Quite possibly one of my favorite plays from Sporting Kansas City's 2011 season happened in the 85th minute of a late-season fixture against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Trailing 1-0 to San Jose after a Chris Wondolowski strike less than a minute earlier, Sporting KC rookie CJ Sapong worked his way past a plethora of Earthquake defenders and eventually fed the ball to forward Teal Bunbury, who fired a shot past San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch.
Just like that, Sporting Kansas City had tied the score, and were able to take a point on the road with a 1-1 draw.
It was a great play from Kansas City's two young and talented forwards that perfectly illustrates what each provides going forward for the club in 2012. Sapong was able to provide the gritty, hard-nosed work, willing his way through San Jose's defense, and Bunbury, who had nearly scored earlier in the match, came through with a clutch goal when his team needed it the most.
Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes has a gluttony of options at the center forward position. The trio of Bunbury, Sapong, and Soony Saad gives Vermes quite possibly the most striker depth of any team in Major League Soccer. And while we may not see Saad feature in the near-future (unless he can play a different position), Vermes will still have a potential problem, albeit a great one to have, that he will need to manage come next season.
Just who will start at the top of Sporting's attack?
At the moment, the smart money would seem to be on Bunbury. Vermes favored starting Bunbury during Sporting's playoff run, and Teal rewarded his head coach's faith in him by scoring two goals in Kansas City's 2-0 first leg win against Colorado in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
However, Vermes decision might have been predicated on a number of factors going into the playoffs. These same factors could very well play a part in Vermes' thinking going into next season.
In regards to Bunbury starting at the CF position during Sporting's playoff run: left winger Omar Bravo was unable to play due to a quad strain, and thus, Vermes was forced to start Sapong out wide, as the team was lacking quality depth at that position.
For as good as Bunbury can be, versatility is not exactly a big part of his skill-set at the moment. Bunbury can really only play one position, which is center forward. By contrast, Vermes deployed Sapong out wide on a few occasions over the course of the season. Although Sapong is obviously most comfortable playing the center forward position, he is still capable of holding his own on the wings. At different times during the 2011 season Sapong played both winger positions in Vermes' 4-3-3 formation.
Physical attributes/ Style of play: You can easily see why USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's continues to call Bunbury up for national team friendlies and training camps. Bunbury has the rare speed that can get behind some of the best opposing squads' back lines. When he's on his game, Bunbury is one of the most dangerous strikers in Major League Soccer.
If you want evidence of this, look no further than the first leg match against Colorado in the playoffs, or the September 10th 3-0 win over the Houston Dynamo, where Bunbury was able to score two goals in a little under 75 minutes of game action.
By contrast, while Sapong doesn't offer the same straight line speed as Bunbury, he does offer Kansas City a bruising center forward that can beat a defense with his size and physicality. Sapong prefers to keep his back to the opposition's goal, and look for attacking options to pass out wide to, while Bunbury is more of a straight line goal scorer who looks to beat the opposition with his blazing speed at every opportunity.
Sapong appears to be more of set-up man while Bunbury more often than not, needs service provided to him to score goals.
Over the course of his rookie campaign Sapong also became a force on set pieces for Sporting- a legitimate threat to score inside the oppositions box off of corners and free kicks. Up to this point, Bunbury hasn't offered much in the way of becoming a set piece scorer.
Consistency: For as dangerous as Bunbury can be when he's on his game, there are just as many times that he seems to disappear throughout the course of matches. However, Bunbury is still only 21 years old, so I would imagine that he will improve in this area as he matures over the next few years. If he does find a way to improve his consistency, Bunbury will be a force to be reckoned with, as he has all of the physical attributes of a player that any manager would love to have on their squad.
With Sapong, although he probably doesn't have as a high of a ceiling potential wise as Bunbury, you more or less know what you are going to get on a game-to-game basis. Sapong's effort is 110 percent, at all times. It seems that Bunbury struggles in that area from time to time.
Big play ability/ Upside: Ultimately, Bunbury's upside is so great that despite his inconsistencies, he continues to get looks for the USMNT. As mentioned earlier in this post, if Bunbury is on form, he's a dangerous goal-scoring threat. Sapong, just 22 years old himself, has very good upside as well. Both players proved in 2011 that they both have big-play ability (See Sapong scoring the first ever goal at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, see Teal's timely goal against the New York Red Bulls that helped secure Sporting's playoff spot). However, in Bunbury, we are talking about a player that could eventually be the starting striker for the U.S. National Team. Yes, I believe his potential is that great.
Final Verdict: It's somewhat of an odd scenario. Despite the fact that I believe Sapong is the more well-rounded player at this point in time, his versatility (or Teal's lack of) somewhat dictates Bunbury starting at center forward.
I say Vermes will choose more often than not to insert Teal into the Starting XI. Bunbury's big-play potential is too great to not have him out there as much as possible. After all, Bunbury did score nine goals in 2011, despite his inconsistent play at times. Imagine what the kid will do if he can stay on form for a whole season.
I see Sapong playing more of the utility role for Sporting, filling in where ever Vermes needs him from game to game, and occasionally starting at center forward depending on the opposition.
Now, about the Soony Saad dilemma......