CARSON -- Jeff Cunningham's chief skill has always been putting the ball in the net, so when the Jamaican-born American striker started his new adventure in Guatemala this week with a goal, the satisfaction was immense.
That it came in a victory over Comunicaciones' most hated rival made it all the more special.
Cunningham couldn't strike again in Saturday's rematch, a 2-0 Municipal victory to open the Doble Clasico Centroamericano doubleheader at Home Depot Center, but the evening was spectacular nonetheless. He got to spend a few minutes afterward with his wife, Jocelyn, and 3-year-old daughter, Mikayla, who have not yet joined him in Guatemala City.
“Trying to squeeze in as much time with them as possible,” he said. “It's tough, especially with my daughter. Not sure if she quite realizes what's really going on.”
Mikayla, sporting a Comunicaciones jersey, seemed content running in circles and calling out, “Daddy! Daddy!”
Separation from family is part of the business, Cunningham knows, and after watching his opportunity evaporate last season with the Columbus Crew, he's willing to spend a little time alone as he reinvents himself with one of Guatemala's powerhouse clubs.
Cunningham, 35, scored a record 134 regular-season goals in 14 Major League Soccer seasons with Columbus, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC and FC Dallas. He was a two-time Golden Boot winner as the league's top scorer and a three-time Best XI selection, but after scoring 28 in two seasons in Texas, he became an afterthought last year in his second stint with the Crew.
He started just four games in 21 league appearances, totaling just 591 minutes -- a little more than 6½ full games -- and hit the net four times, enough to surge past Bolivian D.C. United legend Jaime Moreno, who scored 133 in 15 MLS campaigns. He became a free agent when his option was declined at season's end and he slipped untouched through the re-entry phase.
“In the offseason, I was looking for an opportunity for a fresh start, and this came up,” Cunningham said. “I'm very much in debt to the organization for giving me a chance, and I hope to have success here and reward them with some goals.”
He scored his first in his debut Wednesday, a 2-0 Liga Nacional victory over Municipal that was much rougher than Saturday's outing, with 12 yellow cards, three reds and a postgame brawl. The total at HDC: five yellows, two reds, no brawl.
“I think having played them so soon, a few days ago, I think it took a little sting out of the game ...,” Cunningham said. “[The Clasico] runs deep. This is new for me. The players definitely don't like each other, and for me, you know, I don't have that rivalry [in me] as of yet, so for me it's a match. I'll get used to it.”
FAS edged Salvadoran archrival Aguila, 1-0, on a tremendous second-half goal by Alejandro Bentos in the second game, which was by far the bigger draw among the crowd of about 10,000. Of course, Southern California's Salvadoran population is estimated at 1.5 million to 2 million, about three times the size of the Guatemalan community.
The Guatemalan game, perhaps missing some spark, was still more vibrant than the nightcap. Comunicaciones and Municipal are the best clubs almost annually in Guatemala, and both are 2-1-1 in the second-half Clausura that began Jan. 15. Neither FAS (0-1-4) nor Aguila (2-3-0) are in the upper-half of El Salvador's Primera Division four weeks into the spring season.
Cunningham made his first start for Los Cremas in Saturday's friendly, came close a couple of times -- his plea for a first-half penalty was ignored, and he shanked wide left when played in by Hernan Sandoval a few minutes later -- and exited with 10 minutes to go, Municipal in command through goals by Evandro Ferreira in the 16th minute and Oscar Isaula in the 51st.
Cunningham notes he's “still in transition, but as a footballer, you learn to adapt quite quickly and focus on what you can control, which is performance.” He says he likes the style of play in Central America -- “the players here are more technical [than in MLS], to be honest” -- and looks forward to contributing as Comunicaciones seeks its third league title in five campaigns.
That's all about goals. He hopes to pour them in.
"I've always scored goals, and for me, it's part of who I am, and not doing that or not having a chance to score goals, part of me is missing,” he said. “I know love and family and sex and all of that is important, but to not get the chance to score goals, you don't feel quite like yourself.
“Some people like surfing, some like reading books. I like scoring goals. Not getting a chance to do that, I feel a lack in my life, you know?"