Jeff Cunningham was gracious in his comments toward fellow Crew forward Andrés Mendoza after Wednesday night's game even though Mendoza’s decision to take a penalty kick in the 76th minute cost Cunningham a shot at tying the MLS career goal mark.
Mendoza buried the shot to tie the score at one and Josh Gardner scored in the 82nd minute for a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake at Crew Stadium.
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After Justin Meram was tripped by Jámison Olave, Mendoza directed the ball boy to give him the ball while Cunningham, who has 132 goals but none this season, went to the spot.
It took some mediation by captain Chad Marshall before Cunningham stepped back.
“I’m happy for Mendoza,” Cunningham said. “The boy deserves it. He’s definitely putting in the work tonight.
“[Marshall] made sure that a situation like this where we’re both fighting over it doesn’t happen,” he added. “Usually I’m one and Mendoza is two [to take the kick]. He felt very confident that he would score. Sometimes you have to lead by example and be a servant.”
The goal was the fourth of the season for Mendoza, tying the Designated Player with the injured Emilio Rentería for the team lead. Mendoza has been criticized by fans for his slow start but has three goals in the past three games despite two gilt-edged misses last week at New York.
“It’s good for him,” Cunningham said. “We need him to be at his best. That goal was probably more important for the club than me at this point. As a forward he’s been under a lot of pressure. It’s important for us to be supportive of him. I’m happy he stepped up and he’s confident enough to score. Life goes on and we got three points.”
Mendoza said through a translator that he did not know Cunningham was shooting for the record of 133 goals held by Jaime Moreno, nor that Cunningham had been designated before the game to take any penalty kicks.
“Mendoza scored the goal, so I can’t complain,” coach Robert Warzycha said. “I wanted Jeff to take the penalty but Mendoza felt strongly.”
Cunningham got his first start of the season and narrowly missed tying the game in the 60th minute when his header off an Eddie Gaven corner kick smacked the crossbar. He is not worried about scoring the historic goal.
“The year I won the Golden Boot two years ago [for FC Dallas], my second goal was, I believe, scored on July 3,” he said. “I scored 16 after that. Experience has taught me that it will come.”
Gardner, who trails Cunningham by 130 goals, scored his first in MLS since July of 2006 when he played for the LA Galaxy. The journeyman appreciated Cunningham’s yielding to Mendoza.
“Jeff’s a class act to allow him to take it,” he said. “He was the first one over there to congratulate him.”
Gardner’s goal came off his weaker right foot and was deflected by RSL defender Chris Schuler before going in.
“[Warzycha] doesn’t want me to shoot with my right foot too often,” he said. “But I had to take the opportunity and keep it on frame. That’s what I did and it was fortunate that it went in.”
It gave the Crew – 0-2-3 in its previous five games while never holding the lead — a 1-0-4 mark when trailing at the half, best in the league.
“We’ve been chasing matches all year long,” Gardner said. “To get three points at home in front of our fans is huge for us. We fight every game. We have nothing to lose when we’re down a goal. That’s our attitude when we come back. If we can get that mindset from the opening whistle I think we’re going to be able to win games three or four to zero.”
Warzycha was pleased to see the Crew rally once again after allowing a goal before the 10th minute for the fourth time in six games.
“I think we started the game as usual, gave up a goal in the 10th minute," he said. "It was a bit frustrating because it was on the first corner and they got a lucky bounce and scored. We responded pretty well and the game was even in the first half.
“We came in the second half with not as much energy as I would’ve liked,” he added. “Salt Lake had a couple of corners in a row and put us in the box a bit, but after that we started to pick up the tempo and in the end we scored two goals against a very good team.”
RSL allowed two goals after the 75th minute for the first time since a 2-2 tie vs. Los Angeles on May 6, 2009 — a span of 63 games.