Ask all the world’s soccer players what their ultimate dream is, and their answer will almost surely be to play in the World Cup.Only one USF player, Roy Wegerle, has been able to play in the sport’s biggest event, in 1994 and 1998.
The second Bull to play in the Cup might be Jeff Cunningham – but he will have to wait until 2006 or beyond. The World Cup roster was named Monday, and Cunningham was not one of the 23 players selected to the U.S team.
Cunningham, a forward for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer, broke into the U.S. team in the winter, but he failed to hold down a regular place. He said he was at a disadvantage because he got involved so late.
“I felt like I still had to go out there and prove a lot more than the guys that were involved in the qualifying stages,” Cunningham said via telephone from Columbus, Ohio. “The timing of it was off. I wasn’t really given a lot of time to prove anything, show anything.”Cunningham, a native of Jamaica, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen Nov. 13 and earned three national team appearances. But Cunningham said that during the USA’s win vs. Ecuador March 10 in Birmingham, Ala., in which he rode the bench, he realized the dream was slipping away.
“After my last call-up, I kinda got the feeling that he (head coach Bruce Arena) had the team picked, and I knew I wasn’t a part of it,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t really play well, so there wasn’t any explanation needed.”
Cunningham is now charged with leading the Crew back to the playoffs. Columbus is languishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with a 1-3 record, and forward Brian McBride will be with the World Cup team in the summer. Cunningham, who became the first Columbus player to notch double digits in goals (10) and assists (13) last season, knows all eyes will be on him.
“I feel like there’s a lot more pressure on me this year – one because Brian is gone, and two, after the season last year I think a lot of people are expecting a lot of me this year,” he said. “There’s a lot more pressure, and I just feel like this is the year to do it. It’s a make-it or break-it year this year.”
Like his team, Cunningham is off to a relatively slow start, with one goal this year – the winner against the New York/New Jersey Metrostars in the season opener.
But that pales in comparison to his favorite goal, which is also the answer to a trivia question. His strike against New England on May 15, 1999, was the first ever goal in Columbus Crew Stadium.
“That made history,” Cunningham said. “That was the first goal in a soccer-specific stadium in America. That no one will be able to take away from me. I think that’s been the most memorable moment so far.”
Cunningham left USF as one of the most decorated Bulls ever. He scored 41 goals and dished out 25 assists from 1994-97, earning numerous all-conference honors. He said he plans to return in the near future to complete the remaining year on his management degree.
And even though he will not be in Japan and South Korea this summer, Cunningham will be rooting for the USA.
“I’m pulling for the team, and I hope they do well because that’s the only way soccer is going to progress in this country, if they do well at the national level,” he said.
Contact Khari Williams at email@example.com