to bring his wife to the United States in the near future.
“The club has been so good to me,” Cooper said. “I miss my wife, but I’m hoping that she’ll be here soon. Right now, I’m focusing on soccer and the playoffs.”
The ball goes wide as Charleston's Colin Falvey pressures Charlotte's Jorge Herrera -- and goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper waits as the Battery took on the Eagles on a rainy Wednesday June 5, 2013 at Blackbaud Stadium. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)×