The end of the regular season has put me in a contemplative mood. Not only because I am left trying to figure out how the San Jose Earthquakes missed the postseason again, but because I am asked to fill out my 2009 MLS Awards Ballot. Following the Quakes as closely as I do, I enjoy access to players and coaches from all MLS teams as they make their way through Buck Shaw Stadium. As I study my choices for Coach of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, and so on, I look back on those interactions and interviews for clues that will help my decisions. With that in mind, I don’t hesitate to fill in the name for Most Valuable Player – Jeff Cunningham of FC Dallas.
For most of the 2009 season, San Jose and Dallas remained rooted at the foot of the Western Conference standings. Each week I’d calculate how the Quakes could surpass the Hoops and perhaps make a run up the table. Saturday, June 7th, saw the Earthquakes visit Pizza Hut Park with a chance to jump over their bottom feeding rivals – but a late Kenny Cooper goal tied the game at 2-2. San Jose would never get any closer to Dallas in the standings as they slowly faded away over the long summer.
FC Dallas would also continue to struggle as the season approached the halfway mark. Poor defending kept them from making up ground to any of their conference rivals. It was becoming apparent that Cooper would be leaving in the summer transfer window, while Cunningham was lacking any scoring productivity up front. Crowds at Pizza Hut Park were well below 10 thousand and the supporters were getting frustrated.
But then a remarkable turnaround began, started by the signings of Heath Pearce and Jair Benitez in defense and the resurgence of Cunningham as an offensive threat. The Jamaican-born forward, now a citizen of the United States, scored twice against the New York Red Bulls on Independence Day in a 2-1 victory. He collected Player of the Week honors with that accomplishment – an award he would go on to win three more times over the second half of the season. By the end of July, Pearce and Benitez had shored up the defensive line, and Cunningham was tallying scores at a blistering pace. In a 6-0 victory over Kansas City on August 1st, he scored four times to set a single-game career high. The once US Men’s National Team member has gone on to score 16 goals during his last 14 games, an incredible accomplishment that now has him leading MLS in scoring with 17 goals – one more than the Colorado Rapids’ Conor Casey. Tack on his league fourth-best 8 assists and Cunningham clearly shines brightest as MLS’s most potent offensive force.
The renaissance in Frisco, Texas had gone relatively unnoticed by the rest of the league as no one gave the Hoops much chance of making it to the MLS Cup playoffs. When a road game against the hapless San Jose Earthquakes rolled around earlier this month, Dallas was sitting at 33 points in the Western Conference, but riding a 5-3-1 streak since the All-Star break. In a league built on competitive parity, I had seen the Quakes do something similar in 2008 – rise from obscurity to contend for the postseason. Might this Dallas squad be following that same destiny?
That mid-week match at Buck Shaw Stadium was the home finale for San Jose, and they certainly wanted to give their supporters something to cheer about in an otherwise dismal year. However, Cunningham and his teammates would have none of that, as they dispatched of the Quakes with relative ease 2-1. Cunningham assisted on the first goal by David Ferreira, and then finished off the game in the 81st minute with his league leading 17th goal of the campaign. As the somber crowd filtered out of the stadium, the Dallas victory officially eliminating San Jose from the playoff race, and I made my way to the visitor’s locker room to meet the Man of the Match myself. After a brief interview with Coach Schellas Hyndman, where he praised the playmaking of his star forward, I joined a small group of reporters waiting for Cunningham to emerge from the showers.
With his straggly beard and small frame, Jeff Cunningham does not strike an imposing figure. The mercurial forward is playing for his fifth team in as many seasons, and the rumors are that he was not a good presence in the locker room. I have experienced inaccessible players before, and braced myself for another such encounter. Instead, I was met with a smile and a friendly hand shake. He quickly impressed me with how quick he was to praise the defensive line. “You should be talking to those guys, not me” he said as he pointed out Pearce and Benitez at the other end of the room. Goalkeeper Dario Sala was also commended before the attention turned back onto his game night heroics.
He exuded confidence when describing his performance on the night, outwardly scolding himself for not converting on two scoring chances he had in the first half. The game winning goal was not a classic, just a simple finish from a well weighted Dax McCarty through-ball, but it did give him 17 goals on the season and the league lead. When I asked him specifically about the race for the MLS Golden Boot, Cunningham was very candid with his reply. “It means so much to me. I think about it often, I can’t sleep sometimes because I’m thinking I really need to do well in this game. I was thinking about (Conor) Casey somewhere in his hotel room (currently preparing with the USMNT) watching this game and it put added pressure on me. I need to keep the pressure on Casey.”
This wasn’t the standard one-game-at-a-time variety of response; rather, Cunningham was honestly stating his desire to be the scoring champion in MLS. I appreciated his almost cocky answer, and the notion that his single minded focus on scoring provided him with so much motivation. FC Dallas has benefited from his prolific scoring as well, and currently stand tied for the last playoff position going into the final weekend of the season. Cunningham relishes the idea of making it into the postseason. “We’ve been playing some good football the last month, two months, really since the All-Star game. If we make it in, there are going to be a few teams afraid to face us.”
Even if FC Dallas does not qualify for the postseason, the efforts of Jeff Cunningham cannot be discounted. Without his goals and assists, we wouldn’t even be discussing the realistic probability that the Hoops sneak into the playoffs with the seventh or eighth seed. Forwards are paid to score goals – without them a team is doomed to mediocrity – making them the most valuable commodity on the roster. To me, Cunningham is the best forward in MLS this season. He deserves the league’s Most Valuable Player award.