TAMPA — Not that long ago, former Crystal River High and USF high-scoring forward Jeff Cunningham figured he had seen his last shot at playing for the U.S. national soccer team.
"Actually I was home for about three years watching the guys on TV with a bowl of popcorn cheering them on," he said.
But he's no longer comfortably lounging on his couch.
Far from it. He's back where his soccer career took flight and back with the national team, which meets El Salvador at 7 tonight at Raymond James Stadium. It's the second-to-last scheduled exhibition before the United States names its roster for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, so Cunningham knows the score if he wants to remain in the mix for a trip this summer:
"It's the last chance for a lot of us," he said.
Especially for Cunningham, who turns 34 in August. Rarely does a player make the World Cup for the first time at that age. Even among this group of U.S. players, Cunningham's the elder statesman and his sense of urgency has been easy to spot.
"You could tell in these two camps that certain guys, certain veterans who were now being given another opportunity, took it really seriously," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "They know how much was at stake. Jeff has been around the national team at different times in his career, but never really became a permanent part of it. He's taken this opportunity quite seriously."
Cunningham, a native of Jamaica, actually played once for that nation before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2001. That's when he first was called up by the U.S. team that craved a speedy, skillful forward who could provide some offensive firepower.
But a guy who had always been able to score at will — he had 41 goals for the Bulls and has 121 in MLS, second most in league history — couldn't hit the back of the net in 10 international appearances.
The call to duty for the United States stopped.
The door had been shut, he admitted to himself.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't," he said after Monday's practice at USF.
Then in August, he was dealt from Toronto FC to Dallas FC, his fifth team in 12 seasons, and scored five goals in 11 games, nearly leading the club to an MLS playoff berth.
"We turned our season around when Jeff Cunningham caught on fire," Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman said.
"You saw at the end of last year in the MLS season, once he gets hot, he's really truly unstoppable," echoed Dallas midfielder Dax McCarty, a Winter Park native poised to make his fourth U.S. appearance tonight. "Sometimes, he'll pull some stuff out of the bag that I didn't think he had in him."
Though Cunningham had perhaps lost a step, he had more than enough acceleration to blow past many defenders, the footwork to beat others off the dribble, the strength and power at 5 feet 7 and 172 pounds to plow through traffic, and a better understanding of the game.
"If you give him any type of space at all, he will punish you," Hyndman said.
And Bradley recognized that. He invited Cunningham to the national team for games in November against Slovakia and Denmark. Cunningham scored his first international goal in the 3-1 loss to Denmark. That earned him a place for an exhibition last month against Honduras.
"It's important to say that it's not just what we would see in one game because for all these guys, it's really going to be important that when MLS starts we see the kind of form they're in and how they're playing as well," said Bradley, who likely will rely more on foreign-based players for the exhibition March 3 at the Netherlands.
"It's pretty easy to see that Jeff is capable on his own of getting the ball and, at times, creating and going by people and getting goals. But his ability on how to contribute in other ways, to be a guy that finds good spots to hold the ball, brings other people into the game (is crucial)."
Cunningham is thrilled that he has that chance.
One he never thought he'd have again.
"For me to be here and be in the picture is an unbelievable ride, man," he said with a broadening smile. "I'm just soaking it up and enjoying every minute of it."
Notes: Gates open at 4 p.m. today and a crowd of 17,000 is expected for a doubleheader that begins with the U.S. Under-17 men's national team playing Mexico's U-17s at 4:15. … In addition to Cunningham, U.S. goalkeeper Troy Perkins has some local ties; he played for USF in 2001 and 2002 before transferring to Evansville. … In the U-17 game, keep an eye out for bay area standouts in the midfield, Atsou Ayah (Tampa) and Tarik Salkicic (Pinellas Park), possibly playing.
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.