FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Long before Cody Cropper ever suited up as a goalkeeper for the New England Revolution, he grew up hearing stories about his grandfather’s military service.
Cropper even got his middle name – Joseph – from his grandfather, who served 21 years and six days in the U.S. Air Force before retiring.
Military service is now an issue close to Cropper’s heart. So when the Revolution tabbed him along with teammates Isaac Angking, Diego Fagundez, and Brad Knighton to help lead a soccer clinic at Gillette Stadium last Thursday for the children of military families, he jumped at it.
The Revolution partnered with U.S.O. New England to host the clinic as part of April’s Month of the Military Child. The children ranged from ages five to 13, with Revolution Academy players and coaches joining Revs first team players on organizing drills.
“This is something I really connect with,” Cropper told Pro Soccer USA. “Just being involved in the community, these are good experiences. It gives you a heart-warming feeling when you’re giving back and helping kids learn a game that’s given you, as a player, so much in your lifetime.
“A lot of the older kids we worked with, the ones that are 9 or 10 and up do have this sense of maturity just because of what they’ve been through. Sometimes when a parent, whether it’s a mom or dad, has to step away from the family for the service, the kids sometimes fill their roles. I can understand that. I heard stories from my grandma about when my grandpa would be gone for three, four months at a time and not knowing when he’d come back. Kids really mature in those situations by stepping up and taking responsibilities.”
Cropper’s father, who is also named Joseph, was born in England during one of his father’s military stations. Having a parent born in England likely helped Cropper’s case when he trialed and subsequently signed with Ipswich Town in 2010. Cropper went on to represent Southampton and Milton Keynes Dons, playing sparingly before arriving in New England in August 2016.
Cropper, now 26 and in his third full season with the Revolution, said after the clinic that he still remembers his dad’s stories about his now-late grandfather.
“Part of being in the military is that responsibility to preserve and protect the country we live in, and some men and women who serve suffer with issues post-war – unfortunately I think he was one of them,” Cropper said.
“My grandpa didn’t speak about it a lot, but my dad definitely told me stories about his service and growing up on military bases and the friends he developed.”
Cropper said the clinic helped put he and his teammates in a good frame of mind ahead of last Saturday night’s 1-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls. As part of the winning effort, Cropper made five saves and helped New England (2-5-1, 7 points) clinch its first clean sheet of the season.
That performance had been a long time coming.
Despite arriving in New England in mid-2016, Cropper made his first and only appearance that season in a 3-0 victory over the Montreal Impact in the Oct. 23 season finale. Cropper commanded the back line well in his debut and made a sprawling save on an Ignacio Piatti header in the second half to preserve a shutout. In preseason the next year, then-head coach Jay Heaps basically appointed Cropper as the starting goalkeeper when he traded Bobby Shuttleworth to Minnesota United.
Cropper went 10-14-4 with eight shutouts in 2017, and drew attention from the United States men’s national team.
After Heaps’ dismissal as coach, Friedel stepped in and gave the starting job to Matt Turner, previously a third-stringer, which left Cropper on the fringes for the entire season.
The sudden change was a jarring one for Cropper.
“I don’t think it’s every easy,” Cropper said. “Players in every position on every team in the world go through times where they feel not wanted or not needed, so just having the ability to stay mentally strong and emotionally in tune allows for you to persevere and overcome that.”
Brad Knighton started New England’s first four games in net this year with Cropper on the bench. After New England’s 2-0 home loss to FC Cincinnati on March 24 in which a Knighton giveaway led to a goal, Friedel made a change.
“It was a surreal feeling,” Cropper said. “But I think, after the first couple of games back on the bench, it was less surreal when I found out I’d be starting. “Being told ‘Cody, you’re starting shirt today’ is an amazing feeling after having been away for so long.”
Now Cropper, three games into his renaissance as New England’s starting goalkeeper, will look to pick up where he and the Revs left off on Saturday.
They host the sixth-place Montreal Impact, which is just four points ahead of New England in the Eastern Conference, at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday night. A win is key for both sides, especially since first place and 10th place are separated by only seven points in the still-young season.
“The Eastern Conference is very competitive, very tight, so I think if we can continue putting performances together anything is possible,” Cropper said. “If we can get three points against Montreal, we’ll be right back in the thick of things.”