FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Players such as Diego Fagundez and Cristian Penilla have garnered much of the attention during the New England Revolution’s strong open to the 2018 season, but the biggest beneficiary of coach Brad Friedel’s high-press system has been forward Teal Bunbury.
As the tireless tip of the spear of the Revs’ swarming attack, Bunbury leads the team with five goals through the first 10 games of the season and the ninth-year veteran is well on his way to his first double-digit scoring season.
“I can’t talk about Teal in the past, I can only talk about what we’ve seen from Teal from day one that we came in,” Revolution coach Brad Friedel said after Bunbury scored what would end up being the winner in a big 3-2 home victory over Toronto FC on Saturday. “We tried him as an 11, we tried him as a seven and we tried him as a nine in preseason. With his skill set that he has and in our system, he fits perfectly as a No. 9. He works really hard every single day and I don’t just mean running around hard.”
At 28 and with over 200 MLS appearances to his name, Bunbury is not a new commodity, but he has undergone a career renaissance since getting a second chance as a starting center forward during the final 16 games of 2017.
Bunbury has combined to score 12 goals over that 26-game sample size across the end of the last season and beginning of this one, indicating that he might finally be developing into the player many thought the former Hermann Trophy winner would become before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament as a 22-year-old rising star with Sporting Kansas City back in 2012.
“I feel good,” said Bunbury, who stressed that he feels he contributes more than just goal scoring to the equation. “It feels great to score goals, especially as a center forward… I don’t really sit there and think of the (goal) ratio and all that, I just think of what can I do in the next scenario to help my team? If that’s put pressure on the center back, if that’s getting an assist, if that’s tracking back, all those things are (also) part of my game.”
Bunbury ended up beating out forwards Juan Agudelo and Krisztian Nemeth as the starting striker, with the former playing mostly out on the wing and Nemeth — who the Revs’ traded $400,000 in allocation money for last summer and was recently revealed as the team’s highest-paid player — has yet to make a start in 2018, mostly coming on as a late substitute.
Although Agudelo is currently dealing with a hamstring injury, Friedel showed his high opinion of Bunbury by relying on him to start against TFC, despite Bunbury dealing with a bout of food poisoning in the prior days.
“We just like what we’ve seen since day one,” Friedel said. “Teal nearly didn’t make the game… Again you see the character that Teal has to go out and complete 80 minutes in the fashion that he did was truly outstanding.”
Bunbury rewarded his coach with a goal and an assist and was the highest rated player in the match by the MLS’ Audi Player Index ahead of Penilla, who scored a brace. Bunbury pocketed the assist on Revs’ fourth-minute opener, quickly moving the ball along to Penilla in space on a counterattack.
In the 46th minute, it was Bunbury’s time to tally, making it 3-0 at the time when right back Andrew Farrell sent quick redirect 40 yards down the right sideline to pick out Bunbury making a run into a pocket of space.
“If I see Teal open, we knew they had a slow back line tonight with their center backs out, so we knew he was going to be in a good spot,” Farrell said. “He’s been making runs all game, all year, that’s why he’s got so many goals this year. He’s working really hard, so you’ve just got to feed those guys.”
Bunbury did the rest, taking the ball another 30 yards downfield, shedding off would-be tackler Age Aketxe and then shooting it through a slight deflection by defender Jason Hernandez into the far side of the goal.
“You’ve got to give a guy like Teal, with all the energy that he puts in, you want to give him the result back,” midfielder Kelyn Rowe said. “The first games that we’ve played, he’s gotten that result because he’s put the work in, and he’s gotten the respect for us to get those balls because he’s done the work. He’s running by two or three players to get into the box, that’s how he’s scoring his goals, so he obviously makes good runs and has done very well to put them into the back of the net and we hope it continues.”
Former coach Jay Heaps deployed Bunbury predominantly out on the wing opposite Fagundez for much of Bunbury’s three seasons with the Revs, although he has previously said he views himself as a center forward at heart. Both players established themselves in the middle of the field during the Friedel era, though, and have been a handful for opposing defenses.