Jeff Cunningham is on the bench. For the moment, it’s right where he needs to be; he’s having a lousy year. In over 400 minutes played, Jeff has a single shot on goal, no assists, and has been called offsides ten times. So the 34-year-old striker with 132 career goals including 62 for Columbus sits, waits, and watches. He needs just one more to tie Jaime Moreno for most all time and pass Brian McBride for the Crew’s all time regular season goal record. Of course to do that he would have to check into the game, which right now seems unlikely. This Vancouver club is pretty good. They have a good chemistry and are getting a lot of quality looks. Luckily keeper William Hesmer has been aces so far and it’s nearly halftime. Jeff doesn’t need the rest though; he hasn’t been in the game yet. There’s not too much to do on the bench except wait and reflect.
Jeff Cunningham has been drafted. The 22-year-old graduate of the University of South Florida has been chosen by the Columbus Crew as the 9th overall pick in the 1998 MLS Draft. Two time first-team All-Conference USA, Conference USA player of the year as a senior, 41 goals, and 36 assists all but assured him an MLS paycheck. In his first year he will do them proud, setting a record for goals as a rookie with eight. That’s just the beginning.
Jeff Cunningham is still on the bench. Though he is only 34, it may feel like more since the average age for a player on the Crew is 25. When Jeff played his first game, defender Rich Balchan would have been in about 3rd grade. The league has changed since he started out. Teams folded, moved, and changed names. The Whitecaps, today’s opponent, did not even exist when Jeff signed his first contract. Had the league passed him by? No, that’s not true, there is no way. He is sure he still has a little left in the tank. Seventy-fifth minute comes and goes and still no score. Jeff Cunningham hears his named called. He is told to start warming up. He stands and goes through the stretches that he has done all 12 years in the league.
It’s 2004 and the Columbus Crew has won the Supporters’ Shield. Columbus finished with 49 points and at one stretch during the season went 18 matches without a defeat. Jeff had a decent year with nine goals and four assists, but his numbers are down from a few years ago. Coupled with Columbus’ disappointing first round loss to the New England Revolution, and changes seem to be on the way for the Crew. But certainly Jeff Cunningham would still be on the roster next season…right?
Jeff Cunningham is in the game. In the 83rd minute Coach Warzycha replaces Dejan Rusmir with the Crew’s co-most prolific scorer. Jeff isn’t necessarily looking to score; he just wants the Crew to win. The match is still scoreless, but the Black & Gold needs points. There are concerns from the media that they are not as talented as years past, that they can no longer be a force in the East, and that major personnel changes may be on the horizon. Too many games this year have gone against Columbus. Their record reflects their play: mediocre. They need points if they want to get back to the top, especially in tough games and away from Ohio. The Crew is on the attack and Jeff is right in the thick of it. A Columbus shot is denied. Crew maintains possession and resets outside the box. Josh Gardner offers up a gorgeous centering pass toward the goal. Jeff is waiting for it, right where he needs to be.
Jeff Cunningham has been traded. The man who had just this past season, 2004, tied Brian McBride’s club record of 62 goals has been dealt to Colorado. One US Open Cup and one Supporters’ Shield is all Jeff has to show for seven years in Columbus. He was on good teams but never world-beaters. And now he’ll play for Colorado. Then he’ll be traded. And traded again. And again. And in 2011 he will go back to the club that gave him his first shot. And he will struggle. He will travel to Vancouver and in the 90th minute will be standing near the far post, right where he needs to be.
Jeff Cunningham heads the ball. Whitecaps keeper Joe Cannon has no chance. Goal #63 as a member of the Crew, goal #133 as a Major League Soccer player. Jeff is ecstatic with the score. He is the Crew’s all-time regular season goals career leader. Period. And for a moment, he is no longer a 34-year-old striker who struggled all year. He is a 22 year old kid again, doing what he does best, putting the ball between the pipes. Three minutes later, the official blows his whistle signaling a Crew victory. Three points for the club and a club record for a great player. The goal puts him at 133 goals tying him with Jaime Moreno for the all-time MLS record. He will have his chance to break that record on July 16th against San Jose. Fittingly Jeff will be playing at home, in Columbus. It seems right that Jeff gets his chance to break the all-time record at Crew Stadium, since he was the first person to score a goal in that building. He has scored a lot of goals there, in fact. I have a good feeling about this team; if Jeff can really start scoring then they can do great things. He’s playing the role of veteran leader, setting an example. The youngsters are pushing him to turn back the calendar to try and regain some of that youthful speed and scoring. They need him and he needs them. He’s right where he needs to be.