Photo: Courtesy of Michigan State University Athletics
After missing the 2011 season with an injury, Kevin Cope bounced back to lead Michigan State to a pair of NCAA tournament berths, including a spot in the final eight in 2013. Cope earned third team All-American honors as a senior as the Spartans defense dominated the Big 10, tying the school record with 13 shutouts.
Cope comes across as extremely mature, strong-willed, and confident. He spoke with PSP about earning the respect of teammates, playing a smart game in back, and how he’s excited to make Philly his new soccer family.
What was your first reaction when picked? What did you do? What did you feel?
I graduated in December, so I’m at home right now. And I was watching with my parents, and I started to get a little antsy. And it was funny because, just how they announce it, how the guy announces who is drafted, he says, ‘From the University of…’ and then says the name. So every time they would start with ‘University of…’ I knew it wasn’t me. So when they finally said, ‘Michigan State University’ I knew it was me so I was pretty happy, got a couple hugs from my parents, and then I was on my phone for about 24 straight hours. It was very exciting and I’m very excited to be joining the Union. I think it’s a great fit for me, and I’m already heading out there on Friday.
Did you have any idea the Union were looking at you?
You know, I didn’t. But they interviewed Coach Hackworth during the draft and he made a comment like, ‘I think there are a couple good center backs in there and hopefully we can grab a good one.’ And I was still on the board with a couple of them gone, so I was optimistic about it. And sure enough, I was still available and I heard my name called. That’s when I found out. I didn’t know anything leading up to it, so that just made my excitement level that much higher.
I can tell you that Philly fans were happy to hear a center back’s name called, and particularly yours since you were pretty high up a few draft boards.
I’m equally as excited, that’s for sure.
Have you been to Philly before?
Never. So even more excitement level for it. It makes me a little nervous, because I’m heading into a new territory and I’m not familiar with it at all, but that element of the unknown makes things that much more exciting. I’m just ready to get to it and find out what the city is all about, what the organization is all about, and the players, and the coaching staff. I’m ready.
You’re going to be joining one of the youngest defenses… possibly in MLS history. Your D at Michigan State was so strong, especially last year. Do you take any lessons from that that you can bring to a young team? Lessons about how you guys bonded and became so organized rather than just a bunch of skilled players?
I think you just hit it spot on. The reason we were so successful on the field was because we had such good chemistry on and off the field. We were a single unit and not just four defenders in the back. Michigan State prides itself on defense, so my mentality fit in perfectly with that program. And I’m hoping I can bring that same mentality to the Union. I think my hard work and determination will hopefully earn me a roster spot and I can just keep grinding and go through the process and see where it takes me. I’m looking forward to it. Even though it’s a bunch of young guys, they’ve been in the league before so I’m going to learn a lot from them. And that’s what I’ll be doing, especially in the preseason: Just picking up the ins and outs of the team and of the league and, hopefully, that can translate into my play and make it an easier transition for me.
They’re young guys, but, like you said, they’ve been around the league a long time. For you, you’re a rookie. But you’re also a center back, so you’re expected to be, along with the goalie, one of the most vocal guys on the field. Is that tough coming in your first year and doing that? Was it tough your freshman year?
I think I’m a very good leader. It just comes naturally to me. When I did come in freshman year at Michigan State, I was a little hesitant at first, but one of the big things with being a leader and being vocal is that you need to earn the respect of the guys you’re playing with. So hopefully my hard work and determination can earn that respect from a couple guys. And once I earn respect I just get more comfortable and more vocal and that makes my job easier, it makes everybody else’s job easier, and that’s just something I’ve been doing my whole life. So it is a transition, I don’t know any of the guys in the locker room, so I’m going to have to meet them and learn their tendencies. Once I do that, it’ll just come naturally. Like I said, I think I’m a natural leader. So hopefully those leadership qualities can come out quick. I know that’s something I’m going to have to do from my position, but I’m also not going to shy away from it.
I’m going to keep you self-evaluating. Some draft boards had you high on the list of center backs while some had you much further down. What did the guys that valued you see, and what did the guys that didn’t rate you notice that you think you need to work on?
Obviously us as players, we read those boards. We either applaud their analysis or are self-critical and use it as motivation. I think those that had me high up, they saw those leadership qualities, they see the toughness that I bring, they see the simplicity of the game, and that’s just something that I’ve learned. You know, I’m not the most athletic guy, so I read the game well. I’m very intelligent, so I solve problems on the field in a quick manner. I put myself in the best possible positioning to make my job easier, and that allows other people’s jobs to be easier as well. I think that’s a very strong aspect of my game. If I just keep things simple and get the ball to the playmakers… From my position, I don’t need to be winning games. I need to do my job and keep balls out of the back of our net and get the ball to our playmakers so they can go win it for us.
