Wednesday, Aug 1 at 8:37 AM
Newly signed Scorpions forward Jeff Cunningham doesn't remember much about his late father, who died not long after Cunningham started playing soccer in Jamaica when he was "3 or 4."
But Cunningham, 35, can recall vividly the day his father gave him one of the best gifts he has ever received.
"My dad passed away when I was young and the only recollection I have of him is him giving me a soccer ball," Cunningham said. "That soccer ball was the only one in the neighborhood. The big boys would take it.
"For them to use the ball, they would have to pick me. They would have to let me play. That was a good experience because they roughed me up and toughened me up in the process."
All these years later, Cunningham can trace the origins of his long soccer career to those pick-up games in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where his family lived until he was 14.
Cunningham shared the poignant anecdote with reporters Tuesday after his first workout with the Scorpions, who are 10-3-5 in their first season and sit atop the North American Soccer League standings.
Major League Soccer's all-time career scoring leader with 134 regular-season goals, Cunningham was effusive in his praise of his new team and the entire franchise.
"From what I've seen so far, this is an MLS-quality organization playing in a lower division," Cunningham said. "I think the players are definitely MLS level and the club, the organization, is first class. It's definitely a top-tier organization."
Cunningham's top priority is to get in game shape
While Cunningham hasn't played since June, when he was released by Comunicaciones of Guatemala, Scorpions manager Tim Hankin said Cunningham will be on the field for the team's match against Puerto Rico on Sunday night at Heroes Stadium.
Cunningham had been living in Columbus, Ohio, where he started his MLS career 14 years ago, since leaving Guatemala.
Hankinson expressed confidence that Cunningham will get in game shape and adjust to his new surroundings and teammates relatively quickly.
"The heat is always a factor, even for the players who play in it and have been here and are climatized," Hankinson said. "He just needs some days to get the travel out of his system and know his teammates, get comfortable.
"I think Jeff always has taken good care of his body, and he's always stayed away from any severe injuries. I'm not saying he's unfit. He's just not match-ready. Whether he's a 90-minute guy, or a 60-minute guy or a 30-minute guy, he's still going to bring quality moments to the park."
So what makes Cunningham such a prolific scorer?
"His ability to hold the ball, which allows players to advance, our wingbacks and midfielders, to move to forward positions," Hankinson said. "When you've got a striker who doesn't control the ball well, people can't get in advanced spots. Jeff is very good at that. He's very quick to turn on a player. He knows what to do inside the box."
Campos, Cunningham could be potent scoring combination
Cunningham, who is 5-foot-8 and 162 pounds, assured reporters it won't take him long to get in game shape.
"One thing about me over the years is that I've always kept in good physical condition," Cunningham said. "I haven't been able to train in a team environment, but I've been doing a little stuff on my own. Fitness-wise, I'm not far away.
"Football form, maybe I'm two weeks out. The great thing about my situation is that the club is doing fantastic. We have the leading scorer in the league and the team is doing really well. There is less pressure on me coming in immediately and having a big impact on the team. I definitely feel that once I'm fit and running, I'll be able to contribute."
The Scorpions have been paced by forward Pablo Campos, who leads the NASL in scoring with 15 goals. Campos was named NASL Offensive Player of the Week after scoring a career-high four goals in San Antonio's 8-0 rout of Carolina on Saturday.
Cunningham chuckled when he was asked to comment on the potential scoring punch he and Campos could give the Scorpions.
"I'm playing with one of the best strikers in the league," Cunningham said, referring to Campos. "It's going to make my job easier. It's more like Pablo right now. It's his club. I'm just here and hopefully I can contribute in a positive way."
Cunningham moved to Crystal River, Fla., with his family when he was 14, and was a standout soccer player at South Florida before getting picked by the Columbus Crew with the ninth pick in the 1998 MLS draft.
Cunningham out to prove himself
He played with Columbus for seven seasons before going on to stints with Colorado, Real Salt Lake City, Toronto and Dallas. Cunningham returned to Columbus last year and scored his 134th career goal while playing for the Crew.
To hear Cunningham tell it, he won't lack for motivation when he plays in his first match for the Scorpions.
"I feel like I need to come here and prove myself," Cunningham said. "That's just me, man. I'm going to compete. I don't care if I'm playing pick-up soccer in the park. I'm going to try to win and compete.
"Especially as a striker, the pressure is always there to perform, coming in and score goals. For me, it's always the same. Join a team and the expectations are there immediately for me to do well and score goals. I've said before that. I enjoy scoring goals and competing, and I'm just happy that San Antonio gave me the opportunity."
Hankinson, 57, faced Cunningham as a coach in the MLS. He joked last week that Cunningham is partly to blame for his hair turning white.
"Jeff, most of the time I was in Major League Soccer coaching, he was with Columbus Crew, where he had a lot of success," Hankinson said. "Always we would sit there as a coaching staff and try to figure out, how do we contain him?
"I don't think we could stop him completely, but we could contain him and deny him ample chances. I know he's got those qualities and I'm glad he's on our side this time."