Columbus Crew forward Jeff Cunningham was grateful for many things after setting the MLS goalscoring record at 134 on a penalty kick on Saturday against Seattle Sounders FC.
He thanked the organization he broke in with in 1998 for bringing him home after FC Dallas decided to let him go after last season, and he acknowledged his current and past 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.”
Most importantly, Cunningham said he was blessed to be playing in Seattle, even though the milestone was set in a 6-2 defeat.
“There was a good chance I was going to have surgery this week with the problems with my knee,” he said. “It was a question at one point if I could continue with my season.”
Cunningham had not played since July 23 because of inflammation in his right knee and team doctors gave him an ultimatum two weeks ago: If there is no improvement the next week then arthroscopic surgery has to be considered.
“He probably would have been out three weeks and come back for the last few weeks,” coach Robert Warzycha said. “The doctors made the right decision. He got better and was sharp in practice this week. That’s why I brought him to Seattle.”
The rest, of course, is history.
Emilio Rentería drew a dubious penalty in the 58th minute when he appeared to go down untouched, but referee Baldomero Toledo pointed to the spot.
Andrés Mendoza, who infamously took a PK instead of Cunningham against Real Salt Lake on June 8 to deny Cunningham a chance to tie former D.C. United standout Jaime Moreno at 133 goals, normally takes the penalties but he had just been removed three minutes earlier.
Rentería thought about taking the PK, but Warzycha made sure he knew that this was Cunningham’s day.
As Cunningham slotted the ball, Kasey Keller dove to his right and the ball went the other way for goal No. 134.
“Kasey is in a different class,” Cunningham said. “Playing against him and scoring is something I’ll be able to tell my [young] daughter someday. It was an honor to be on the same pitch as him.”
Cunningham’s second goal of the season made the score 4-1, but the outcome and the fact it didn’t come from the run of play made no difference.
“I’m excited about it,” he said. “It’s very difficult to score goals in this league. I don’t really mind that it was a penalty kick. A goal’s a goal. You ask any of the best players in the world if they would take it and the short answer I’m sure would be yes. It’s no different for me.
“It was not the type of game I wanted to set the record, but at the same time it took a lot of hard work,” he added. “I was very grateful for the opportunity to get into the game.”
Defender Josh Gardner, who assisted on the goal that tied the mark July 6 at Vancouver, wished the team could have played better.
“Jeff, obviously, is the positive we take from today,” he said. “I’m really happy for him. He deserves it.”
Said Cunningham, “I didn’t think it would take this long into the season but I feel very proud and humbled right now. To have the goalscoring record is an honor. It’s been 14 years of hard work and some ups and downs.”
He was presented the ball that set the record after the game.
“I need the boys to sign it,” he said. “That will be a part of my life for a long time.”
Gardner, however, had a piece of advice.
“Hopefully he won’t put the score of the game on it," he said.