Underappreciated Cunningham breaks MLS scoring record

By Chris Ravita, Soccer Editor

MLS Features Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Overshadowed by a 6-2 loss to Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, Columbus Crew striker Jeff Cunningham persevered to make his way to the top of the Major League Soccer record books.

Cunningham converted a 59th-minute penalty at CenturyLink Field to pass Jaime Moreno for the all-time scoring lead in MLS with 134 goals.

But mention of the league's new goal-leader was not much more than a line item in a match recap, lost amid a sea of praise for Seattle's exceptional form exhibited in the thrashing of Columbus.

With such insufficient recognition of his scoring feat, it is not a stretch to claim that Cunningham is the most underappreciated player in the history of the league.

Cunningham has played for five MLS teams, including two stints with Columbus, during his 15-year career. By comparison, Moreno played for two clubs in his 15-year tenure with the league, 14 of which were spent with D.C. United. Landon Donovan, who is third on the all-time scoring chart in his 11th year in MLS, has only played for two clubs.

So why has Major League Soccer's most prolific goalscorer been cast aside so many times? There is no statistical evidence to provide a reasonable explanation.

Out of the top five all-time goalscorers in the league, Cunningham has the highest ratio of goals per 90 minutes with 0.53. He is also deadly from the penalty spot, converting 20 PKs in 23 attempts.

Jeff Cunningham
Out of the top five all-time goalscorers in the league, Jeff Cunningham has the highest ratio of goals per 90 minutes.
He has proven his ability to come through in the clutch with an astonishing 40 game-winning goals. Ante Razov comes closest to challenging in that category with 33 game-winners.

Cunningham has raked in accolades both individually and with his various teams. He is two-time MLS Golden Boot winner (2006 and 2009) and has been named to the MLS Best XI three times (2002, 2006, 2009).

During his first stint with the Crew, Cunningham claimed a U.S. Open Cup trophy in 2002 as well as the MLS Supporters' Shield in 2004. He was also a member of the 2010 Western Conference Champion FC Dallas squad that lost to the Colorado Rapids in the MLS Cup.

One of the best determinants of a player's value is the price paid on the trading block, and Cunningham has been mightily undervalued.

After scoring 62 goals in 182 games during his first seven years in Columbus, Cunningham was dealt to the Colorado Rapids after the 2004 season for only a first-round draft pick.

He was traded to Real Salt Lake for Clint Mathis and then to Toronto FC for Alecko Escandarian and a first-round draft pick, but his value took a hit when Toronto shipped him to FC Dallas mid-season in 2008 for a third-round draft pick.

And scoring 33 goals in 66 games during a successful period for FC Dallas, just two goals shy of breaking the all-time scoring record, the club had no use for Cunningham, as it declined the option on his contract. He rejoined Columbus through the 2010 MLS Re-Entry Draft.

Despite being passed around the league on a regular basis, Cunningham has handled the adversity admirably. Upon scoring his record-breaking goal in Seattle, he took the opportunity to acknowledge his past and present teammates.

"They've been very supportive," he told MLSsoccer.com by phone on the team bus after the match. "I couldn't have done it without them."

The response was an embodiment of Cunningham's nature. A prolific scorer whose humility allowed himself to fly under the radar. And yet, MLS clubs did not value the striker enough to hold onto him.

A class act with a knack for scoring does not come around too often.

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Contact Chris Ravita at cravita@sportsnetwork.com

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