Cooper quits in tiff with Spirit owner


Out as Spirit president and general manager and thwarted in his attempt to buy the club, Kenny Cooper says he will continue his search for a soccer franchise.

After 14 years as leader of Baltimore's indoor soccer team, Cooper yesterday stepped aside as Spirit president and general manager after a disagreement with owner Bill Stealey.

He will remain as a paid consultant in marketing and public relations for what Stealey called "an undetermined period of time," possibly as long as a year.

"We couldn't reach agreement on the details of his [president and GM] responsibilities," Stealey said. "We're both strong and prideful men, so we agreed to disagree.

"I'm a businessman. I expect certain plans and financial objectives. Coach wasn't sure how he could do things my way. I suggested some changes, but he disagreed. Someone's got to be in charge."

Cooper did not attend yesterday's news conference ("It was just better that way," he said) announcing his departure, but was reached by phone through his agent, Tony Agnone.

"I had two good years with Bill," Cooper said. "He's astute. He wanted to go a certain direction. I disagreed. It came down to the fact he's the owner. He can take it in the direction he wants. I'll stay in the background."

In recent weeks, Cooper assembled a group of businessmen with the aim of buying the Spirit. The principal financial backer was Bill Collins, a telecommunications executive in northern Virginia who owns two minor-league baseball teams.

Admitting the offer was "attractive," Stealey rejected it because the group wanted to reserve the right to move the team and because of his family's passion for soccer and commitment to it.

Alluding to the fact the Spirit lost money the past two seasons, Stealey called the team an "emotional success" with his family, if not a financial success.

"I want to make it clear," Cooper said, "that we had no intention of moving the team."

At 48, Cooper says he is "driven to become an owner." He regards Washington, Virginia, Orlando, Fla., Jacksonville, Fla., and Raleigh, N.C., as "sleeping giants" where soccer might prosper. With Collins' backing, Cooper hopes to land a franchise.

Coaching is not out of the question. Indeed, Stealey said yesterday he is encouraging Cooper to apply for a job in Major League Soccer, which will begin play next year.

"It'll pay coaches more than in indoor soccer," Stealey said.

Said Cooper: "But it wouldn't be the thing I need to do now, not at this crossroads in my life."

In another development, Stealey announced that vice president of soccer operations Drew Forrester has agreed to a two-year contract extension.

Forrester will be responsible for player contract negotiations and signings and, with the yet-to-be-named head coach, coordinate scouting, the draft and summer youth camps. With Cooper gone, the club will hire a sales vice president.

The Spirit will create a reserve team next season composed of at least 12 players who will practice with the main squad and play in local indoor leagues with an eye toward being called up in case of injuries.

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