By Ridge Mahoney
Let others cite his opening-day performance as evidence that Will Bruin has cast off the demons that haunted him last year.
Bruin didn’t need a spectacular game against the Revs to restore his goal mojo. Said mindset never evaporated even if the goals dried up for a while. During the tough times, head coach Dominic Kinnear preached the same message he’d been doing since drafting Bruin with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2011 SuperDraft.
“Like Dom always tells me, like he tells everybody, I’m getting the chances,” Bruin had said a day before Houston trampled the Revs, 4-0, as Bruin scored the first two goals and set up the third. “The life of a forward has its up and down, up and down. When it’s good, everything’s going in. When it’s bad, it feels like you’re doing everything right, but you’re just missing.”
Whatever the perceptions might be of his play in 2013, said perceptions didn’t affect his approach then or now. As a fourth-year pro tasked with creating and scoring goals for a team in transition, he needs to focus on his game and ignore what outsiders say.
“This year we’ve kind of had a turnaround with some of our older guys and leaders who have moved on and/or retired, so I’ve got to step up more,” said Bruin of an offseason during which club icon Brian Ching retired and defensive leader Bobby Boswell was traded. “But it doesn’t really change my personality too much, it’s just something I’ll let my play do the talking.”
Two goals and an assist in the first 23 minutes of play against the Revs say a lot about the 24-year-old Bruin, a St. Louis native who scored 33 goals in three collegiate seasons at Indiana. He signed a Generation Adidas contract and as a rookie he played 25 games and scored five goals, three of which were a hat trick against D.C. United.
The following season generated greater attention and some of the problems that often accompany such developments. By scoring 12 goals during the 2012 regular season and a club-record four in the playoffs, he earned an invitation to the U.S. training camp in January 2013 and made his U.S. debut. He played again against Guatemala in early July and a few days later was named to the Gold Cup roster, but never got off the bench.
His inability to nail down a regular place with the USA and a slow start to his MLS season -- quite normal occurrences for a young player -- sparked talk of despair, lost confidence, extreme ennui.
For the Dynamo, he scored two goals in his first nine games, hit two more -- along with a pair of assists -- against D.C. United, then started seven straight games without scoring. After three more games as an unused sub, he ended his goal drought in a 3-1 loss to the Crew. He labored through another drought, this one of five games, and ended the regular season blanked in four straight games. Yet even with those bleak periods, he still played a role in 15 goals.
“That’s something you’ve got to stay level-headed with,” says Bruin. “You’ve just got to keep working on reps and reps and reps at training, and don’t let it get to your head when it’s going bad. All it takes is a deflection or something to go in and it turns around just like that.”
At the end of the regular season, Bruin’s goal total had dipped from 12 to eight, yet he’d surpassed his career assist output to date, five, by registering seven. Critics ignored that stat; he points to it with some measure of pride. It indicates, he believes, a measure of growth in his play.
“I didn’t score as many goals as I would have liked to last year, but looking back on it, I had seven assists,” he says. “I’ve never been much of an assist guy [nine in college], so that’s something that if I’m not scoring as much as I want to, but I’m contributing and getting other guys goals. It’s not about the individual, it’s about the team scoring and getting three points every Saturday. Any way I can help with that is a positive.”
Led by Bruin, Houston bolted to a positive start against the Revs. He lashed home a half-volley after Jose Goncalves had scuffed a clearance, slid at the back post to first-time a left-wing cross from Corey Ashe, then dribbled through the middle before centering a ball that Oscar Boniek Garcia slammed high into the net. Halfway through the first half of its opener, the Dynamo already had three points. Ricardo Clark scored via a deflection in stoppage time to round off the rout.
Seizing control earlier of its season as well as the games themselves was a theme of Houston’s preseason preparation. “I think a lot of us are kind of tired of being on the fence about whether we’re going to get in at the end of the year or not,” says Bruin of the team’s penchant to finish in the lower playoff slots and climb its way up through the playoffs. “I think we’re going to have more emphasis on getting three points every week this year and putting ourselves in a good position to have home-field advantage.”
Bruin was in good position to put away crosses from Kofi Sarkodie and Ashe to bag his goals Saturday, yet doesn’t want to be overly dependent on service. He anticipates being more involved in buildup play this season. Setups for teammates mean problems for the defense, and by extension, possibly more chances for him.
At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds he’s well-suited to the role of target man, yet he also runs the channels shrewdly and has vastly sharpened his touch and sense of space since leaving Indiana. He knifed through two challenges to tap the ball that Boniek polished off.
“If teams know that I can be a playmaker and create chances for other guys, then maybe they’ll be a little hesitant to block off an angle or try to block my shot,” he says. “If they know I can lay guys off or get other guys involved, maybe they don’t slide and block [my shot] and it goes in. You never want to be too predictable.”