As part of his weekly series on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley sits down with Jeff Cunningham to talk about scoring an MLS record 134 goals in his 14-year MLS career, and now sitting back and watching Landon Donovan equal it. Cunningham played for five different MLS teams, appearing in 365 regular-season games, and was the winner of the 2009 Budweiser Golden Boot.
BRADLEY: How did it feel to see your record equaled this weekend by Landon Donovan?
CUNNINGHAM: If you know my background, I grew up in Jamaica playing barefoot. My goal was to play professional. And now you’re asking me, interviewing me about being the all-time leading scorer, in a league that has produced many great players.
And now I’m going to be passed by one of the best players in US soccer history. That’s a pretty good story. I’m proud of where I am, and what I’ve accomplished. I’m honored. To be asked these questions, to be mentioned alongside Landon Donovan, I’m humbled.
Cunningham played for five different teams in Major League Soccer, but is most identifiable for his days with the Columbus Crew. He played his final season in MLS there in 2011.
BRADLEY: When you took over the lead, passing Jaime Moreno on the all-time list, did you know there would come a day when Landon would catch up to 134 and pass you?
CUNNINGHAM: At that moment, when I scored that goal, I still felt like I was going to keep scoring goals for a while. So, I had no idea. I guess I figured someone would challenge whatever number I reached, but when I passed Jaime, I expected to score a lot more. As it turned out, I never scored another MLS goal.
I guess that’s the way it goes. I only got that one season in Columbus and I thought I’d get a few more.
BRADLEY: You scored a lot of goals for a lot of different teams. How did you adjust to so many new teammates, coaches and systems?
CUNNINGHAM: Again, let me go back. I did not have an easy upbringing for me or my family. We had to be hard workers. So, each team I was on, I felt a responsibility to produce goals. That was my job and I felt I needed to find a way, regardless of the situation, the team, the system. Regardless if I was starting or coming off the bench, it was my job to find a way.
There may have been guys with more talent, but I believe I always displayed strong character. I have heart and determination and those things carried me as a player.
BRADLEY: You talk about talent, but not many were faster than you.
CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I was blessed to be Jamaican, I guess. Sprinting is our thing. That was my strength, there’s no doubt, and I tried to use it the best way I could.
BRADLEY: I did a story a while back and C.J. Brown and Robin Fraser both talked about the helpless feeling of seeing you running with them with the ball, knowing they had no one behind them but the goalkeeper. Did you feel powerful in those positions?
CUNNINGHAM: I felt when defenders were isolated and I had the ball on the run, I was in a pretty good spot to get myself a chance. I knew that was my chance to create separation. If a defender was going backwards and I was sprinting forward, I liked my chances. Let’s be honest, it’s not an easy place to be as a defender, and I was always looking for that.
BRADLEY: Who do you list as your all-time favorite strikers in MLS?
CUNNINGHAM: I enjoyed watching Jaime Moreno when he was at his best. And I have to say a guy like Brian McBride was fantastic. For me, he was a great all-purpose striker, who scored goals and made his team better no matter where he played.
BRADLEY: Was there a teammate or two you clicked with better than others?
Jeff Cunningham scored a career-high 17 goals with FC Dallas during the 2009 season, the only time he won the Golden Boot. Says Cunningham: "I felt a responsibility to produce goals."
CUNNINGHAM: Wherever I went, I tried to learn my teammates’ strengths. I tried to adjust to them, so I could best serve the team. I knew what was wanted from me: goals. So I always thought it was my job to figure out their strengths and adjust my game. I never felt it was the job of my teammates to adjust to me. It was my job to play to their strengths.
BRADLEY: Do you have a favorite goal from those 134 you scored in MLS?
CUNNINGHAM: My favorite goal was not scored in MLS. I got called up to the US national team to play in Denmark and I scored my only international goal. To have the opportunity to play for the US and to score a goal in Europe, it was such a great thrill for me.
BRADLEY: Anything you’d like to say to Landon before he becomes king of the hill?
CUNNINGHAM: Landon, Landon, Landon ... you have every record in the US. Why couldn’t you just let me have this one?
No, really, I’m honored to be up there with him. I think the world of him and for me to be mentioned with him, that’s not too shabby, my friend.
BRADLEY: What are you up to now, Jeff?
CUNNINGHAM: I’m at the soccer field and I have two goals in front of me and a bag of balls. I’m still running. I’m still hoping to play for somebody, somewhere. I still have more to give.