Charleston Battery keeper Odisnel Cooper understands that speaking English could be vital to his professional soccer career.
The ability of a keeper to communicate with the players in front of him, especially with his defenders, is crucial on the field. There were times last summer when Cooper struggled to get the Battery's defense organized during games. Not only was Cooper a young goalie, just 20 years old, but he barely spoke a word of English, having just defected from Cuba in the fall of 2012.
"I would try and explain myself, but not everyone understood me," Cooper said. "It was frustrating, but as the season went on, I was able to get my point across better."
Cooper spent the offseason in the Lowcountry working at a local Mexican restaurant in North Charleston and as a coach with local youth soccer camps. Picking up words and phrases each day and spending hours in front of the television has helped Cooper with his English.
His increased vocabulary has allowed Cooper to become a more vocal leader on the field.
"His communication skills are significantly better this year," said Charleston Battery goalie coach Dusty Hudock. "If Odisnel wants to make it to the MLS (Major League Soccer), speaking English is going to be very important for him. He's got to be able to communicate with the guys in front of him."
Just two months into the current season, Cooper has already has established himself as one of the elite keepers in the USL Pro Division. He leads the league in shutouts (3) and is second in saves (26). Cooper has given up just six goals in eight starts and is 2-2-4 with a .750 goals against average.
"He's always been able to stop the ball and make saves," Charleston coach Mike Anhaeuser said. "I think he's really fine-tuned his game from a year ago. He's not as sloppy with the ball and his decision-making is a lot better and a lot faster. Odisnel is a young goalie, he just needed some game experience."
Cooper was named the USL Pro Player of the Week last week after recording two shutouts and making eight saves in back-to-back wins over Harrisburg City and Dayton.
"I don't get a shutout by myself," Cooper said. "Everyone has a hand in getting a shutout."
Having escaped from Cuba nearly two years ago, the transition to American life has gotten easier for Cooper. But there's still one missing element in his life - his wife Schenet - who remains in Cuba. Cooper hasn't seen his wife in more than two years, and is hard at work on his American citizenship in hopes of bringing her to the United States.
"I talk to her a few times a week, but I miss her," Cooper said. "It's been too long since I've seen her."