Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SUNRISE, Fla. – A lot has changed for Cody Cropper since he was last on a U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team that was attempting to reach the Under-20 World Cup. Cropper has experienced extreme disappointment, switched clubs and gone through the natural maturation process as both a player and a person.
Those experiences are what Cropper will be leaning on when trying to help guide the Americans through the notoriously rigorous World Cup qualifying process in Central America in two months, and they are also what he is hoping will help land him the starting spot on the U.S. U-20 team that has mounting pressure on it to succeed after the recent failures of multiple U.S. youth teams.
Having been on the 2011 U.S. U-20 team that surprisingly failed to qualify for that year’s World Cup, the 19-year-old Cropper is focused on helping the current crop of young Americans avoid a similar fate while reaching the 2013 U-20 World Cup in Turkey. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound goalkeeper plans on using his experiences with that previous U-20 team to help some of his younger and lesser-experienced teammates, because knows all too well how tough qualifying can be.
“Being involved in the last cycle, going into that and being the youngest player in that age group, it was a good experience and I can take that into this cycle and lead the boys,” Cropper told SBI. “A lot of the players don’t realize what we’re going to face when we go to qualifying. Playing in front of a (hostile) crowd not on U.S. soil is not the easiest things to do, especially in Central American countries.
“I think a lot of the players will have a massive eye-opener when we go down there, but I think with (head coach Tab Ramos) and the coaching staff we have, we have a very good opportunity and the players that we have, we have a very good team. We just have to get all our players fit and get all the right players in and I think we can do the job.”
During the last U-20 cycle under Thomas Rongen, Cropper was a reserve to Zac MacMath and never saw the field during the qualifying tournament in Guatemala. While he surely would have preferred to play then, Cropper understands the importance and value of having competition and this cycle is no different.
Cropper is currently competing with Georgetown’s Tomas Gomez and Santa Clara’s Kendall McIntosh among other young netminders for the No. 1 spot, but head coach Tab Ramos is expected to select Cropper to start in between the pipes for the Americans when qualifying begins in Puebla, Mexico in February.
Cropper has every intention of being the starter, but he knows it is far from a done deal.
“There’s Kendall and Tomas and we’re all friends, but when it comes down to it, we’re all fighting for one spot,” said Cropper. “Whoever’s the best at the end of the day, whoever’s the best in (the coaching staff’s) mind, is the one that gets that spot in qualifying. Hopefully, I’m doing enough to get that spot.”
On paper, the stocky Cropper seems like the obvious choice to start. He has been plying his trade in England since 2010, and represented the U.S. at various other youth levels.
Cropper endured a surprise exit at Ipswich Town earlier this year. In April, the Championship club informed the Athens, Ga. native that he would not be brought back for the 2012-13 season, leaving his club future in doubt.
“The decision that Ipswich made took me by shock and I think it took a lot of people by shock, in all honesty,” said Cropper. “I don’t think many people saw that coming, but at the end of the day that’s down to the manager of the club and he thought I needed to get out and play more games and he didn’t think I would get that at Ipswich.”
Ultimately, he found a new home with freshly-promoted Southampton thanks to the help of his goalkeeper coaches at Ipswich that he says became his friends. Cropper signed with the Premiership club on the final day of the summer transfer window and has enjoyed his brief time with the Saints.
As well as he is fitting in, Cropper knows not to take anything for granted, especially after being let go by Ipswich and suffering two severe knee injuries since moving to Europe to play professionally.
“They have both been eye-openers for me because injuries ended my dad’s career and it’s helped me realize that you have to play every like it’s the last because you’re not going to be able to do this for the rest of your life,” said Cropper. “Coming out of both injuries, I’ve been head-strong and very competitive and want to compete in the first team of the Premiership club. Hopefully, by the end of the year or maybe next year some time I can break into the first team and play in the Prem.”
Whether Cropper attains that goal remains to be seen, but he has currently been playing well with Southampton’s Under-21 team. He even recently received rave reviews for a stellar performance in a 1-1 draw against Manchester United’s U-21 team.
Still, if his experience is anything to go by, Cropper should be a safe bet to achieve his goals, both on the club and international levels.