Standing at the midfield stripe waiting to come on to the field at Crew Stadium, Jeff Cunningham couldn't help but smile. Coming on as a late substitute in last weekend's World Cup qualifying win for the U.S. national team against Mexico, Cunningham tried to contain himself as the player he was replacing, Brian McBride, made his way to the sideline.
This was supposed to be what happened to Cunningham's club career. The Jamaican-born striker was supposed to take over as the Columbus Crew's marquee striker for McBride when he departed for England. Cunningham, whose combination of blazing speed and unpredictability made him one of the league's most dangerous strikers early in his MLS career, had been waiting for this chance to shine for years.
The chance didn't last very long. Cunningham's opportunity to take the torch from McBride consisted of one disappointing season with the Crew that tested his resolve. Rather than being the team's new marquee striker, he became a scapegoat. Despite a stretch early in the season where Cunningham scored five goals in seven matches, Greg Andrulis benched Cunningham just before the all-star break. He stayed there for 10 straight matches. When Cunningham did get back in the starting lineup he responded with a two-goal performance, but it was clear that his days in Columbus were numbers. When he failed to start either of the Crew's playoff matches, Cunningham one-way ticket out was punched.
"I was a little bit bitter," said Cunningham. "I felt like my seven years of service to the club was unappreciated and I was being forced out. I guess a change is good."
Columbus shipped Cunningham to the Rapids for a 2006 first-round pick, leaving the 28-year-old forward upset at how things ended with the Crew and determined to make his former team look foolish for dealing him. After scoring 11 goals in the season's first half, Cunningham's mission was accomplished.
"I've always played with a chip on my shoulder," said Cunningham. "I always wanted to prove to the Crew that I still had some ability and I feel like I've done that. There's a lot more to prove.
"I went out to Colorado with the mindset that I need to prove myself this year," said Cunningham. I'm 28. I believe that's the age where strikers start to peak. With the World Cup being every four years that is going to basically rule me out for the next one so this time around is my opportunity and I need to make the most of it."
Bruce Arena noticed a different player starring for the Rapids this season and called him up. After having spent time with the national team in 2002 for the Gold Cup and in 2003 for the Confederations Cup, Cunningham was much more comfortable in camp and that comfort resulted in a more confident Cunningham impressing Arena enough to consider him for the national team's recent World Cup qualifiers.
"He's a more seasoned player," said Arena of Cunningham. "He's a more experienced player and one who comes in with a lot of confidence, and when he is confident he can play well."
Cunningham earned his first start in World Cup qualifying on Wednesday in the team's scoreless draw against Guatemala, and while he failed to make a considerable impact on the game, the performance did not erase what has been an impressive past few months for him. Along with starring for the Rapids, Cunningham turned some heads by scoring two late goals in the MLS All-Star game against English club Fulham. He followed that up by having one of the few good performances among MLS players in the recent match between Real Madrid and an MLS Select team.
Cunningham's re-emergence isn't simply a product of confidence, but also a result of him realizing that he needed to work on his game and become a sharper player. Criticized at times for being out of control and not reliable enough to contribute to a structured attack, Cunningham has worked on tightening up his game and also on putting away chances at a better rate.
"I need to work on being more of a clinical scorer," said Cunningham. "At the international level you only get one or two chances a game, and at times those chances are half-chances." If Cunningham continues to dominate for Colorado, Arena will keep giving him looks. The U.S. team has some solid forward options in Brian McBride, Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson but Cunningham's pure speed and improved finishing makes him a threat any time he takes the field. His goal is to earn a place on Arena's World Cup team, and is ready for any role he can fill.
"Not everyone is able to be a starter," said Cunningham. "So if being a sub is a role I can be a part of, and it's going to help me get to the World Cup, then I'll be happy to be the best sub in the world."
Currently in the last year of his MLS contract, Cunningham knows the timing of his improved play couldn't be better. He should not have much trouble finding offers from European clubs and Cunningham should expect a strong push to re-sign with MLS. Not a bad situation to be in for a player who was languishing on the bench this time last year.
"That was a tough time for me but I never doubted my ability," said Cunningham. "My goal now is to play well enough to make sure that no one ever doubts my abilities again."
Can it be? Are those pesky cellar dwellers from Columbus really still alive? That's right, the Crew are still somehow mathematically alive for a berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs and you have to wonder just how much the Crew has left. A win this week and we can start keeping an eye out for one of the great late-season comebacks in league history. Hopefully my picks can rebound as well as Columbus has.
Columbus at New England
The Crew defense has solidified, Jonny Walker has been steady in net and John Wolyniec is coming off his best performance since joining Columbus. Will all that be enough to help Columbus pull the upset at Gillette? Don't bet on it. Steve Nicol is known for getting his team ready late in the year and now is when the Revs step on the gas pedal. Revolution 2, Crew 0
MetroStars at Wizards
Okay, this really is the Metros last chance for survival. Anything short of a victory at Arrowhead will serve as the first shovel full of dirt on the team's playoff hopes. Is there any reason for optimism? Not really. The Wizards are strong at home and welcome back Jimmy Conrad and Scott Sealy. Kansas City has too much and the Metros see their postseason hopes fade. Wizards 2, MetroStars 1
D.C. United at FC Dallas These two teams could not be stopped two months ago. Now, both have transformed into pushovers. Who stops their freefall? Bet on D.C. The champions turned it on at this time last year and will punish a Dallas defense that has been the key reason for the recent free fall. D.C. United 3, FC Dallas 2
Colorado at Los Angeles
The battle of teams who should be missing the playoffs if they played in a real conference should be an entertaining battle. Landon Donovan and Jeff Cunningham are worth the price of admission. Too bad most of the other players on the field aren't worth watching for free. To be fair, the Rapids have turned it on in recent weeks and enter this match with more momentum. The Rapids ride Cunningham to a victory and move closer to passing Los Angeles in the West standings. Rapids 2, Galaxy 0
Chivas USA at San Jose
I'm never picking Chivas to win another game. Ever. Earthquakes 3, Chivas USA 0
Last week: 1-5 Overall: 51-59
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com