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RSL trades top scorer

Cunningham goes to Toronto for '08 draft pick, Eskandarian

Published: Wednesday, May 23 2007 12:46 a.m. MDT

Real Salt Lake's top scorer, Jeff Cunningham, left, is headed to Toronto as the team decides to head in another direction. (Edward Linsmier, Deseret Morning News) Real Salt Lake's top scorer, Jeff Cunningham, left, is headed to Toronto as the team decides to head in another direction. (Edward Linsmier, Deseret Morning News)
Rookie coach Jason Kreis took a second major step Tuesday at remedying Real Salt Lake's obvious struggles.
In a not-so-surprising move for a team winless after seven games, the club sent leading scorer Jeff Cunningham to Toronto FC in exchange for fellow striker Alecko Eskandarian and a 2008 first-round draft pick.
"For me, it's about combinations, it's about chemistry, it's about a team atmosphere," said Kreis, whose team is 0-3-4 thus far. "It's about building a team mentality, about building a competitive mentality, and it's about guys who all want to pull for each other for the right reasons, to win games and championships."
Equally important, the trade frees up even more salary cap space as Kreis and RSL technical director John Ellinger search for more players to fill the team's three vacant roster spots.
Cunningham was making $220,000, whereas Eskandarian, who was traded to Toronto from D.C. United in the offseason, makes only $155,000. That extra $65,000, combined with the nearly $300,000 that was freed up when Kreis retired and Luis Tejada was released, gives Real Salt Lake a lot of leverage in the global free-agent market.
Eskandarian won't be available for tonight's U.S. Open Cup qualifying match at the Colorado Rapids but will be available for Sunday's league match at Chicago. Depending on how quickly Kreis and Ellinger work, more transactions are likely to follow in the coming weeks.
Cunningham was acquired by Salt Lake in December 2005 as the club successfully rid itself of the Clint Mathis baggage. Even though the team still had to pay a portion of Mathis' salary, Cunningham made it a worthwhile investment by finishing as the league's leading scorer with 16 goals, while adding 10 assists.
Through it all, and despite the objection of both players, Cunningham and Kreis didn't always see eye-to-eye on the pitch. When Kreis replaced Ellinger as head coach after the fourth game this year, many wondered what that meant to the long-term future of Cunningham in an RSL uniform.
Kreis said RSL wasn't actively shopping Cunningham, rather it was Toronto that initiated trade talks for one of the league's all-time leading scorers.
"I'm trading away a guy who statistically has been very good the last year, and I have a lot of respect for him as a player and a goal scorer," said Kreis. "He just doesn't fit into our plans."
Kreis enjoyed success as a player for 12 years, thanks to an outstanding work rate. As a coach, he's trying to surround himself with similar personalities, and Eskandarian fits that mold perfectly.
Though sometimes injury prone, Eskandarian is one of the peskiest players in MLS, a player who isn't afraid of mixing it up with defenders, no matter how big they are.
"I think he can be huge," said Kreis. "He's a fiery competitor, and he's a little fierce, spunky guy who works his tail off in a game."
Eskandarian was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 SuperDraft, and he spent four years with D.C., playing in 81 games and scoring 20 goals. He was traded to expansion Toronto this past offseason, and he scored his first goal of 2007 just three days ago.
Eskandarian said he's happy to be playing for Kreis, a player he's often been compared to, and that he's also happy to be reunited with former D.C. teammates Freddy Adu and Nick Rimando.
That doesn't mean he isn't disappointed about being traded. Assurances were made to him by Toronto coach Mo Johnston that he wasn't going anywhere, and as a result he'd just signed a lease on an apartment and his possessions are sitting in a truck in Canadian customs.
He said it was "kind of like a bomb dropped on me this morning."
Eskandarian should be an instant starter for RSL up top with Atiba Harris, and he believes RSL is a better fit for him than Toronto. Even though RSL is still winless, from what he sees the team is trying to play soccer the right way, whereas Toronto is "playing kick ball and hoping a miracle happens."

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