[MLS SPOTLIGHT] It's great to play in an attacking team that prefers a 4-3-3 formation designed to put opponents under pressure, as long as that system and its elements are producing.
When the goals dry up and results turn sour, the intensity and confidence of young players can wane. For a second-year pro who marked his rookie season with a U.S. national team debut, the burden can be stifling.
The sophomore season of Sporting Kansas City forward Teal Bunbury might have seemed jinxed when he labored for nearly four months without scoring. After hitting three goals in SKC’s first three games, he wandered into barren terrain.
Mitigating circumstances, he had a few. SKC opened the season with 10 road games during which it scored 12 goals yet was also blanked four times. Clearly, during this feast-or-famine period, some were destined to go hungry at times.
“In a player’s career, there’s always ups and downs,” says the 21-year-old son of former Canadian international Alex Bunbury. “It’s a matter of the environment you’re in and how you’re able to bounce back in a way. Maybe in the middle of the season there was a time I wasn’t getting playing time, I wasn’t scoring goals, and things weren’t really going my way.
“But I stayed true to it, kept working hard in training with my teammates giving me support, and my faith in Christ helped get me through that time. I’ve been able to progress, look at myself in the mirror, and pick my game up.”
After winning just one of those first 10 games, SKC rolled through the rest of the schedule with 12 wins, nine ties, and just three losses. It won three of its last four games, with Bunbury scoring twice, to capture the Eastern Conference crown.
He finished as co-team leader in goals with nine, tied with Kei Kamara and Omar Bravo. Those three often comprise the front line, with Bravo and Bunbury playing out wide and Kamara stationed in the center. Yet all three, plus rookie C.J. Sapong when he gets on the field, can stretch and pierce defenses with their mobility.
Bunbury and Sapong accounted for all of SKC’s goals in a 3-0 defeat of Houston Sept. 10 that lifted SKC into first place for the first time since the opening day of the season. He opened the scoring in the ninth minute and tallied again in the 72nd; Sapong tacked on the third seven minutes later. A 1-0 loss at Real Salt Lake in the next game dropped it back down to second, but a with a five-game unbeaten run it regained and held the top spot.
Bravo sat out the first leg of the playoff quarterfinals against Colorado with a groin strain, so Sapong joined Bunbury and Kamara in the forward troika. Bunbury glided past Tyrone Marshall to score early in the second half, and 10 minutes converted a penalty kick awarded when Marshall was judged to have fouled him in the penalty area.
The merits of the penalty decision and red card to Marshall were hotly debated, and SKC certainly took advantage of a Rapids’ team hit by injuries several times during the game. But the effectiveness of Sapong taking Bravo’s place gives the MLS Cup dreams of SKC fans further credence.
“It’s great to play with any of my teammates and he’s a very talented player and in my eyes the Rookie of the Year,” says Bunbury. “It was a good opportunity for him and myself to also play up top with Kamara. I think we all have the same kind of physical attributes -- our size, our speed – and I think we jell well together.
“Off the field we’re great friends, we hang out, and I feel like that’s helped our charisma or the way we jell together on the field as well. I try to learn things from him, he tries to learn things from me. This is my second year in the league and I guess I try to give him as much advice as I can, you know.”
Just about all the factors have lined up for Sporting Kansas City. As the Eastern Conference champion, it drew a wild-card team, and though that team turned out to be last year’s MLS Cup winner, SKC not only leads the series on total goals, 2-0, its foe has been stripped of seven starters because of injuries. If SKC gets past Colorado, it avoids the other Western teams to face either Houston or Philadelphia for a spot in MLS Cup.
“We definitely can’t get overconfident,” says Bunbury, one of many products from the University of Akron to quickly establish himself in MLS. “That’s going to be the worst thing for just, going into the game thinking that we’ve already won it. So we’re going into this game like it’s a 0-0 game, and we’ve got to take it to them. We’ve got to stay disciplined and play the same soccer we’ve played all season long.
“It’s going to be great to be at home at Livestrong Sporting Park, with our fans supporting us. It gives us an added edge, but we know Colorado’s going to be ready to take it to us as well. They know what they need to do to get back into it, so we’ve got to be ready for them.”