As far as some of the other people that might have had me a little lower, maybe they didn’t think my size or strength was equivalent to the other guys in the draft. But I’m a tough guy. You can match whoever you want up against me and I’m going to battle and I’m going to do what I need to to get the job done. And that’s just a mentality that I have. And I think that’s what separates me from those other guys, is my mentality and determination. And that’s an intangible, they can’t see that. So maybe that’s why they had me a little bit down the board, but at the end of the day everything worked out and I’m headed to Philly. And I couldn’t be more excited about it and I think it’s going to be a good fit for me.
You talked about the mental side of the game, but I’m also curious about the emotional side. The Union have some guys who can be fiery, engage a bit with the strikers, get into it a bit and motivate themselves that way. What kind of player are you? Are you the red-in-the-face type, or are you stoic on the field?
I try not to get rattled, obviously. The emotions of the game kind of get to you at times. So whatever’s called for, I guess. If a tough guy mentality is needed and I need to get in somebody’s face and get them a little rattled, I’m more than willing to do that, but I tend to just let the game play out. I stick to my role and I don’t get rattled and I play consistently over 90 minutes. I think that’s the biggest thing, consistency. So if I can do that, I’m pleased with my performance, and hopefully I give my team the best chance to win. I can be a rah-rah guy, I can be a tough in-your-face guy. But usually I just keep it consistent, keep it simple, and do my job.
You talked about that consistency, but every rookie says this – and coaches say it to – that MLS can be a step faster than the college game. You’re going to make a mistake or two in your first year. How do you keep a short memory for that, especially when you’re in the back line and every little mistake is magnified?
I know that the game is going to be a little faster, and that’s part of the transition. Hopefully I can use the first week of preseason to get adjusted and then I’m playing up to speed, and playing quick and playing simple. But mistakes are going to happen and you really do have to have a short memory in this game. And I think that comes down to the respect aspect, the support. Because if I have guys respecting me and supporting me, then it makes mistakes not as significant. If I’m battling those mistakes by myself then it gets difficult, and I’m thinking about it a lot, and I’m going to kill myself from that standpoint because I’m just going to lose sleep over it. But if you have a coach and teammates that really support you and pat you on the back if you do make a mistake.
I mean, they’re going to let you know if you made a mistake, but they’re still going to be supporting you and helping you get through it. And I think that’s part of that family atmosphere and that’ll definitely help me have a short memory and just move on to the next play and keep grinding and keep being the player that I am.
Coming from Michigan State, we pride ourselves on defense. And since I’ve been there it’s been family, academics, then soccer. They really put a high emphasis on family, and not just your family, but the team aspect as well.
In terms of getting that support, what advice have you gotten from coaches or family that is on your mind as you get ready to head out to preseason?
They tell me to just keep doing what I’m doing that has gotten me here. And I’ve mentioned it a couple times: That’s hard work and determination. Just keep a level head, keep busting my butt, keep doing the little things that separate me from the rest of the pack.
I got a call from Coach Hackworth and he seems excited. Whenever you have a coach that’s excited about the organization, you know you’re headed to a good place. His excitement got me even more excited. Just talking to him was great, and I know Jim Curtin used to be a center back so I can learn from him. I’ve talked to my Michigan State coaches and they’ve been really helpful, so I have a great support system and I have a lot of love coming from family friends, and even from Union fans already, following me on Twitter and stuff like that. So, I’m telling you, I’m very, very excited to start this journey. I know Philly is a great sports town, just like Detroit, where I’m from, so I’m excited about that. The organization seems awesome, the coaching staff… All I’ve been doing is reading articles the past couple days just trying to find out as much as I can. And I really haven’t read a bad thing yet. I said it could be a good fit, and I’m hoping to make the most of this opportunity.
It’s got to feel good knowing that the Union had a chance to take some really highly rated center backs early on and waited, thinking they could get just as good of a player later on by drafting you.
Yeah, and I read that in a couple of articles, a couple reports. But when Coach Hackworth called me and told me that over the phone… Just hearing it from him personally, that really got me going. It got me even more excited.
If you get on the field, Union fans are going to give you a nickname. Do you have any you’re bringing in that you want them to call you?
I really don’t. I’ll let them take care of that. Whatever they give me, I’m sure I’ll love and I’ll embrace it. Hopefully I’ll hear it more than I expect.