If you’re a soccer fan in Houston, or if you’re a fan of women’s soccer anywhere in America, chances are you’ve heard of Jen Cooper.
Cooper has traveled to Russia and France to lend her knowledge to the broadcasts of the 2018 Men’s and 2019 Women’s World Cups, written an almanac detailing the history of the National Women’s Soccer League, and even found two missing US Women’s National Team matches that altered soccer history. However, rewind to any point of her life prior to the mid-90s and you would find a woman who not only didn’t understand soccer but didn’t even like it.
Growing up in Houston, Cooper focused on tennis, swimming and participating in triathlons, and had only one or two friends who played soccer while she was in high school. Her knowledge of the game grew slightly after college when she joined a women’s soccer team with some of her fellow graduates from Rice University, but even then, she didn’t enjoy it at all.
“I have to say, I hated it,” Cooper admitted. “I didn’t have any skills having never played before, and I didn’t really know the rules. I didn’t know how to dribble, and I wasn’t fast. Coming from a background where you’re used to being in the top ten percent of whatever you’re doing, I couldn’t help but think, ‘This sucks.’ So, I would blow off practices and games.”
Then, the 1994 Men’s World Cup came to the United States and everything changed for Cooper.
“That was the first time I had seen really good, really competitive soccer on TV,” Cooper recalled. “I have no memories of the 1990 World Cup, even though I was old enough to watch it, but it just wasn’t accessible. But 1994, since it was here in the US, it was all over the place, and I had enough friends who were into soccer that we were all watching these games together, and it was so much fun. More importantly, I fell in love with the Swedish goalkeeper, Thomas Ravelli. I decided I wanted to be like him.”
Luck would have it that the usual goalkeeper for Cooper’s team was leaving for grad school, and the team was looking for a replacement. With a new-found love of the game, Cooper jumped at the opportunity and stepped into the role of starting goalkeeper.
“My coach at the time and some of my teammates had played goalkeeper before, so I had people who taught me how to play the position, and it was just a better fit for my natural abilities,” Cooper said. “Once I learned all the other skills to go with it, I became the person who was always the first to practice or a game, never missed another practice or game, and just got more and more into the sport.”
By the time the 1999 Women’s World Cup came to the United States, Cooper was obsessed and doing everything she could to quench her thirst for more soccer.
“I traveled to the Bay Area, where my sister lived, to see two quarterfinal matches and a semifinal match of the 1999 World Cup,” Cooper explained. “The women had started to be on TV more, so I was watching that, and they were launching the WUSA, so I was tracking all of that. Then, the league launched with a team out in the Bay Area, so I started going out there to see games and even got my sister and her husband into women’s soccer.”
Cooper’s love continued to grow, and she found herself President of the Houston Women’s Soccer Association about the same time that her alma mater was starting a women’s soccer team, so it was fitting when she discovered information on the WUSA website about how a community could host a league match.
“I immediately decided I wanted to make that happen, and in October of 2002, I got to host Mia Hamm versus Brianna Scurry at Rice University,” Cooper stated. “That was the beginning of my addiction to being involved in soccer workwise. Learning all the stuff behind the scenes of what it takes to put a game on was fascinating. Through that event and one that followed it six months later, I met Jamey Rootes from the Texans and Oliver Luck, who became the first president of the Houston Dynamo.”
Cooper went on to work for the Dynamo in a gameday operations role for the next ten seasons and build an impressive bank of memories that she will never forget. But it was in December of 2013, when Cooper found out the Houston Dash were being added to the NWSL, that led to her finding a new niche for herself in the industry.
“It has been so wonderful for me, having my own team in my hometown,” Cooper admitted. “This is the third women’s pro league that we have had in this country, but the first one to have a team in my hometown. I don’t have to go to California to watch games anymore, it is here. Plus, I started working for the Dash broadcast team and was constantly compiling data and stats for it, so I realized that other people had to want that information too. My original background is graphic design, so I had the skills and the tools to put an almanac together, which I started selling and offering to others.”
It was through this broadcast work and the creation of the almanac that Cooper met Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner, who both asked for her to join them on the Lifetime broadcast team for NWSL matches. Her work was so impressive that Cooper was invited to work the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Russia and eventually the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.
“That was a completely different kind of experience, but kind of a return to my roots,” Cooper said. “It was the Men’s World Cup that originally sucked me in, and 24 years later I’m at the Men’s World Cup in Russia. Not to mention, I was hoping if I did well enough in Moscow that they would use me for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France the following summer, and they did.”
Looking back on her journey, Cooper has a number of incredible stories, but she brought up one specific instance as something she will never forget: the time she changed history. While looking up stats to post a trivia question on Twitter, Cooper noticed a conflict in the number of times the US Women’s National Team had played in Arizona.
“The media guide said they had played in Arizona five times, but the numbers didn’t add up,” Cooper explained. “I started checking player numbers and realized that two games were missing from the media guide, so I reached out to the US press officer and explained the situation. He said he remembered working those two games and would investigate it for me. When the next media guide came out, those two games were in there, which had changed Kristine Lilly’s world record for most caps in soccer history. Because I noticed the error and those two games were added to the files, I had added two games to her total caps record and added two goals to Michelle Akers’ total.”
While changing history might be one of her favorite memories to date, Cooper hopes to make many more in the near future and doesn’t plan on stopping doing what she loves anytime soon, especially since there are still some specific goals she wants to achieve.
“It is more of a personal reason than anything else, but since I have been paying attention to the sport for 25 years now, I have realized there is an interest in what I do and it makes me feel good to share something that is important to me with someone else who finds it as interesting and important,” Cooper said. “Plus, I want to work the Olympics, which I was scheduled to do later this year, but has been postponed. So now, I would say work the Women’s Champions League Final or Women’s Euro, preferably with a former or current Dash player involved. For instance, working when Rachel Daly wins the tournament with England, that is definitely a goal for me.”