Bulls’ brightest star

Former USF star forward Jeff Cunningham led Major League Soccer in goals scored in 2006. AP PHOTO

Several USF athletes have gone on to successful professional playing careers, but only one is a clear hall of fame candidate.

Jeff Cunningham played soccer at USF from 1994-1997. He was an all-Conference USA player as a sophomore and junior, and won the conference Player of the Year award as a senior.

“College is a time in life where you get to know yourself as a player on the pitch and off the pitch,” Cunningham said. “My coaches at USF were

instrumental in making me understand the discipline it takes to succeed at the next level. Those were four special years for me.”

Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Cunningham began playing soccer at age three. His mother nurtured his dream of playing of soccer for a living.

“I owe my mother

everything,” Cunningham said. “Ever since I’ve known myself I knew I wanted to play as a professional. My mother did everything she could to support me. She’s like my backbone.”

Soccer first brought Cunningham to America when he was 14. Eventually he earned a scholarship to come to USF, and the decision to join the Bulls was easy for him, as his mother lived only an hour away.

“I wanted to stay close to home, and be in Florida,” Cunningham said. “I knew that USF was a place where I could play good soccer all year around.”

Logan Fleck, who recently signed a three-year contract to coach the Stetson University Hatters, was in charge of the USF men’s team at the time. He saw unlimited potential in Cunningham and was excited about the forward’s passion for the game.

“Jeff was being recruited by a couple of schools,” Fleck said. “To get him here I told him that if we worked hard enough we could turn him into a very special player, and I think we did.”

In four years with the Bulls, Cunningham had 41 goals and 36 assists. Along the way, he had to turn down several offers to play professionally in favor of getting an education and making sure he was ready for what was ahead.

“I was getting calls about him all the time from all over the world,” Fleck said. “We knew that we would have to continue to work and help him grow as a player if he was going to do what he’s done at the next level. I’ve never been more proud of anyone. Jeff has worked so hard to get to where he is. He’s one of the finest players I’ve ever coached.”

In 1998, Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew drafted Cunningham where he continued his success.

In his first season, he tied what was then the record for goals scored by a rookie with eight. During his six years in Columbus, he totaled 62 goals and 43 assists.

Cunningham joined Toronto FC, Major League Soccer’s newest franchise in May. Along the way he made stops in Colorado and Salt Lake, where he earned a Golden Boot for his play in 2006.

A year ago he was the league’s top scorer, finishing with 16 goals and 11 assists.

Nobody was more excited for Cunningham’s arrival in Toronto than coach Moe Johnston.

“I’ve been after him forever,” Johnston said on the team’s Web site, after the team traded for Cunningham. “He was our No. 1 target since before the season started. It’s a

pleasant surprise that it finally happened. He’s a guy that can score goals day in and day out. He’ll probably be the all-time top goal scorer before he’s done.”

His career numbers have entered MLS Hall of Fame status, as he is fourth on the all-time scorers list. He ranks fifth in penalty kick goals and third in multi-goal games and game-winning goals.

His speed and ability to create things off the ball have made him one of the top forwards of MLS history, but to this day, he is often overlooked as being one of the league’s great players. The 31-year-old has been named to only one all-star team.

“I think that’s what has kept me in the league for so long,” Cunningham said. “Playing with a chip on my shoulder over the years has given me an edge. In the end it doesn’t matter, when my career is over I will have done the best with the opportunities I’ve had.”

Cunningham played in 19 matches in 2007 before being sidelined with a sports hernia. He scored six goals and had one assist in that time. His last-place Toronto team has felt the impact of his absence.

During the time of Cunningham’s injury, which occurred on July 4 and kept him sidelined until Sept. 15, the team went winless with a 0-7-3 record.

Just being back on the

training grounds has Cunningham excited.

“It’s been tough, especially playing with a new team ’cause the expectations are so high,” Cunningham said. “But the city is great and everyone here (Toronto) has been supportive of me.”

For USF coach George Kiefer, having a guy like Cunningham graduate from the Bulls helps with recruiting.

“It’s very big for the program – it’s something we tell our recruits coming in about,” Kiefer said. “It’s always helpful

having guys like that go on and do as well as Jeff has. One good thing about him is that he has his degree so he has something fall back on when he’s done

playing. That’s something I’d like to pound into my guy’s heads.”