KANSAS CITY, Kan. — By most accounts, including his own, Teal Bunbury currently finds himself in uncharted territory.
Lost in the positive vibes currently emanating out of Kansas City's nine-game unbeaten streak is the funk that Bunbury—the player many figured would lead Sporting’s forward line this season—has been in over the past three months.
Hi third-minute goal against the Chicago Fire Premier in US Open Cup action on Tuesday, a blistering free kick into the bottom corner, was his first since he dropped a classy brace April 2 at Vancouver. If anyone was counting, that would make 87 days between goals, a stretch that has seen rookie C.J. Sapong move into Bunbury’s spot in manager Peter Vermes’ starting 11.
Kansas City have won three out of four of their league matches during that period, leaving Bunbury with an uphill battle to get back in the lineup and putting his mental—and emotional—resolve to the test.
“I haven’t really experienced this, per se,” Bunbury said. “I have so much support with my family, my friends and people around me that are saying, ‘You are a talented player, and you have to get over it.’ It happens in every player’s career. They have ups and they have downs. But if I sat here and dwelled on it and got sad or depressed, it wouldn’t help my game.”
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Bunbury’s rough stretch is the juxtaposition of where he found himself in early April and the situation that faces him as the calendar turns to July. Following his two goals against the Whitecaps at Empire Field, he looked to be in pole position to not only have a career year but also be one of the strikers called up by Bob Bradley for the recently wrapped Gold Cup.
But Bunbury’s form slowly tailed off through the remainder of April and May, and Bradley ended up selecting San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski instead. It was a disappointing omission for a player whom some had labeled as the future of the position alongside Juan Agudelo.
And even if that snub didn’t affect Bunbury’s play, which is unlikely, there is no doubt the young striker hasn’t been himself recently, mustering just two assists over Kansas City’s past 12 matches and appearing disconnected from the game at times until Wednesday night’s goal and positive 90-minute performance against the Fire’s PDL side.
So while this is certainly a low point, Vermes said it’s important to remember that Bunbury is still just 21 years old and in the formative stages of his professional career.
“I told him, ‘I haven’t lost confidence in you. I still believe in you,’” Vermes said. “But this is what happens sometimes with players. It’s the hard work and the commitment that’s going to get you back to where you need to be, and you have to be sure you are bringing that every day.”
Fortunately for Bunbury and Sporting Kansas City, he has more than half a season to find himself again, something everyone involved agreed will only manifest with more opportunities.
Wednesday’s Open Cup match was the first time he had played a full 90 minutes since May 14 against the LA Galaxy. All in all, Bunbury has played just 315 of 720 possible league minutes since that game with Sapong preferred in the center forward role in Kansas City’s 4-3-3 formation.
Bunbury says he hasn’t felt entirely comfortable on the field recently and has been trying to refocus and regroup over the past few weeks. He seemed to have found some of his old Mojo on Wednesday though, albeit against inferior completion, and Vermes said he thought the past few months had caused Bunbury to think too much on the field instead of simply relying on his instincts.
“A lot of forwards, when they get into situations like this and they are out of form a little bit, start to step away from the opportunities, the chances,” Vermes said. “So maybe they don’t finish that run off because they don’t want to miss, whereas you have to be just the opposite. You’ve got to keep going for those because the one that you hit, the one you put in, could be the one that takes you on a string of 10 or 15 in.”
Back in March before the season began, Bunbury pointed to the latter as his goal for this season. He only has three strikes through Kansas City’s first 15 games but plenty of time to make up that should he find a groove—and break into the starting 11.
But before he can do that, he’ll have to move past the mental roadblocks that have sprouted up since April and find the mentality and swagger that made him such a promising prospect in the first place.
“I think at times I was just afraid to make mistakes,” Bunbury said. “Once one would happen, I would think about it too much. I realized that, now I’m over it and I feel like I’m back. I’m just excited to play whenever I can get out there and win my starting spot back.”