GUADALAJARA, Mexico – When the name Jeff Cunningham is mentioned, the letters MLS loom large.
As the league’s all-time scoring leader and a two-time Golden Boot winner, it's difficult to think of many players more intricately associated with Major League Soccer than Cunningham.
But over the past winter, after 14 seasons spent with six different MLS clubs, the Jamaican-born striker headed south to Guatemala and signed for CSD Comunicaciones, a move that raised more than a few eyebrows.
Cunningham, though, was determined to write a new chapter in his career and experience something a little different, while keeping one eye on a future coaching career.
“I’ve always wanted to experience football abroad, so I jumped on this chance,” Cunningham told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Guatemala City on Wednesday. “It’s a chance to learn another language and experience another culture. It broadens my horizons.”
Still, it has been a cultural shock and Cunningham says learning Spanish has been difficult, not to mention adapting to fields that wouldn’t be considered playable in some parts in the world.
Even so, Cunningham has netted four times in his first 10 games for las Cremas, who sit two points clear at the top of the Guatemalan first division.
“It’s not a bad start because most of the time, a foreign player takes a bit of time to get adjusted to the life and to the football,” explained Cunningham, who added that he feels he can do even better.
Comunicaciones general manager Roberto Alfaro told MLSsoccer.com that the club is “very, very happy” with Cunningham and that there is a good chance he would be offered a new contract in December if things continue as they are.
Cunningham is already a bit of a local celebrity in the soccer-mad country and enjoys banter with both Comunicaciones and rival fans that stop and talk to him.
“Local media, local fans are trying to get a glimpse, get a chance to talk to him and get his autograph,” said Alfaro.
Cunningham was “caught unaware” when he arrived at Guatemala City airport to sign for the club in January, as he wasn't expecting the 50 to 60 members of the media awaiting his arrival. But he’s getting accustomed to the intense soccer culture that surrounds him in his new home.
“The fans are crazy,” Cunningham said. “The last match between Municipal and us, I was like, ‘Wow.’ At one point, you couldn’t really see the other end of the pitch with the flares.”
Municipal and Comunicaciones share a bitter rivalry and the clásico games between the two are passionate affairs, something that Cunningham is now well aware of, especially after one incident at halftime during the last clash on March 21.
“Walking back to the locker room, there were fireworks in the tunnel area,” he explained with a laugh. “I noticed all my teammates run, but I didn’t because I didn’t know that type of thing happened. Six or seven fireworks went off, they sounded like gunshots.”
On the field, the former US international believes the standard of soccer he has encountered in Guatemala is high and that several of his teammates would slot into MLS with ease.
“I think this is a good market for coaches and MLS teams to look at because these players are very good,” he said.
Cunningham singles out 22-year-old Costa Rican midfielder Diego Estrada as one of the best players he has ever played with.
The 35-year-old striker has also witness the lack of resources available to Guatemalans playing soccer and is considering ways to help young players who are forced to play with “taped-up” shoes.
“I [only] kick a football, but my heart’s big,” said Cunningham. “I feel like there’s a need here. Kids need football boots and proper fields to train on.”
The former Columbus Crew forward’s short spell in Guatemala has also given him a new perspective on his past in MLS, especially regarding that all-time goalscoring record.
“My goal was always to win a championship,” he said. “Not having that cup and now looking back at the other awards and golden boots, having the record means more now. During my time there, that wasn’t so clear for me.”
He may still be able to add that championship, though, even if it doesn’t come in the states.
With Comunicaciones leading the championship down south, the league title Cunningham yearned for in MLS is a realistic possibility this season in Guatemala.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. E-mail him at email@example.com.