Why picking up Jeff Cunningham is a good move for the Crew

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Yesterday the Crew selected Jeff Cunningham in Stage 2 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft. The Crew now has seven days to work out a deal with Cunningham before he becomes available to other MLS clubs. According to The Dispatch, the Crew already made Cunningham an offer and the striker is considering it.

Cunningham, 34, is a Crew legend and a born goal-scorer. He played his first seven seasons for Columbus from 1998-2004 alongside current Crew Coach Robert Warzycha, and his 62 career goals for the Crew tie him with Brian McBride for the all-time club record. In 1999, Cunningham scored the first goal in Crew Stadium history. He was a polarizing and often frustrating figure, frequently criticized for inconsistent effort and rumored to be a divisive presence behind the scenes. But he usually scored enough goals to rank him near the top of the league standings, and that won him plenty of fans to counter his detractors. Coach Greg Andrulis joined the latter camp after the 2004 season, when the Crew traded Cunningham to Colorado for a draft pick.

Since then, Cunningham has been a journeyman, suiting up for Colorado, Salt Lake, Toronto and Dallas. He twice led the league in goals, with 16 for Real Salt Lake in 2009 and 17 for FC Dallas In 2009. His 132 career MLS goals land him one goal shy of Jaime Moreno's all-time record of 133. But he has continued to be plagued by inconsistency, getting run out of Colorado after conflicting with coach Fernando Clavijo and banished from Toronto after a string of bumbling performances on the pitch.

With the Crew supposedly looking to go younger and faster after cutting ties with veterans such as Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Frankie Hejduk, many fans have been puzzled by the decision to acquire an older player like Cunningham. I think it's a smart move. Here's why:

Yes, the Crew has stated its desire to acquire young, fast players, but a team needs some veteran presence, and Cunningham offers 13 seasons of MLS experience. If history stands, he'll likely produce as much offense as Guillermo Barros Schelotto did last season for a fraction of the price. Cunningham is more of a proven goal-scorer than anyone who suited up for Columbus in 2010. He's not as blazing fast as he used to be, but no one's going to call him slow, especially in the super-sub role Brian Bliss envisions for him. Bringing him in is not "a total contradiction," as Schelotto told a Spanish-language MLS site.

Furthermore, regardless of whether you agree with the Crew's decision to jettison so many of its most popular players, Cunningham is a recognizable name and face at a time when the Crew desperately needs one. And Columbus parted ways with so many players this off-season that they still have plenty of roster spots to use on fleet-footed youth, especially with the expanded roster size next season.

Maybe he'll be locker room cancer. Maybe his production will trail off. You never know what to expect from Cunningham. But he's a worthwhile risk for a team in transition.