Life-changing opportunities don’t come around too often, but when they do, you must be ready to seize the moment. Armando Cooper is living proof after seeing his moment nearly pass him by before his career even began.
Growing up in Panama, Cooper was surrounded by soccer, but it never seemed to be his calling. Instead, the court beckoned.
“Basketball was very big in Panama at the time,” he explains. “It was my passion. In truth, I would only play soccer on the street with my friends. But basketball was a different story.”
He followed his hoop dreams until the age of 16, when an injury to his mouth forced him to step away from the game. It was only then that soccer made its way back into the picture, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly given his family history.
“My father was a footballer, so I guess you could say that soccer is in my blood,” Cooper admits.
Unlike many youths from Latin America, Cooper did not see soccer as his way out to greener pastures. In fact, he had first-hand proof that those dreams were farfetched at best.
“Back then, being a professional footballer wasn’t an option,” Cooper says. “My father was good enough to make it, but he had to work to provide for our family. He had a chance to play at a club and was doing well; the newspapers were even writing stories about it. But once his employer found out, they told him he could either work or play soccer, not both. So of course, he had to choose work.”
When you don’t feel motivated or inspired, it’s important to have great friends and family to help you through the tough times.
Nevertheless, Cooper decided to give it a go on the pitch. But things got off to a slow start.
“When I moved on from basketball, I went on trial with three different teams in Panama, but none of them worked out. After that, I figured I was done.”
Assuming his chance was gone, Cooper was ready to hang up his boots. But at the behest of his childhood friends and fellow hopefuls, a life-changing moment was realised.
“The next year, my friends wanted to try out again,” he recalls. “They asked me to try again, but I was reluctant to go. Eventually they convinced me to go, but only to watch training. But once I got there, I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines, so I jumped in. That’s when I made the team.”
That one moment on the sidelines turned out to be the sparkplug that would see an 18-year-old Cooper embark on a journey he never thought possible, surging through the ranks at a blinding pace.
“I made the reserve team with Árabe Unido, a big club in Panama,” Cooper says. “That’s when I thought I could actually make a living playing soccer.”
It didn’t take long for an opportunity to come his way, a moment he grasped with both hands.
“It’s just like everything else, one person’s misery is another person’s opportunity,” he explains. “A teammate got injured and I got the call up to the first team, and I never lost my spot after that day. Three months later, I got my first call up for the national team.
“At that time, you don’t even realize what’s going on; everything’s moving so fast. It’s only now that I reflect on where life has taken me that I can look back and marvel at what a ride it’s been. The ups and downs of life are interesting.”
From failed trials to a full senior national in the matter of months, the road certainly took some wild turns. But his winding path was far from over as Cooper made stops in Argentina, Germany and Romania before returning to Panama with Árabe Unido.
Those travels, however, had Cooper feeling unsettled and uninspired.
“It was tough,” Cooper admits. “I felt like maybe this wasn’t for me. I just didn’t have the motivation in that moment. But that’s when Toronto called.”
It didn’t take much convincing to get Cooper on board, already familiar with MLS and Toronto FC through his fixtures in the CONCACAF Champions League. Jumping straight into a title race in a first-class city, Cooper knew he had made the right call.
“It’s a first-world country,” he says. “The security you have living here is second-to-none. Panama has its ups and downs. There are things I miss about it, but I love living here.”
Now settled in his new home, Cooper has even more reason to love Toronto after welcoming a daughter into the world at the start of the season.
“It’s a feeling you can’t even explain,” he beams. “The blessings of a father are incredible.”
As for the unfinished business from last year’s final, Cooper is eager to go the distance this time around.
“The group has had a feel for it now,” he says. “We were so close last year. We had a taste of success, but we didn’t get to savour it all. That alone is motivation to go on and win it all.”