Jeff Cunningham stood at the far end of the BMO training field yesterday pounding soccer balls toward a net. Most of his teammates already had left the field, finished interviews and were tucked into the noon-hour buffet.
Small beads of perspiration pricking his forehead, he finally relented. "Just having fun. This is supposed to be fun, right?" Cunningham said walking toward the Toronto FC dressing room.
Fun. Now there's something he had about as much luck finding last year as the scoresheet.
"This'll be the last interview I do looking back because last year was the low point in my career," Cunningham said yesterday.
"It was very disappointing. In the off-season I wrote down all my disappointments on a piece of paper, then tore it up and that was the end of it. No more. I have to move on and prove myself all over again."
Jamaican-born but capped 10 times for the U.S. national team, Cunningham was traded to Toronto last May after just seven games and three goals into the season with Real Salt Lake. He was to be the catalyst on a team that had all the offensive sparkle of a glass of day-old Coke.
"There were a lot of expectations and my performance let a lot of people down," he said.
In 16 games, he had three goals. He missed much of September because of a sports hernia and when he did play he was often substituted. By the time Danny Dichio took his place for the second half of the team's final game and scored a highlight-reel goal there was speculation Cunningham wouldn't be back this year.
"I think I can still play, score and help this team win," Cunningham said. "Even if I'm not on the pitch to start the game Saturday the good thing is the coach says he's giving everyone an opportunity. I will get my chance at some point and when I do, I expect to earn my shirt."
Proving he belongs is nothing new. Cunningham is among MLS' career leaders in goals scored. Jaime Moreno is atop the list with 112 goals, with Ante Razov at 109, Cunningham with 96 and Taylor Twellman at 91. But he also remains one of the league's most enigmatic players; traded three times in the last four seasons -- and he's not sure it won't be four soon.
"I've constantly had to prove myself. That's my cross to bear. Even in this team I still have to prove myself. The reality is that at the moment I'm with Toronto FC and I don't know what will happen. The reality is I want to give my best ... until they move me."
Cunningham never has felt quite appreciated -- not the way one of North American soccer's greatest scorers might expect to be appreciated.
There is frustration at never being one of the league's marquee attractions. In 2006 he was shocked when left off the all-star team that played Chelsea and he always has played second fiddle to U.S. national team forward Brian McBride.
"I've always been a kind of underdog," he said.
That's why hitting the 100-goal plateau means so much. It will be vindication for, as he once described himself "the most hated player in the league." It will be his personal validation.
"I've never been considered one of the great forwards in the league so to hit 100 is something I'm proud of. I've never been given the golden spoon in my mouth. Some people are just given opportunities but I've had to earn mine."
As a boy he dreamed of playing for Liverpool. "I would be lying if I said my dream wasn't to play in Europe and to compete in the World Cup. The reality is that maybe I won't get that chance."
He is 31 now. Dreams change. He says he would like to stay in Toronto; to try again, to find "a comfort zone" and make people forget that 824-minute goalless streak of which he was a part last season.
"It hasn't always been easy," he said, "but there are a lot of players I started out with in this league who aren't playing anymore and I'm in the top four scorers ... hopefully, I'll be able to show more of that Jeff Cunningham."