U-Hauls, folded teams and CJ Cochran’s path to becoming the Rowdies’ keeper

U-Hauls, folded teams and CJ Cochran’s path to becoming the Rowdies’ keeper
·4 min read

ST. PETERSBURG — CJ Cochran didn’t expect to tow a U-Haul trailer through Arkansas and Alabama and into Tampa Bay less than three months before the start of the 2022 USL Championship season.

He’d just signed another contract with Oklahoma City. He had purchased the house he and his wife had been renting. The ebb and flow of his professional journey from Atlanta to Nashville to Fresno to Oklahoma City — with loans to teams and short-term stints at each — finally had reached a crest, he thought.

But then his agent messaged him Dec. 3. Watch out for news, he said. That afternoon on Twitter, Cochran saw what he meant: Oklahoma City had suspended its season to upgrade its facilities at Taft Stadium.

For the third time in his eight-year pro career, Cochran, 30, was without a team. Dan Dawson, his goalkeeper coach at Georgia State and with NASL’s Atlanta, urged him to not take a year off because if he didn’t play, he’d be forgotten.

The next month, Rowdies coach Neill Collins inquired about a loan agreement to get Cochran. Cochran packed his family to move and eventually settled into the Rowdies’ starting role.

Through 16 games, he has allowed the third-fewest goals per 90 minutes among USL Championship goalies with more than five starts.

“Hopefully, (Oklahoma City will) be back next year,” Cochran said. “But it’s just so tough when you take a year off.”

Cochran has experienced that feeling before with Atlanta, which ceased operations in January 2016, and Fresno, a USL Championship team that folded in October 2019.

The fold Part I

The way Atlanta folded was abrupt, Dawson said. The NASL operated the franchise, and it had a limited budget in 2015, but everyone still planned to return for the next season.

That was the year Dawson said he saw the “screw really click” for Cochran. Cochran made the team after tryout scrimmages — including one against Georgia State — and Dawson joined the staff as the goalkeeper coach. Cochran was “no longer the big-man senior,” Dawson said. He was at the bottom of the depth chart and needed to crawl his way up.

Cochran changed his diet and approach, Dawson said. He picked the brain of Steve Guppy, an assistant coach who had played in the English Premier League and with England’s national team. But Cochran said he still didn’t feel like a professional. He lived at home with his parents, and during the season a teammate joined him there to cut down on the commute.

“It was basically like a sleepover every week,” Cochran joked.

When Atlanta folded, Cochran connected with an Oklahoma City assistant coach and landed a preseason audition in Bradenton. He trained with Dawson in the winter, and it was like they were back at Georgia State.

Those years at Georgia State, they played two-touch games during training and added twists where Cochran could use only his right foot, use only his left foot or use only two body parts. He balanced the strength of a 40-yard long ball with the precision of a 10-yard pass. And Cochran etched his place in program history, recording the lowest goals-against average (1.33) and third-most career shutouts (11).

“He’s had some adversities here and there, and it doesn’t really faze him,” said Brett Surrency, his head coach at Georgia State.

The fold Part II

Cochran earned a spot with Oklahoma City after the tryout and stuck with the team for the 2016 and 2017 seasons. He started nine matches, then latched on with Nashville’s then-USL Championship team — and eventually Fresno as a loan — the following year.

At the end of the 2018 season, Cochran sensed a return to Nashville would lead to another reserve role. Since his contract had an option and he knew Fresno coach Adam Smith wanted to sign him, he asked Nashville’s front office if it could avoid picking up his option.

With Fresno in 2019, Cochran became a regular starter at the pro level for the first time. He started all 34 games and helped Fresno earn a playoff appearance. But then the team folded over stadium issues and Cochran returned to Oklahoma City for two years, with MLS experience mixed in when he was loaned to Nashville, which had since joined MLS, in 2020.

“Every time I talk to him, he’s moving to a new freaking team,” said Caleb Kernan, his Georgia State teammate and roommate.

While with Oklahoma City the second time, Cochran and his wife, Alana, began renting a house. Then they bought it. But after the team suspended its 2022 season, the Cochrans started renting the home while they moved to Florida, fitting what they could in the trailer and piecing together furniture they didn’t have from Facebook Marketplace.

Cochran figures that most likely another move will happen soon. That’s the thing about playing on a loan.

“I think we’re all kind of hoping that he gets some stability wherever it will be,” Dawson said. “It’ll be fantastic if one day he could make the MLS, but being a No. 1 in the USL is still an amazing achievement.”

Contact Andrew Crane at acrane@tampabay.com. Follow @CraneAndrew.