TORONTO – Jeff Cunningham has something to say.
Unfortunately, he’s not saying it to me. He’s not saying it to any member of the media. Since June, the FC Dallas striker has frozen out the press as he closed in on becoming the all-time leading scorer in MLS history.
He vowed not to speak publicly until he broke Jaime Moreno’s record. Unfortunately for the media and his fans, he didn’t do it. The Bolivian notched one final penalty kick in his D.C. United finale to raise the record to 133 goals, one more than Cunningham’s career haul. And save for one audience with Dallas media last month (in which, interestingly, no one asked him why he broke his silence), Cunningham still won’t talk.
On Sunday, FCD will play for their first MLS Cup title, and just because he’s not talking doesn’t mean he’s not ready to make a statement. And if you know anything about the way “JC9” operates and the unusual way he motivates himself, you probably know that the Colorado Rapids should be very, very concerned.
“He definitely psyches himself out in different ways,” said Rapids defender Drew Moor, who was a teammate of Cunningham’s for two seasons in Dallas. “He’s got this ‘me against the world’ mentality. Given the circumstances [on Sunday], that could make him extremely dangerous.”
There are plenty of central characters who may play starring roles in Sunday’s big game. But there is arguably no one with as much talent, as much of a conflicted past and as much drama surrounding him than Cunningham.
[inline_node:323620]The unforgettable fire
Talk to Cunningham’s coaches and his current and former teammates, and it becomes clear that the 34-year-old veteran is highly regarded as a player – a guy who can change a game with one touch on the ball. When things are going right for him, he’s a great teammate – fun-loving and quick to smile.
But you also start to understand that Cunningham’s fire comes from a deep level of insecurity, a desire to prove everyone wrong time and again after being disregarded over and over – at least in his mind – throughout his career.
On Sunday at BMO Field, JC9 will return to the scene of one of the lowest points of his pro career with a chance for the ultimate redemption – in perhaps the biggest game of his life.
Two years ago, as a Toronto FC player, Cunningham missed a simple tap-in in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship that would have sent TFC into the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League. It wasn’t that single moment that was the last straw for then coach John Carver – plenty of whispers circulated as to how it all fell apart – but Cunningham was quickly shipped out to Dallas, labeled a locker-room cancer.
Cutting ties with Cunningham was probably enough to light a fire in his belly. But Carver blasted him publicly, too, questioning his desire. And JC9 hasn’t forgotten it. It was the second time in a little more than a year that a coach had decided he’d had enough – Jason Kreis made him part of his roster purge at Real Salt Lake two months into the 2007 season.
But when you start doubting Cunningham, that’s when he’s at his most dangerous. Last year, his first full season with FC Dallas, JC9 lit up MLS defenses for 17 goals to win his second Golden Boot award, becoming only the third player older than 30 to win the scoring title.
I remember thinking that it was remarkable that someone my exact age was wreaking havoc on defenders like a 22-year-old, with speedy runs, genius placement and ice-cold finishes. But I was even more struck when he admitted to me that he was losing sleep obsessing over Conor Casey, who chased him in the race for the Boot until the final week of the season.
It was an honest breath of fresh air from an athlete, admitting that the pressure affected him in a big way. And it was a raw look at the insecurities that motivate him.
“He’s never fully there enjoying the moment,” a former teammate told MLSsoccer.com this week. “What he’s never realized is that everyone always knew how good he was. But he’s never gotten over that battle he had with himself to constantly prove things to people.”
This season hasn’t been the throwback joy Cunningham experienced in 2009. Despite the fact that he led FC Dallas in scoring again, half his 12 goals came as a substitute. He was benched by Schellas Hyndman in June when FCD needed a jolt, and then saw his starting spot go to Milton Rodríguez, whom Hyndman has preferred in the lone striker role as a target man.
Not surprisingly, Cunningham’s media blackout began at the exact moment he was pulled from the 11. And that, much like his exit from Toronto, is what he uses as fuel to the fire. JC9 has been doing his talking on the field. Since losing that full-time starter spot, he’s scored seven goals off the bench, including a strike in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals that helped knock out RSL.
“He’s been pumped up since getting close to tying Moreno,” Hyndman recently told MLSsoccer.com. “That’s such a burden off of him. It had been such a burden on him all year. Now, he’s very excited. He’s hoping this team can go farther than any Dallas team has ever gone.”
Mission accomplished – almost. FCD are in the final for the first time, facing Colorado for the biggest prize in the American club game. Hyndman has hinted he’ll give Cunningham the start Sunday. That means JC9 has an unprecedented chance to help eliminate two of his former teams – and win a trophy on the home field of a third – all in one postseason.
“That’s something that could fuel something inside him to play as well as he can,” said Moor, who may have to mark his former teammate at times. “Obviously me being on the opposition, I need to keep an eye on that because sometimes he uses that negative energy to his advantage. If that’s what he uses, that can be a powerful thing.”
Or to put it more simply, as another of Cunningham’s teammates said, “On the biggest stage in America, in front of fans of the team he used to play for, perhaps starting and a chance to play a big part in winning MLS Cup, you’re going to see the Jeff who wants to stick it to everyone who ever doubted him.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.