By TRAVIS CLARK
Preseason can be a difficult time for MLS rookies. They have to get acclimated quickly to new surroundings, new teammates, and impress their new coach in hopes of earning precious playing time. For Teal Bunbury, his first few weeks with his Kansas City teammates have been a fun and exhilarating experience.
“It’s been exciting," Bunbury said in a recent phone interview. "You’re a rookie so you have different jobs to do and you have to stay focused and pay attention to little details and take things in. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from just the first month.”
While the preseason is still young — Wizards players reported on January 26 — Bunbury has kept his head down, worked hard, and his eyes open, hoping to glean things from the Wizards' established core of veterans.
"I’ve really liked watching Jimmy Conrad," Bunbury said. "He’s so professional when it comes to training so I take a lot of pride in seeing how he does things."
While it's no surprise to see Bunbury studying Conrad, the team's captain and a hardened MLS veteran, he's looking to soak in everything he can from his first professional season.
"I’m excited to learn as much as possible," Bunbury said. "I’m just trying to get to know people because it builds chemistry off the field and make it easier to play with each other on the field."
Catching up on the pace of the game can be one of the bigger challenges, especially for someone who relies on speed for his success. Last season in Akron, Bunbury could use that pace to easily get behind defenders to score. He'll quickly have to learn the difference between MAC and MLS defenders.
The Wizards struggled in the scoring department last season, making Bunbury's ability a much needed commodity. In 2009, he scored 17 goals for Akron, making him the nation's leading scorer. Veteran striker Josh Wolff thinks that his new teammate has the right tools to succeed on the higher level.
"He has some extremely good qualities – he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s got a real good ability in front of goal," Wolff said in a phone interview. "You don’t always get that combination of a soccer player and athlete, but he certainly catches your eye on both those fronts right away."
The 2009 Hermann Trophy award winner will have his work cut out for him. While possessing tremendous pace, he'll have to learn to deal with the much more physical and faster defenders of MLS. In the past, rookie strikers tend to struggle in their first season, and Bunbury will have to buck that trend.
"It is a difficult transition but I think he’s got a lot going for him," Wolff said. "He’s got a good head for the game, he’s very hungry and very humble. Going along with the other qualities he has, for me, is most telling."
Wolff's background is similar to that of Bunbury's: the 32-year-old left school back in 1999 a year early to join MLS, ending up with the Chicago Fire. There, he was able to learn from established veterans like Peter Nowak, Ante Razov and Frank Klopas. Wolff hopes he can have a similar impact with Bunbury, and will not hold back on tips for the 19-year-old.
"I will absolutely put some things in his head," Wolff said. "It’s up to him if he wants to utilize some of them or just take it in and let it be that."
Along with his rookie education, Bunbury has his sights set on starting, scoring and most importantly winning this season. His preparation, both on and off the field, centers around that. With Wolff and Kei Kamara already ahead of him in the pecking order, a starting spot might be hard to come by — but that won't deter the youngster.
"I go into practice thinking ‘hey I’m here to get a starting spot, I don’t care what anybody says.’ That’s just my mentality," Bunbury added. "If I do start that’s great, if not, I’ll come off the bench, lift the [team's] spirits and contribute an impact."
Starting or not, if Bunbury gets off to a fast start and can help boost the 2009 goal total, Peter Vermes and the Wizards will surely be pleased.