WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Jeff Cunningham said he had to do what he does best: score.
The Jamaica native had come off the bench to replace injured forward Milton Rodríguez near the end of the first half of Game 1 of FC Dallas’ two-leg playoff series against defending Major League Soccer champion Real Salt Lake.
Dallas was trailing 1-0, but not for long.
Cunningham, who had scored a team-high 11 goals during the regular season but had lost his starting spot due to a string of poor performances, showed why he has scored 28 goals in the past two seasons.
He collected a loose ball that deflected off defender Jamison Olave at the top of the penalty box and blasted a shot with his left foot that rocketed into the upper-left hand corner of the goal.
Dallas went on to win, 2-1, before tying the next match, 1-1, to advance to the Western Conference title game on aggregate, 3-2.
“The thing with Jeff is you don’t really know what you’re going to get,” Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman told reporters. “You don’t know if it’s going to be fantastic or average. If he’s on, he’s very, very good.”
Dallas and Cunningham’s reward: A date with the league’s best team and the playoffs top seed, Los Angeles (18 wins, seven losses, five ties), in the Western Conference final on Nov. 14 at 9 p.m. ET in Carson, Calif.
The Galaxy, which defeated Seattle, 3-1, on aggregate in the first round, touts stars such as former English team captain David Beckham and United States national team standouts Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan.
Buddle’s 17 goals during the regular season trailed San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski for the league lead, and Donovan led the league with 16 assists. Beckham, who missed most of the regular season sidelined with an injured Achilles tendon that caused him to miss the World Cup, recorded two assists in a 2-1 win over Seattle in Game 2.
But in the playoffs, the team’s brightest star has been goalie Donovan Ricketts. The Jamaican native has 11 saves and allowed just one goal in two games. But he’ll have to be even better to shut down Cunningham and Dallas to clinch a berth in the MLS Cup final against the Eastern Conference champion at BMO Field in Toronto, Canada on Nov. 21.
Los Angeles won league titles in 2002 and 2005 and lost last year’s final. Dallas won its lone title in 1997, and finished second in 2005 and 2007.
“We are finishing the way we started: strong defensively,” Ricketts told reporters. “If you want to win a championship, you have to be strong defensively, so that is good.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Los Angeles Galaxy
Hometown: São Pablo, Brazil
Note: The 22-year-old has logged 855 minutes and helped anchor a unit that allowed 28 goals in 30 regular-season games.
Hometown: Amélia Rodrigues, Brazil
Note: The 22-year-old gets involved in the attack, having recorded a goal and an assist during the regular season.
Hometown: São José dos Campos, Brazil
Note: Just 21, he posted two goals and two assists and was on the field for more than 2,000 minutes during the regular season.
Hometown: Diego Martin, Trinidad & Tobago
Note: He was used as a late-game replacement throughout the regular season.
Hometown: St. James, Jamaica
Note: He posted 11 shutouts and 79 saves to go with a 0.76 save percentage and a 0.9 goals-against average in 29 regular-season games.
Hometown: Jamundí, Colombia
Notes: He notched two assists in 2,424 minutes during the regular season.
Hometown: La Ceiba, Honduras
Note: The aggressive midfielder had two goals and two assits during the regular season.
Hometown: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Note: Posted a team-high 11 goals and an assist in 1,464 minutes during the regular season.
Hometown: Santa Marta, Colombia
Note: The dynamic midfielder had eight goals and a team-high 13 assists in 2,699 minutes during the regular season.
Hometown: Córdoba, Argentina
Note: Veteran goalie posted one shutout and made 34 saves in 945 minutes.
Hometown: Santíago de Calí, Colombia
Note: The 34-year-old has five goals and an assist during the regular season.
Hometown: Franca, Brazil
Note: Posted an assist in 805 minutes played during the regular season.
Hometown: Basseterre, Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis
Note: Posted four goals and two assists on 21 shots in 2,473 minutes.