Cunningham's revival may lead to World Cup
By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Flipping through an old U.S. soccer media guide, it's easy to overlook Jeff Cunningham in the all-time player register.
On the same page of the 2008 guide, current star Landon Donovan and ex-player Thomas Dooley - two World Cup veterans - easily take the focus off Cunningham and the other players who managed just a handful of appearances.
Cunningham, a Jamaican native who moved to Florida when he was 14, broke into the U.S. team in 2001, making just one appearance as a substitute.
A year later, Cunningham managed four appearances for the U.S., but totaled a mere 83 minutes of action. Three more matches followed in 2003, but then 2004 rolled around and Cunningham didn't play a single minute.
The 5-foot-8 striker made two more appearances in 2005, including his second start, then vanished as the 2006 World Cup approached.
Although Cunningham excelled in MLS before his national team debut, and added his finest season in 2006, totaling 16 goals and 11 assists, getting one more chance with the U.S. never seemed likely.
Cunningham, who turned 30 in 2006, began to decline following that incredible season. He lasted just seven matches into the 2007 season with Real Salt Lake and scored but three goals in 16 matches after joining Toronto FC.
Toronto retained him into 2008, but he quickly fell out of favor with manager John Carver, who criticized Cunningham when he said, "I am thinking, 'How did he score 99 goals?' That's what I thought."
Jeff Cunningham joined FC Dallas via trade in exchange for a third-round draft pick.
Cunningham was soon on his way out of Toronto, joining FC Dallas via trade in exchange for a third-round draft pick. He scored five goals in 11 matches with FC Dallas to increase his career MLS total to 104, in what looked like a nice cap to his career.
Although Cunningham showed flashes of his former brilliance, 2009 did not get off to a good start - he scored just one goal through Dallas' first 15 games.
His future, even in MLS, was in doubt.
Then, Cunningham was given another chance. Oddly, because Kenny Cooper choose to leave FC Dallas to join German second division squad 1860 Munich, in hopes of bolstering his chances of earning a regular role with the U.S. and a berth on this year's World Cup roster.
As it turns out, Cunningham could be the one keeping the young Cooper off the squad.
Cunningham, who turned 33 in August, was revived after Cooper left. He scored four goals in his first game following Cooper's departure, and bagged 12 more before the season was over to total 16 in the final 15 games. He finished the season as the leading scorer in MLS with 17, a career-high.
"I felt I had a lot to prove," Cunningham said last year. "After 12 years in the league, I still feel I need to prove myself."
Just ask U.S. coach Bob Bradley.
With the World Cup on the horizon, Bradley added Cunningham to the U.S. team in November.
Cunningham's four-year absence was over, and he played in friendlies against Slovakia and Denmark. He was a substitute against Slovakia, playing the last eight minutes.
But Bradley handed the veteran a start Nov. 18 against Denmark and he scored his first international goal in a 3-1 loss.
Cunningham decided to join France's Auxerre in December to stay in shape for this month's U.S. camp - which consists mainly of MLS players - and could be in line for a start Saturday when the U.S. plays Honduras in a friendly.
Although it's long shot, Cunningham has a chance to sneak onto the squad for the World Cup in South Africa.
Bradley lost striker Charlie Davies to injury following a car accident in October, and although he's walking unassisted as he recovers from several broken bones and a lacerated bladder, a return to health in time for the Cup in June would be a miracle.
Just this month, Clint Dempsey injured his knee playing for England's Fulham and could miss the World Cup. Dempsey does not need surgery, but with only a few months left before the start of the event, Bradley faces a tough call.
Jozy Altidore is Bradley's top option at striker, and Dempsey - who normally plays midfield - could move to forward if he's healthy.
Bradley will look at Eddie Johnson, Conor Casey and Brian Ching and selected Justin Braun, Robbie Findley, Brandon McDonald and Marcus Tracy to camp also.
Bradley will not likely switch Dempsey to forward and play-making midfielder Donovan - another option at forward - would leave such a huge hole there, it would cause the coach even more concerns.
With Dempsey (if healthy), Donovan and Michael Bradley in midfield and young Altidore up top, coach Bradley needs another option who will finish any chance those more dynamic players set up.
His recent form suggests he might be the United States' best option.