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Chasing the Cup

Former Crystal River and South Florida star Jeff Cunningham, a potent scorer in the MLS, just misses shot at appearance in the world tournament.

By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002


All his life, Jeff Cunningham has played soccer wherever and whenever he could.

As a barefoot child on the streets of Jamaica. During his high school and college years in Florida where football, not futbol, is king. In the 22,555-seat stadium that is home to the MLS' Columbus Crew.

This summer, Cunningham almost played on the biggest stage of all: the World Cup.

Cunningham's name had been included in the final pool of 35 players who were looked at to determine the United States roster for the tournament played in June in South Korea.

But when the 23-player roster was announced in April, the forward was not on the list.

"I was disappointed, but at the same time, I'm still at the age where I have another shot at a World Cup, so I'm really looking forward to the next one," said Cunningham, who turned 26 on Wednesday.

"Hopefully, this next one, we'll be able to go even further and I'll be part of it," he said.

Cunningham, who speaks with a soft Jamaican accent and moved to Crystal River at 13, was being looked at as a potential national team member even before he was a U.S. citizen.

In January 2001, while in the process of gaining citizenship, Cunningham was called to his first national team training camp but could not play in actual competition.

It wasn't until Nov. 13 that Cunningham emerged from the Federal Courthouse in Columbus as a U.S. citizen. Shortly thereafter, he earned his first cap for an international exhibition against South Korea.

At the Gold Cup in January, Cunningham saw action against Cuba and had the winning assist in a 2-1 victory over South Korea.

U.S. men's national team spokesman Michael Kammarman said making the Gold Cup roster was significant because it is the second biggest tournament behind the World Cup.

"Cunningham became eligible to play at a difficult time, six months before the World Cup and hadn't had a lot of international experience, so that was a hard time to break into the team," Kammarman said.

So Cunningham watched as national squad forwards Clint Mathis and Brian McBride, a Crew teammate, became household names.

The U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in more than 70 years.

Cunningham understood the decision-making process, as the team had spent the past two years trying to qualify for the World Cup.

"If I wasn't part of the qualifying and the guys who actually helped the team qualify were all healthy and playing well, I didn't see any reason for the coach to not take those guys," Cunningham said.

"All the forwards have different abilities. Brian's great in the air and Clint's a great finisher and, myself, I think I brought the one-on-one ability to go at defenders and create chances. It's also a matter of what kind of system the coach was going to use and how I fit in that system."

Maturity pays off

As a fifth-year member of the Crew, Cunningham has found his role: to score.

Including a two-goal performance against the Kansas City Wizards on Aug. 18, he is tied for third in the league in scoring with 13 goals and five assists.

Cunningham was the Major League Soccer Player of the Week for the week ending Aug. 4, the second award of his career.

Although it is statistically shaping up to be a banner year, Cunningham thinks the 2001 season was his best because it was then he began to take on a leadership role.

Crew head coach Greg Andrulis, who as an assistant helped get the University of South Florida grad drafted as the ninth pick in the 1998, said Cunningham's continued maturity has made him a handful for any defender in the league.

"Five years ago he was a great athlete with great soccer ability, but he's really become a student of the game," Andrulis said. "He studies films of himself and studies films of all the great strikers and is individually determined to reach the very highest level."

Cunningham said he has one year left on his contract, but would like to stick around and help the league develop and become one of its main players.

He thinks the MLS can continue to support its 10 teams financially, but had been extremely disappointed after the folding of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion before this season. That deprived him of an opportunity to see family and friends in Florida.

His last break from soccer came before the MLS schedule started, so March was the last time he has been back to Citrus County. But his mother, Crystal River resident Deloris Morgan, always is a phone call away.

"I talk to her every day, two or three times a day to the point where she's like, "Hey, I'm watching my show,' " said Cunningham, who has close relatives in Jamaica, including a sister, nieces and nephews.

When he periodically makes it home, Cunningham always ends up back at the high school. Current Pirates coach Bobby Verlato said the MLS star has joined in a few of his practices.

"It's awesome to have a pro athlete at any situation, but they think it's really nice of him that he comes," Verlato said. "He's very fun-loving and ready to work with them and help them. It's an amazing experience for a young athlete."

Talent opens doors

Verlato played next to Cunningham in the Crystal River midfield in the early 1990s and always thought Cunningham would make it to the highest level.

Morgan saw her son's potential even earlier, back when Cunningham was just a 2-year-old playing in Jamaica.

"We got him a little soccer ball, and he was always kicking that ball and running so fast," Morgan said.

"I would be running close to him and put my arms around him so he wouldn't fall and hurt himself, and I tell you that little boy would actually outrun me. He was so fast. Then I was saying this boy is going to be like Pele."

Morgan said her son has been in the spotlight since he was 10, appearing on television and in newspapers playing for a high-profile youth team in Jamaica.

She had moved to Crystal River earlier. But when Cunningham came to Miami to play in a tournament, she came to get him, then asked for an extension on his visa while applying for permanent residency.

Times were tough for the two, and Morgan missed a lot of her son's games while working a full-time and a part-time job without a car. Friends would transport Cunningham to and from practice.

"I would cry and say Jeff I'm so sorry but I've got to be working and I can't come to your games, and when I'm not working I don't have a ride," Morgan said.

"He always said, "That's all right Mama, you pray because prayer carried me through this far, so you continue to pray. Don't worry about it because it's going to get better one day.' "

When she first went to see her son play, Morgan cried because she heard a parent from the other team yell at a player to break Cunningham's leg.

It was a different story at a Crew game she attended this summer as thousands of people cheered her son. Morgan is amazed where the game has taken him: all over the world and hopefully to Germany for the 2006 Cup.

"Soccer has opened so many doors for me it's unbelievable," Cunningham said.

"My mother reminds me every day that since I was a little kid, I had always wanted to travel around the world playing soccer. I'm getting the opportunity now, and she always reminds me to be grateful for it."

-- Kristen Leigh Porter can be reached at 564-3628 or porter@sptimes.com.

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