Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By AVI CREDITOR
With World Cup roster selections just days away, it would only seem natural for players on the bubble of Bob Bradley's pending roster to press a bit and play with individual needs in mind.
But for FC Dallas' two World Cup hopefuls, they're content to let things play out while maintaining focus on fixing a slow start to their team's Major League Soccer campaign.
Left back Heath Pearce and forward Jeff Cunningham have been in and out of the national team picture during the last calendar year, with Pearce likely having the more realistic shot at a summer trip to South Africa.
Pearce has proven to be a versatile piece for FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman, playing both outside back positions and also spending time in the midfield.
Cunningham, meanwhile, has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle of fringe national team strikers after his stellar finish to last year's MLS season in which he won the league's Golden Boot. He's struggled to find his form through Dallas' first four games, with his three goals all coming on penalty kicks.
"The thing that's difficult is having them focus their No. 1 priority to the team," Hyndman said. "They have dreams, they hope to be in South Africa, and they hope that an opportunity will come for them to play in the one event that they probably get to play in once in their life. Sometimes it's hard to balance that.
"They want to perform well, they want Coach Bradley to see that, 'I'm doing this,' but at the same time, my message to them is that if your team doesn't do well, and you don't do well with your team, then you're basically going to be out of the picture. The better we do, the better chance you have."
Therein lies a bit of the problem.
Dallas is off to an 0-1-3 start, though the team put forth a decent effort in its recent draw with Seattle.
Both players sound like they buy into Hyndman's club-first philosophy, but they'll need a series of strong performances over the next couple of weeks to draw positive attention their way.
"My focus is with FC Dallas right now," Pearce said following the Hoops' 4-2 U.S. Open Cup loss to D.C. United on Wednesday. "We've been playing well so far, but we haven't been getting the results we've needed. We've had more than one dominant performance and not come away with the three points. That's where my focus is right now. What happens after that, I'm not really sure about."
Added Cunningham: "For me, the focus is on my club team. My focus is to help this team be better, and that's it. I've been in the national team picture for a long time. If Coach (Bradley) decides to give me an opportunity, it'd be a dream come true, but my focus is on FC Dallas at the moment."
Pearce's ability to push forward into the attacking zone and his knack for delivering dangerous crosses into the box make him an attractive option for Bradley to provide depth at left back behind Carlos Bocanegra and Jonathan Bornstein.
The 25-year-old is experiencing his first full season in MLS after a club career that has had stops in Denmark and Germany.
"Coming off of a stint in Germany where it wasn't always going my way, it's nice to be back in the (United States) closer to my family, closer to friends and closer to more familiar territory," Pearce said. "I've enjoyed it quite a bit. We've got a good team, good guys and a good coaching staff. It's about opening up the floodgates and getting that first win of the season."
If the 33-year-old Cunningham, a notoriously streaky but potentially dynamic scorer, can find his top form, perhaps those floodgates will open.
"I accept a lot of that responsibility," Cunningham said. "The team created the opportunities, and I could've done better with them. That's why we're in the position we're in. The pressure is always there for me to perform and score goals, and the team depends on me to do my job well. I know I'll improve."
For Cunningham, who scored the only goal for the United States in a friendly against Denmark last November, improving immediately might not do much for his blade-of-grass thin World Cup hopes. He didn't make enough of his brief opportunity with the Yanks to lock down a roster spot, his slow start this MLS season hasn't helped and the on-fire likes of Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez figure to have passed him on the striker depth chart.
Combine that with the fact that Charlie Davies is still in the picture due to his incredible recovery, and that leaves Pearce as the more-likely FC Dallas representative on the national team.
Either way, as long as Peace and Cunningham keep their efforts geared toward the rigors of the MLS and not the possibility of adding a stamp to their passports, Hyndman will be behind both players' quest for international recognition.
"It'd be fantastic," Hyndman said. "They're like family, and like every parent, you want the best for your children. I'm rooting for these guys. You wish them the best and support them, because you know they'll come back as better players."