Cunningham at last chance saloon

Striker staring down final shot at impressing U.S. coaching staff

Time, in more ways than one, definitely is not on Jeff Cunningham's
side.

Few forwards on the other side of 30 get an opportunity to play in the
World Cup, let alone make their debut in the greatest show on earth.

And, the 33-year-old FC Dallas striker has only one international game
remaining to impress U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley and his staff
and prove he belongs on a flight to South Africa in late May.

Bradley has less than three months to name a World Cup roster.

When he was told Monday that he would be a World Cup aberration given he
is an "old man," Cunningham broke out into a big grin and then laughed.

"I'll tell you what man, I would be lying if I said I did not give up on
my World Cup dreams," he said as he walked toward the U.S. team bus
after practice at University of South Florida. "I didn't. So God had
different plans for me. So wherever he takes me, that's his purpose. I'm
here and we'll see. We'll see what happens."

The Jamaican-born Cunningham, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen,
returned to his alma mater Monday to train with the team for Wednesday's
international friendly with El Salvador at Raymond James Stadium (ESPN
Classic, 7 p.m. ET). He comes from nearby Crystal River.

So, the setting would be a perfect stage for Cunningham to make his
final push for a spot on the team.

"Now I happen to be playing on the world stage," he said. "It's just a
whirlwind and a dream. I'm just enjoying it."

Bradley has noticed there has been an urgency in Cunningham's and other
veterans' play.

"You could tell in these two camps certain guys, certain veterans that
now are given another opportunity took it really seriously," he said.
"They know how much is at stake. Jeff has been around the national team
at different times in his career, but never really became a permanent
part of it. He has taken this quite seriously."

Cunningham is battling for a job because the speedy Charlie Davies is
still struggling to get healthy again, let alone become the same force
that helped transform the U.S. attack into a much more dangerous one at
the FIFA Confederations Cup last June.

Davies' speed helped stretch the opposition's defenses and allowed a
little more space to Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey in the midfield.
He is a longshot to return by June.

Bradley has several options to replace him, including moving either
Donovan or Dempsey into the slot. But while solidifying one position, he
could very well open a hole at another.

So, Bradley continues to audition forwards for a running mate next to
Jozy Altidore. He doesn't have many options. Like Cunningham, Real Salt
Lake's Robbie Findley is a fast forward, but lacks experience,
particularly at the international level.

Cunningham has plenty of experience in MLS, striking for 121 goals,
second best in league history.

"A couple of months ago, I didn't think I had a chance," he said. "Now
for me to be in the mix, I am just grateful for that. We'll see where it
goes."

He probably is a longshot to make the team, given his subpar performance
in the 3-1 loss to Honduras last month. In fact, none of the forwards
who are on the roster for the El Salvador match are guaranteed anything.

The two other candidates are target men who play a different game -- the
Houston Dynamo's Brian Ching and the Colorado Rapids' Conor Casey.

Ching, who is recuperating from a late-season knee injury, has always
been a Bradley favorite because of the little things he does. If he is
healthy, it would not be surprising that Ching would wind up on the
team.

Casey, who enjoyed a stellar season with a career-high 16 goals in 2009
after an injury-plagued career, is best known for connecting twice in
the 3-2 triumph at Honduras that clinched the USA's participation in
their sixth consecutive World Cup.

This could be the last chance saloon, for Cunningham and company and
many of the players on the bubble to prove themselves to Bradley in an
international setting.

"It's a last chance for a lot of us," Cunningham said. "Every
opportunity you get you have to show as well as you can and hopefully
have a good performance. As the saying goes, you're only as good as your
last game. Hopefully I can end on a positive note."

Like it or not, Cunningham had forged a reputation as a malcontent,
although FC Dallas assistant coach John Ellinger last year said that
wasn't true.

Say what you want about Cunningham, but he knows how to put the ball
into the net at an alarmingly consistent rate in MLS. He struck for a
league-best 17 goals for FC Dallas last season and has found the back of
the net 121 times over 12 seasons for five teams (Columbus, Colorado,
Real Salt Lake and Toronto are the others).

Bradley said that the El Salvador match wouldn't be the final word for
Cunningham or any his rivals. But a good match -- or even a good half if
the four forwards split time -- could go a long way in determining who
wears the red, white and blue in June.

"It's important to say it's not just what we would see in one game,"
Bradley said. "For all these guys it's really going to be important when
MLS starts the kind of form they're in and how they're playing as
well."

Bradley certainly wouldn't mind any forward who scores goals, but
indicated he would like to see more to Cunningham's game.

"I think it's pretty easy to see that Jeff is pretty capable on his own
of getting the ball and creating and going by people and getting goals,"
he said. "But his ability on how to contribute in other ways, to be a
guy that finds good spots to hold the ball, brings other people into the
game.

"We probably can't afford at the international level for any striker to
be somebody who just floats around and every now and then makes a good
play. I think there's a little bit more responsibility at international
soccer for forwards to stay involved in the game all the time. That part
of the challenge is something we've talked about with him and hopefully
he can kind of piece together for himself."

If Cunningham works his way onto the team, he will consider himself to
be very fortunate.

"I would kneel down and I would thank God," he said.

He then paused for several seconds.

"Man, I'd probably be in tears, man," he said. "For me to have an
opportunity to be in the World Cup I don't think anything could top that
besides the birth of my child."

Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of
BigAppleSoccer.com. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com. Views
and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not
necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.