MIAMI — Jeff Cunningham knows about seizing opportunities.
As a rookie with the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer in 1998, the rookie forward stepped into the starting lineup to replace the injured Stern John. Cunningham scored a goal in each of his first two starts and has gone on to become one of the most decorated players in team history.
Cunningham is now hoping for a similar breakthrough with the U.S. National Team. In his eight appearances with the senior national squad, all since December 2001, the former USF standout has yet to find the back of the net. But he knows once he finds the scoring touch that he displayed at USF and for the Crew, it will be hard for him to be left off future national teams.
“I just have to take advantage of the opportunities I get to score goals, and that will make a difference,” Cunningham said Saturday after the USA’s 1-0 loss to Argentina in the Orange Bowl. “I haven’t scored yet, so once I start scoring, both internationally and in league play, that will help my chances of making the World Cup team.”
Against the Argentines, Cunningham took the field as a substitute in the 79th minute and played about 20 minutes, including stoppage time. With the Argentines holding on to a one-goal lead and defending staunchly, Cunningham’s opportunities late in the game were sparse.
But more than once, he showed glimmers of the flair that has gained him the reputation as one of the most dangerous one-on-one players in American soccer.
On one occasion, Cunningham sped through three defenders at the top of the penalty area and, with his back to the goal, back-heeled to an advancing teammate, whose shot was blocked.
“I think I added a little spark to the game,” Cunningham said. “I created a few chances (and) at least put some pressure on their defenders. They weren’t able to keep possession and run out the clock.”
Despite the loss, Cunningham said he valued the experience of playing the two-time World Cup champions in front of 27,196 fans — most of them flag-waving, chanting Argentines, creating the feel of a road game for the American players.
“This is a very special game,” he said. “Argentines play with a lot of flair. I enjoyed watching them as a player, as well. I love how they play, so this was a special game for me.”
Cunningham, 26, first suited up for the national team a month after gaining U.S. citizenship in November 2001. A native of Jamaica who moved to Crystal River at 14, Cunningham appeared in two international friendlies for Jamaica shortly after completing his illustrious college career at USF (41 goals, 36 assists, third all-time in career points).
But Jamaica didn’t call back after that, paving the way for his appearance for the U.S. team once he gained citizenship.
With several more experienced forwards ahead of him on the depth chart, Cunningham missed out on selection to the 2002 World Cup team despite being selected for the Gold Cup tournament squad earlier that year. For him to make the next team in 2006, Cunningham will have to prove he is at least as worthy as the best MLS and foreign-based players, including World Cup veterans Clint Mathis of the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, Joe-Max Moore of the New England Revolution and Crew teammate Brian McBride.
“Those guys have several World Cups under their belts,” Cunningham said. “They definitely have a lot more experience over me, but I think I see myself as good as them.
“It’s just a matter of how well I fit into coach(Bruce Arena’s) plan — (his) style of play. I think we all add something special to the team.”
Though Cunningham said he would like to be a starter for the national team, Arena indicated Saturday that Cunningham’s niche might be used as a substitute, introduced late in the game to break down fatigued defenses.
“Obviously, I think Jeff is (well-suited) to the role he played (Saturday),” Arena said. “That’s to come in as a substitute and quicken the pace and give us chances late in the game. I’m going to continue to give him these kind of opportunities to evaluate him on.”
Cunningham said he would be amenable to playing a substitute’s role.
“Not many players are able to come off the bench and contribute,” he said. “I think I’m one of those guys that can add a little spark to the game, like I think I did (Saturday).
“It’s just doing whatever I can to help the team win, and, at the same time, trying to prove to Coach that I deserve to play and make the team.”
If Cunningham achieves his goal for the 2003 season, Arena may have no choice but to keep selecting him.
“I’m at a point right now where I need to lead the league in goals,” Cunningham said. “I think that’s an attainable goal for me this year.”
He came close to his objective last year, racking up 16 goals (third best in MLS) and five assists and being named to the Pepsi Best XI team after the season for the first time, joining former USF stalwart Mark Chung of the Colorado Rapids as a midfield selection.
Still, Cunningham knows success this year does not guarantee World Cup glory in 2006.
“That’s what, three years away? I’m sure Coach (Arena) is going to be taking a look at a lot of players during that time, so I’m just hoping that every opportunity I get to try to make a difference — whether it’s 10 minutes, 20 minutes — I just try to make an impact,” he said.
Cunningham’s next call-up for the Stars & Stripes was a tantalizing matchup against Jamaica in Kingston on Wednesday night.
Cunningham entered in the 79th minute of the 2-1 win, but failed to register a goal or an assist.
He said he was eager to show his native land what they missed out on.
“I’m sure there’s added incentive for me to perform well there, (given) that Jamaica just didn’t really give me a fair chance,” he said.