Photo by Bill Barrett/ISIphotos.com
By AVI CREDITOR
Teal Bunbury doesn't accept success as a given, even if things are set up quite nicely for him on a couple of levels.
Bunbury, who scored both goals in Sporting Kansas City's 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals, has the scales tilted heavily in his favor heading into Wednesday night's second leg match at Livestrong Sporting Park (Wed., 8 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel).
The defending-champion Rapids are completely depleted in the back. With Drew Moor and Kosuke Kimura out injured and Tyrone Marshall suspended, Colorado is left with few options in defense. Rookie fullback Eddie Ababio and seldomly used Scott Palguta and Danny Earls join Marvell Wynne and Miguel Comminges as selection options for coach Gary Smith and give Sporting KC's attacking corps a decisive advantage. Bunbury's having none of that, though.
"I try to prepare myself the same way no matter who I'm going up against," Bunbury said. "Colorado has a good squad. The guys they bring in, they're going to perform and they know that it's a big game. Regardless of who's really playing, I do the things that I try and control, and that's working hard and playing for my teammates."
Bunbury is looking to cap his 2011 in the same manner which it began. A call-up to Bob Bradley's January camp culminated with his first international goal in a friendly against Chile.
He rode that momentum to a fast start in MLS play, which included a three-goal outburst in his first three games that was punctuated by a two-goal outing against the Vancouver Whitecaps in his native Canada.
An extended dry spell followed, though, coupled with the emergence of Sporting Kansas City rookie forward C.J. Sapong that created a traffic jam atop the formation with Kei Kamara and Omar Bravo performing as well. Bunbury found himself deprived of the lion's share of minutes and went 15 games without scoring before tallying six times over the final 12 games of the season to get his mojo back.
"There was a time I wasn't getting playing time, I wasn't scoring goals and things weren't going my way," Bunbury said. "I stayed true to to it. … I've been able to just progress. Now that I feel like we're playing well as a team, it showcases that we have talented guys and it all works out.
"Confidence is a huge thing in this sport and in any sport. Once I got that confidence back it was just easier for me to believe in myself no matter what happens."
His confidence showed against Colorado, first on his classy, bending finish around Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens, and then again from the penalty spot, where he doubled Sporting KC's advantage on the road with a crucial conversion.
Denying Bunbury and the rest of SKC's forward stable is crucial for Colorado, whose title defense rests in the balance.
"We need to get that one goal before they get their third," Pickens said. "My main thing is just getting that first goal, and once we do, it's game on. We don't have anything to lose right now. We're going to go out there with no pressure on us."
Perhaps that's why Bunbury is preaching that the hosts maintain their attacking style instead of opting for a defense-first mentality while nursing the aggregate lead.
"We have all the respect in the world for Colorado because they're the defending champs," Bunbury said. "We can't be complacent. We have to be ready to play.
"We're definitely going to stay with the same mindset. That's the biggest thing that some teams might do that's not the smartest decision. You can't change the way you play. We might be a little more patient and safe, but we're going to go at Colorado."
With a growing level of confidence, killer instinct and a recent run of good form, the prospects for the 21-year-old Bunbury are bright in both MLS and on the international level. A recent call-up by Jurgen Klinsmann for the U.S. national team's last set of friendlies reaffirmed his place on the radar for the present and future.
In addition to that, the recent hire of Bunbury's college coach, Akron's Caleb Porter, as the U.S. Under-23 coach bodes well for his chances of making the Olympic team. Although it's not as if his prospective presence on the team will come down to his connection to the coaching staff, it certainly can't hurt.
"I felt like (Porter) deserved it. It's a great opportunity for him," Bunbury said. "It's not that I have a cemented spot. I have to go out there and prove my worth that I want to be on that team and play for my country in the Olympics. I have to keep playing well and getting opportunities."