Cunningham turns back the clock

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If you think Honduran defenders are losing sleep over the image of big ConorCasey marauding on goal like a freight train, try being this season's leading scorer in Major League Soccer. With 121 career regular-season goals, FC Dallas' Jeff Cunningham ranks second on the all-time list in MLS. But he readily admits he can't shake the vision of Casey, who's hot on his heels for this year's scoring lead.

"I was thinking he was somewhere watching, because I watch [him]," Cunningham said last week after regaining his place atop the scoring chart while Casey's Colorado Rapids had the week off. "I'm thinking too much because it means so much to me. I can't sleep sometimes."

Cunningham has 17 goals this season, one more than Casey has for Colorado in one of the tighter scoring races in recent years. That's nothing new: Cunningham has been abusing MLS defenders for 12 seasons. What is remarkable, however, is that he may be even more lethal at age 33 than he was at 23. Strikers his age aren't supposed to be challenging for the scoring title (only two older than 30 have ever won MLS' Golden Boot), and they certainly aren't supposed to be blazing past defenders 10 years younger.

The rate at which Cunningham is burning up the nets is even more stunning. After starting the season on the bench, logging an average of 43 minutes per match through Dallas' first nine games, he was only called in as a starter in July to replace Kenny Cooper (who since was sold to German second-division club 1860 Munich). Since then, Cunningham has started 13 straight games, and has bagged 16 goals over that stretch. No player has ever scored more goals in such a stretch in one season in the 14-year history of the league.

"It's unusual," FC Dallas assistant coach John Ellinger said of Cunningham's late-career explosion. "He's kept himself in fantastic shape. He comes in early, ices up when he needs to and he eats right. He's worked really hard for longevity. He ain't done this year."

But that fear, that obsession with his competition and constant unease are a window into a conflicted character. For as dangerous a scorer as Cunningham is, his reputation as a malcontent has dogged him throughout his career, which explains why he's been a perpetual vagabond. And that, Ellinger said, is probably why Cunningham is so bizarrely insecure despite being one of the most feared strikers in MLS history.

"Jeff wants to be the go-to guy," said Ellinger, who also coached Cunningham for a little more than a season at Real Salt Lake. "He needs to feel like he's the man, like he's the guy you count on to get goals. Make him believe he's the guy and he'll get the job done."

At each stop in his career, that wasn't always the case. During his first seven seasons in the league with Columbus, he had to fight through a ridiculously stacked depth chart of strikers that included big names such as Brian McBride and Edson Buddle. Still, he soldiered through for 62 goals and 43 assists with the Crew. He then spent the next four years bouncing between Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC and, finally, FC Dallas, where he landed last summer.

Cunningham had varying levels of success with each team. But at every stop, the scouting report was the same. According to several former teammates, he was a good locker-room presence and enjoyable to be around, but when he wasn't made to feel special, his desire and drive would shrink and he'd often lash out at coaches.

That happened in Salt Lake after Ellinger was replaced by Jason Kreis, with whom Cunningham clashed immediately. It got even worse during his disappointing time in Toronto, where he had a major falling out with former coach John Carver. After Cunningham missed a late, easy tap-in that would have put the team in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League, Carver famously said, "I am thinking, 'How did he score 99 [career] goals?' That's what I thought. ... If you're a poacher and you have got desire, no matter how you put the ball over the line, you put it over the line."

Less than a month after that incident, and with Cunningham's reputation in the toilet, FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman took a flier on him at the behest of assistant Ellinger. After all, it was under Ellinger in Salt Lake City that Cunningham had one of his best seasons as a pro in '05, with 16 goals and 11 assists. That reunion has paid off, especially since Cooper's departure.

As the focal point of FC Dallas' offense, Cunningham has put together the most lethal run of his career. Against Kansas City in August, he turned in perhaps his most jaw-dropping performance ever, rattling Wizards keeper Kevin Hartman for four goals in a 6-0 victory. Last month, he followed that up with two goals and two assists in a 6-3 rout of the Galaxy in Los Angeles.

He also found perhaps his best rapport with a strike partner in Colombian DavidFerreira: The two have linked up on eight goals this season, a key reason why Dallas has lost only once in its last six games and has surged back into the playoff picture -- the Hoops are two points back of New England, which holds the eighth and final spot. Since his coaches challenged him to carry the team, he has responded.

"When he was given the opportunity to be the so-called man on the team, the difference-maker, he really stepped up," said Hyndman, who added that Cunningham has shown none of the signs of being the problem child that precede his reputation. Ellinger also suggested that he has grown up, that marriage and fatherhood (his daughter, Mikayla, turned 1 last month) have forced some perspective on him.

In turn, Cunningham said he's enjoying the type of stability he has rarely had in his career, and it's making his job easier. "For a striker, you have to have confidence in your ability," he said. "That's difficult each year when you're bouncing around, moving and having to prove yourself again to a new coach over and over again. Right now, I'm OK. Coach Ellinger brought me here and he believed in me; that's helped me a lot."

But even if he does hold Casey off for the Golden Boot, which would be his second scoring title in four seasons, there is one chapter of his career that is unfinished. Cunningham's blistering pace this year has prompted many to suggest he get another shot with the U.S. national team, despite his age. Cunningham was last called into national-team camp four years ago by Bruce Arena, who capped him 10 times between '01 and '05 but was never impressed enough to make him a consistent part of the national team.

That was then. According to an MLS source, current U.S. coach Bob Bradley was seriously considering calling Cunningham into camp leading into the U.S.' final qualifier on Wednesday against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium. In fact, the source said, Bradley was close to getting on a plane from last week's U.S. training camp in Miami and making the 6,000-mile round trip to San Jose to watch FC Dallas' road win over the Earthquakes.

Does Cunningham really have an honest shot of getting his first U.S. call-up in five years now that he's in his mid-30s? Maybe -- especially, said the source, if the U.S. solidified a World Cup berth against Honduras, rendering its last qualifier essentially meaningless. That scenario, of course, happened. The bad news for Cunningham is that Casey had his breakout performance in the Honduras match, which may prompt Bradley to feel a lot better about his depth at the striker position and forgo any plan to call him in.

Still, that may be the one variable in Cunningham's career that he isn't losing sleep over. "I don't wake up each day thinking, 'Hey, when is that call going to come?' " he said. "I haven't given up on myself. Every day I try to be a better footballer, so if I keep doing well, maybe that opportunity will come again. If it does, hopefully I can continue to do what I've been doing: Score goals and try to help win games."

Cunningham's doing a lot of things this season that most would have found improbable. An MLS Cup title and a return to the national team would fit right in -- count him out at your own risk.