Work ethic pays off as Bunbury gets his groove back

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Teal Bunbury has a mantra that comes up interview after interview.

“I’m a striker. It’s my job to score goals,” Bunbury said.

Bunbury has been living up to that job description in recent weeks for Sporting Kansas City, with three goals over four matches in MLS and US Open Cup play. But that’s not the only thing that has the young center forward feeling good about his game of late — and motivated to keep working hard to further improve his all-around play.

“I’m in that groove,” Bunbury said last week after scoring the game-clinching goal in Sporting’s 2-0 Cup win over Colorado. “Sometimes strikers get in that groove, but the ultimate goal for me is to try to work hard on the field. The goals are things off the ball as well, working defensively and getting in good positions, things to help out the rest of the team.”

Bunbury did his part against the Rapids, working just as hard to win and retain the ball as he did to put it in the net. In the process, he showed off a newfound edge to his natural elegance — not only taking hits from defenders, but also showing a willingness to use his 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame to muscle opponents off the ball in all parts of the pitch.

In the second half, for example, he battled Rapids midfielder Jeff Larentowicz for 40 yards down the left sideline, ultimately winning the ball in the corner. The play didn’t lead to a goal, but it showed Bunbury’s toughness as well as his touch.

Manager Peter Vermes, a forward-turned-defender during his playing days, praised Bunbury’s development after the match.

“Having played that position that Teal is playing up there, sometimes you’re the lone ranger,” Vermes said. “It’s a difficult position, it’s not easy to play. First of all you have to be able to shape the game one-way defensively and you’re working hard. And when we win the ball, then you’re expected to have the energy to go to goal, cover distance, fight a man off — maybe two men. So we demand a lot from him and the other guys in that position up there."

Sounds like Bunbury’s mantra only covers part of the job description, then. But in the end, he has produced in the scoring column — and the way he has heated up lately, Bunbury appears likely to get plenty of chances to show off the other aspects of his game.

“He’s a goalscorer, but the work that he puts in at the end to help us get the opportunities that we get up the field is invaluable,” Vermes said. “I feel that is one of the many things that he brings to this team outside of scoring goals. The work ethic is tremendous.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.