After a rocky start to life in Nashville, Teal Bunbury scored a goal in each of his last three starts. His redemption arc has been a bright spot during a challenging Nashville SC season. Nashville’s last three matches have finished in 1-1 draws, with all three of the Boys in Gold’s goals coming from Teal Bunbury. Josh Young took a look at Bunbury’s performances in those matches in an effort to better understand the type of player NSC has in the red-hot forward.
This season has brought frustrations for fans of the ‘Yotes. Even an incomplete list would include: conceding deflating equalizers late in matches, the loss of last season’s air of invincibility at home, continued shakiness in defending set pieces, and the conspicuous absence of a particular DP striker. If you’re inclined to seek out bright spots, though, look no further than the recent form of Teal Bunbury.
It was difficult to know what to expect when Nashville SC brought in New England’s former number 10 before the season. He’s somewhat of a known quantity in Major League Soccer, and I’d seen him coming off the bench for the Revs in recent seasons, but I was never too sure what type of player he was. He didn’t seem to play in the central, creative role that his kit number would suggest. He would nominally play as a winger, despite not seeming to be a speed merchant or a particularly tricky dribbler. And really, to the eye, he more-so cuts the figure of a traditional center forward, with his physicality and 6’2” frame. Despite that, it never seemed that he was fielded as an out-and-out 9 to lead New England’s front line.
The optimistic view was that General Manager Mike Jacobs & co. may have unearthed another veteran gem, similar to CJ Sapong: an experienced forward who could fit into Nashville’s plans and contribute beyond what fans across the league might have expected after moving to one of the league’s newest clubs.
Bunbury had a rocky start to life in Nashville, though, and was criticized for failing to defend the near post on a Real Salt Lake corner kick in his first start for the club on March 19th, resulting in a goal in the game’s second minute.
NSC would go on to lose the match 1-2. For fans clinging to a potential lack of defensive awareness as an explanation for Aké Loba not getting more minutes, the moment was honed in on. Perhaps it was unfair to project frustrations around one player’s situation onto another one, but Bunbury’s start at the expense of Loba was still difficult to accept.
Injury was soon added to insult, and Bunbury was sidelined for months with a knee issue before returning to action in July. He was a halftime substitute in the 4-1 drubbing at Charlotte FC on July 9th – once again, he became associated with a source of frustration for NSC fans; though again, this was probably harsh, as the overall team performance in Charlotte was perhaps Nashville’s worst in three MLS seasons.
A home win and loss against Seattle Sounders and LAFC, respectively, preceded the 1-1 draw at Cincinnati where Bunbury began his recent run of goalscoring form. With Hany Mukhtar unavailable for the match, Bunbury was selected to start up top alongside CJ Sapong.
Fans yearning for a reason for Gary Smith to start Aké Loba were once again exasperated. Bunbury had previously been featuring as a substitute for Sapong in the more physical, target-man center forward role in Nashville’s front two. Fans had accepted that Loba was considered by manager Gary Smith to be more in the mold of Hany Mukhtar, a second-striker type who plays off of Sapong and sometimes drops underneath into midfield. They assumed that the need to play Mukhtar in this role was a key reason for Loba’s lack of minutes – so seeing Bunbury selected over the Ivorian DP was yet another blow.
Bunbury’s selection was justified early on, though. He scored Nashville’s goal in the sixth minute with a kind of sideways bicycle kick at the end of a passage where the ball bounced around in the box after a corner kick.
It wasn’t exactly a Wayne Rooney bicycle kick screamer from the edge of the box, but it did require apparent athleticism from Bunbury to be able to contort his body into the right position for the finish. And more importantly, he was in the right place at the right time to slot home, displaying the knowledge of where the ball may fall that distinguishes consistent goal scoring forwards.
Bunbury’s performance aside from the goal was unremarkable, but if he still had detractors, they were forced into retreat for the time being.
The Boys in Gold returned home to Nashville seven days later to take on the Vancouver Whitecaps, and Bunbury was once again selected to start. Only this time, it wasn’t in place of Hany Mukhtar; it was alongside him. Sapong retained his starting role as well. The three forwards playing together caused the side to have the appearance, in moments, of a 4-3-3, with Bunbury in a wide forward role. He had responsibilities in wide right areas, but as ever, wanted to be in the box at the end of plays.
This striker instinct served him well in once again being in the right place at the right time to finish; only this time, it was a much more aesthetically pleasing goal than the one in Cincy. In the 17th minute, Vancouver gave the ball away to Hany Mukhtar in a wide right position. Nashville’s 10 put a cross into the area of Bunbury, who leapt highest in the box and connected with an exquisitely aimed header into the side netting of the far post. It was the type of headed finish you expect from the game’s premier center forwards, and if you viewed Bunbury as more of a wide midfielder, it might have caught you by surprise.
With two goals in his previous two starts, it was no surprise to see Bunbury get his third start in a row for Nashville’s midweek trip to Portland on August 3rd. Once again, Nashville were only able to draw 1-1, but for the third game in a row, Nashville’s solitary goalscorer was Teal Bunbury.
It’s worth watching the replay of his goal a couple of times. His instinct for finding space in the box and understanding where the ball might fall to him is once again on display. His curled finish took skill, but it was the movement preceding it that impressed most about Bunbury’s third goal in as many matches.
To return to my initial question upon his signing: what type of player does Nashville SC have in Teal Bunbury? While I still don’t feel he can be sorted neatly into a specific positional or tactical role, I’m starting to get a more complete picture of what he offers.
He’s a unique forward that finds space intelligently – maybe someone who can truly play across the front three, a stark contrast to what was promised in Aké Loba in his now infamous introductory press conference.
Teal Bunbury is someone who you just want in and around the box in decisive moments. He’s a player with the ability and nous to contort his body and finish however the play requires, as evidenced by the close-quarters bicycle kick in Cincinnati. He has the athleticism and center forward ability to get up and put that Vancouver header away, and he can read the play a few seconds early, something necessary in order to finish in the manner he did at Portland.
I’m tempted to call him a “moments” player, though this may be unfair: his all around game against Portland was perhaps his best so far in a Nashville SC jersey. He showed some good hold up play and the desire and ability to engage in those short link-ups with Mukhtar & company deeper in midfield. It helps that he’s versatile enough to play with varying styles of other forwards as well: If CJ Sapong is the forward you want running alongside Hany during a breakaway, maybe Teal is the player you want linking up a bit deeper in midfield to create that opportunity in the first place, and then arrive in the box at the end of the move.
Aside from where he fits in the Xs and Os, he plays the game with a smile, which fans love to see. You could tell from his post-match interview in Portland that he is feeling more and more confident about his role for Nashville SC.
It’s disappointing that the club finds itself on the bubble in the Western Conference playoff conversation, but in an often frustrating season for the club and its fans, Teal Bunbury’s story is worth pausing for a moment to celebrate. If he keeps up his current form, he’ll play a crucial role in the final stretch of NSC’s regular season.