Teal Bunbury's first brush with soccer superstardom came as a young boy, and he didn't even realize it at the time.
Bunbury, the Sporting Kansas City striker poised for a bright national team future, did not exactly have the most conventional of soccer upbringings.
Bunbury's formative years were largely spent in Europe, where he was thoroughly immersed in a sports culture thanks to his father, Alex, a Canada international and a 15-year pro.
One of Alex Bunbury's pit stops in a career that included stints in Canada, West Ham of the English Premier League and Kansas City, was six years at Portuguese league side Maritimo, located on the island of Madeira in the Atlantic.
Maritimo is just below the elite clubs in Portugal's top division and competed in the UEFA Cup during Alex's time there. Even back then, however, much of the talk on the island surrounded the emergence of a prodigiously talented youngster named of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Teal Bunbury was just 7 years old but still remembers the first time he heard of Ronaldo, who was then 12 and already captivating audiences on the way to becoming one of the best players in the world and a star of Manchester United and Real Madrid.
"Everyone was talking about the kid and the things he could do with the ball," Teal Bunbury said. "Madeira is a small island, so it was a pretty big deal and everyone believed this was a player who would go on and achieve great things.
"It was like having a boy who could already play like a man, but still had the fearlessness of a young player."
Alex Bunbury was a classy and popular professional who became an integral part of the Madeira soccer community in the mid-'90s. Even though Maritimo was a rival of Nacional, one of Ronaldo's early clubs, Alex gave advice and guidance to the young phenomenon as he continued to progress at a rapid rate.
"My dad had a great knowledge of the game," said Bunbury. "I know they spoke, and he passed some advice. There was this feeling in Madeira that everyone wanted Ronaldo to go on to great things, and that it wouldn't be too long before he was a world-class player."
Bunbury is a long way removed from the heights attained by Ronaldo, but has made solid progress in the early stages of his professional career and already given U.S. team fans a glimpse of what could be a brighter future.
During an exhibition game against Chile in January, Bunbury's partnership with teenager Juan Agudelo ignited a tedious match. Playing in a two-man attacking formation, Bunbury and Agudelo linked up instantly and pulled the Americans back into the game – Agudelo winning a second-half penalty that Bunbury converted.
While the return of more experienced senior players meant that Bunbury was omitted from the squad that will face Argentina and Paraguay in exhibitions later this month, more national team appearances surely beckon for the 21-year-old.
"It was a great experience to be part of the national team, and to score was a bit of a dream come true," said Bunbury. "Being part of that just makes you hungry for more, to test yourself over and over at that kind of level."
For now it is the start of the MLS season that Bunbury is focused on, with Sporting Kansas City visiting Chivas USA in its first game this weekend. You get the sense, though, that it won't be long before Bunbury gets the chance to rub shoulders with stardom once again.
- Alex Bunbury
- Teal Bunbury
- Cristiano Ronaldo