Hat trick a first for Cunningham
It's hard to believe that someone who has 70 MLS goals in his eighth year in the league and has been capped with the United States national team hadn't scored a hat trick since his high school days.
That changed Saturday for Colorado striker Jeff Cunningham, whose three tallies in a 3-1 victory against Chivas USA at The Home Depot Center raised him into the lead for the MLS Golden Boot with eight and earned the Rapids their first away victory in eight matches this season.
A second successive victory against a Western Conference foe -- Colorado beat the Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 at home Wednesday -- meant six points earned in the last four days, elevating the Rapids alone into fourth place, three points clear of Real Salt Lake into the final playoff place in the West.
"I'm very excited about (the hat trick), but to be honest I'm more excited about the points," said Cunningham, who shook off a left knee injury that forced him to come off the substitutes' bench through the first eight matches of this campaign and has eight of Colorado's 15 goals.
"I'm hoping this will be the turning point for us. It's not necessarily desperation time, but it's time for us to start peaking. It's a matter of getting results."
Colorado's turnaround is coinciding with Cunningham's sudden run of form. He scored the lone goal on Wednesday, on a penalty kick against the Galaxy, and he could have had a hat trick as early as the 66th minute had his penalty not been well saved by Chivas USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan in sliding to his right.
The hat trick was the Rapids' first since Chris Carrieri achieved the feat in a 3-2 victory against Chicago July 4, 2002.
Going up against the league's worst defense in Chivas USA, the Rapids employed an attack-minded lineup with Jean Philippe Peguero and Cunningham up front and Luchi Gonzalez and Alain Nkong manning the flanks. Having gone through the growing pains of rebuilding the attack after trading away longtime offensive staples Mark Chung and Chris Henderson earlier this season, Colorado did not sit back and looked to venture forward from the opening whistle.
"We're trying to attack with numbers. I'm trying to create that attack with having people two-dimensional, that can go forward but also can defend," Rapids coach Fernando Clavijo said. "It was a complete team effort. We moved the ball around the field really well."
The breakthrough came for the Rapids in the 30th minute. Gonzalez collected a Chivas turnover in its own half, threatened to dribble into the left side of the area before squaring off to Cunningham, who took a settling touch before rifling a 20-yard shot from straightaway into the top, right netting past a diving Guzan.
Cunningham doubled the score in the 62nd minute. Dribbling in 30 yards from goal, Peguero shed a defender and drew both central defenders as he entered the area on the right before laying off to a suddenly open Cunningham near the penalty spot. He made no mistake in settling and tucking his 10-yard shot past a helpless Guzan.
A distracted Chivas USA rearguard was punished for the final time in the 78th minute as the defense let him run in behind them to collect a throw-in near midfield from Dan Gargan, who literally just entered the match. Cunningham dribbled in on the left and beat Guzan to the far side from inside the area.
"They weren't as organized as the first time we played them," Cunningham said of Colorado's 2-1 home win May 14.
Clavijo allowed Cunningham to reap the applause of his teammates in bringing him off in the 82nd minute, in favor of Wolde Harris.
"Outstanding," Clavijo said of Cunningham's current run of form. "You remember the first seven or eight games he was coming off the bench and was never really healthy. Now you see what he can do. We never rushed him back."
"Jeff came through for us again. I've played against him many times and I'm not surprised at all that he got a hat trick tonight," added defender Nat Borchers, who along with goalkeeper Joe Cannon has played every minute of the Rapids season.
Since Henderson and Ching were traded, Cunningham said the team is still trying to find cohesion in passing and trying to develop a specific attacking style. The squad seems to be looking more for early attack through quick transition, varying the buildup through many players and trying to get their speedy, skillful players on the ball in situations where they can run at defender - though all are in agreement that defense must be the first priority for the Rapids.
"I really think that everybody was playing as a team tonight. I know it's a cliche but I really think that's what's been lacking," Borchers said. "It all goes back to defense. That's our game plan. All of our wins have come when we scored first.
"I think (our attack) is different. We're really successful when we're looking for that first ball forward. Before, when (Henderson and Chung) were here, we really relied on them. We'd try to get Mark and Chris a lot of touches. We've played lately with fewer touches on the ball."
Damian Secore is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.