Not blue, not green, he’s somewhere in between!

Teal Bunbury probably isn’t a starting quality striker in Major League Soccer anymore. Right off the bat, let’s clear that up. However, despite his obvious shortcomings, Bunbury is an extremely important player for Nashville SC’s success, thanks to his ability to perform a specific task exceptionally well. Therefore, he continues to receive playing time in Gary Smith’s team.

Chicks dig the long ball, and so does Nashville SC

During the 2023 season, only Real Salt Lake attempted more long balls than Nashville. This was a crucial tactic for NSC, as their success rate in completing these passes directly affected their performance.

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When Nashville completed over 60% of their long balls, their record was 4-6-2. Jack Maher and Dan Lovitz were key players in executing this strategy, as they both finished in the top 11 defenders for accurate long balls in 2023.

These long passes helped Nashville beat the opposing team’s press and bypass a subpar midfield. Goalkeeper Joe Willis also played an important role, as he had the fourth-highest rate of passes that traveled over 40 yards amongst goalkeepers. This allowed Nashville to win possession at midfield instead of playing out from the back or spring a quick counterattack. Bunbury was often the target for these passes.

In 2023, when Bunbury won multiple aerial duels, Nashville SC had a record of 9-6-4. When Bunbury played and won one or fewer aerial duels, NSC’s record was 3-4-7.

It is crucial to the Nashville SC game plan to have a forward up top who can win the ball. Currently, no one else on the roster can provide that, as Hany, Leal, Shaffelburg, and Surridge won less than 38% of their aerial duels in 2023, making them some of the worst performers on the team in that regard.

Many fans are calling for a Huntsville player to get a shot. Unfortunately, they are either not ready or take up an international spot that Nashville doesn’t have. As things stand, Teal is the guy.

Life without Teal

Bunbury has only scored 10+ goals in a season once, but coaches continue to play him due to the work he puts in outside of scoring goals. Just look at the results last year with and without Bunbury.

In 2023, Nashville was 10-6-3 when Bunbury started, and when Bunbury played fewer than 45 minutes, Nashville went 3-3-10, scored only 10 goals, and were shut out nine times! He quietly opens things up for the offense with a lot of unheralded dirty work. 

The Ugly

The downside is obvious. Bunbury gives the ball away, and he struggles to finish. Compared to other NSC players with at least 500 minutes last year, Bunbury had the worst rate of miscontrols per carry and dispossessed per carry.

Not only does he lose the ball, but his finishing has taken a dip. Bunbury underperformed his expected goals by 3.3 last year. This is the fourth-highest difference in goals scored-xG in the league last year. It simply isn’t good enough for a starting striker.

Stats got boring, time to wrap up

I think it’s fair to compare him to the quiet fullback in football. They don’t score touchdowns or rip off 20-yard runs, but they are essential players who open things up for the players around them by banging bodies, fighting in the trenches, and doing the work that no one notices.

Bunbury should wear the old-fashioned linebacker neck roll. He is a good match next to a player like Mukhtar, who prefers running in space instead of battling with center backs all game. I’m not arguing that he should start or even that he’s a high-level player at this stage in his career. I’m merely pointing out his value to the team and why he continues to get minutes for Gary Smith.

So, if you’ve made it this far and still want to yell at me, fine. I can take it. I think public opinion on Bunbury will improve once he returns to his role as backup. But for now, I’ll keep banging the drum that there are several things he does well that are essential for Nashville SC.

Author: Jeff RemlingerJeff Remlinger, a data nerd from Chicago, IL, fell in love with MLS by watching the Chicago Fire. Some would say he threw his Fire jersey in the trash a little too quickly when Nashville joined MLS. Jeff has a passion for the statistical side of sports, and when he’s not writing about soccer, he can be found watching his beloved Arsenal or Iowa State Cyclones. Jeff can be found @MusicCitySCStat on X, where he shares his statistical analysis of Nashville SC.

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