Mercurial Cunningham Returns to Nats
It's always interesting to see how the national team fares on foreign soil, and while the opponents may not be household names, they are bound for South Africa. But with the World Cup still seven months away and with the spotlight on the MLS Cup pursuit of BFFs Becks and Landon Donovan, what makes the upcoming friendlies worth following? Two words and 17 goals: Jeff Cunningham.
The U.S. Soccer Federation announced the roster for the Slovakia friendly on Monday morning, and it included the predictable mix of European-based talent and MLS players whose seasons have ended. It also included Cunningham, who never has really been a factor at international level despite having scored the second-highest number of regular season goals (121) in MLS history.
So how is it that a player with such impressive credentials hasn't been capped since 2005? Perhaps it's partly an issue of consistency. The Jamaican-born striker has hit double digits six times in his 12-year career, but also has suffered through seasons scoring just two, five and six goals. He had 14 combined in 2007 and 2008 and endured a slow start to his 2009 campaign with FC Dallas.
But there's usually more to the story, and in this case, it seems to have everything to do with attitude. At times Cunningham has personified the diva striker stereotype, wearing out more than one welcome with moody, lazy or self-centered behavior. Following seven years with Columbus, Cunningham has been a journeyman, bouncing to MLS also-rans Colorado, Salt Lake City, Toronto and Dallas.
After the Canadian club dumped Cunningham in exchange for a third-round draft pick in August 2008, then coach John Carver told CBC Sports, "It's not just about what goes on the field. It's about what goes on behind the scenes as well. In my opinion, he wasn't good for the locker room. He wasn't a player that I wanted to be a part of what I was trying to build here, so it was best for both parties that he was out of our locker-room and he get a fresh start somewhere else."
I've interviewed Cunningham just once (a couple of years ago) and found him friendly, engaging and smart. But he also seemed to carry a bit of a chip on his shoulder and was aware that he was failing to generate the appreciation or respect a player of his accomplishments should.
That may have changed this season. His 17 goals led the league, and he is one of three finalists for MLS MVP along with Donovan and Shalrie Joseph (Cunningham has played in just one All-Star game in his career). He was at his best late as Dallas pushed for a playoff spot, and was the league's player of the month for September. And now U.S. coach Bob Bradley has recognized him as well, calling Cunningham back from the national team wilderness and naming him to the roster for the Slovakia game.
With Charlie Davies out, a spot alongside Jozy Altidore on the American front line seems to be up for grabs. Of course, Bradley eventually could field a formation that sees Donovan or Clint Dempsey push up. But if Cunningham finally has turned over a new leaf at 33 years of age (see his comments regarding his MVP nomination), he deserves to compete with Conor Casey, Brian Ching, Eddie Johnson, Kenny Cooper and the rest for that spot.
Here's hoping he sees the field in Bratislava. It can't hurt to have one more player with a nose for goal next summer.
The full roster for the Slovakia match (Bradley can make changes for the Denmark friendly):
GK: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Troy Perkins (Valerenga), Marcus Hahnemann (Wolves).
D: Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes), Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City), Clarence Goodson (Start), Frankie Hejduk (Columbus), Chad Marshall (Columbus), Heath Pearce (Dallas), Jonathan Spector (West Ham).
MF: Michael Bradley (Moenchengladbach), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Benny Feilhaber (Aarhus), Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA), Dax McCarty (Dallas), Robbie Rogers (Columbus).
F: Jozy Altidore (Hull), Conor Casey (Colorado), Jeff Cunningham (Dallas), Eddie Johnson (Fulham).