[Editor’s note: This piece originally ran on March 2 and has been updated.]
It was nearing the end of the 2016 Major League Soccer regular season, and the Houston Dynamo had lost again.
Will Bruin walked into the postgame locker room angry, discouraged and out of answers. He finished the 2016 campaign with career lows in goals, minutes and starts. He wasn’t playing and he wasn’t producing, an anomaly for one of the league’s brightest forwards.
Yet despite another missed opportunity on the pitch, Bruin’s teammates didn’t mirror his feelings.
“[I’m] super competitive, and I go [into the locker room] and see guys who don’t necessarily care that you’re in dead last or that you aren’t doing [well] and are just happy to be playing, it frustrates me,” Bruin said. “That’s something that was very tough last year.”
The club won just seven out of 34 games, tied for the league low, and finished last in the Western Conference. It fired its manager midway through the season, but even that could not stanch the bleeding.
Last season was Bruin’s sixth as a professional, all in Houston, and he had been around long enough to know that losing and apathy had not been part of the club’s DNA. He helped carry the Dynamo to back-to-back MLS Cup Final appearances in his first two years in the league, including scoring a career-high 12 goals in his sophomore season with an additional four in the MLS Cup Playoffs. His successes earned him a couple international call-ups and two caps with the United States national team.
Bruin scored 46 goals in his first five seasons, the sixth-most in MLS in that span. He was a bona fide striker who could torch defenses in multiple ways: He could outmuscle center backs, sprint past fullbacks and finish in the air better than most.
So when things came to a grinding halt over the course of 2016, it was admittedly difficult for Bruin to handle. He called it the hardest year of his career.
“It sucks going in when you know things aren’t going your way,” Bruin said. “You’re not playing as much as you want to be, you’re at the bottom of the table. It’s not fun.”
Bruin’s 2016 struggles were mainly internal. He never discussed how upset he was with anyone. He wasn’t as sharp as he normally was and often checked out.
“My mentality [wasn’t right last year],” Bruin said. “If I’m unhappy, no one is going to know I’m unhappy.
“Looking back on it now, I think it makes me stronger as a person and as a player,” he continued. “I grew more as a professional off the field.”
Bruin, now 27, grew up in the small town of Creve Coeur, Mo., roughly 15 miles west of St. Louis. He was a three-sport athlete his freshman year at De Smet Jesuit playing basketball and baseball while still dominating on the soccer field and flying up recruiting rankings.
Prior to his freshman baseball season, Bruin’s club soccer coach issued an ultimatum: Either don’t play baseball and stay with the club’s first team, or play baseball and be relegated to the club’s second team. Bruin chose baseball, starting in center field and running the bases with reckless abandon. His club soccer coach followed through on his word and demoted Bruin. The club’s first and second teams coincidentally met in the state final that same year, and a Bruin-led second team won.
Bruin scored 102 goals in his high school career, a De Smet record, en route to being named a two-time NSCAA All-American and the 2007 Missouri State Soccer Player of the Year.
“Will was just a bull,” said former De Smet head soccer coach Greg Vitello, who retired in 2014 after 46 years at the helm. “If you’ve ever seen the face of a bull before it gets ready to charge and the nostrils get really big, that’s Will when he sees an opportunity. He bulls his way around the field.”
Perennial collegiate powerhouse Indiana University called. Bruin, like an impressive pedigree of De Smet alums before him, answered, keeping alive a pipeline from St. Louis to Bloomington.
Former MLS players Chris Klein and Pat Noonan each starred at De Smet and then for the Hoosiers in the 1990s. Klein played in 333 regular-season MLS games for the Kansas City Wizards, Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy, where he currently serves as president. Noonan recorded 42 goals and 33 assists during an 11-year career – he spent the 2010 and ’11 seasons with the Sounders — and is now an assistant coach on Bruce Arena’s United States men’s national team’s staff.
“Everybody watches out for everybody from St. Louis, whether you meet someone for the first time or you’ve known them for a long time,” Bruin said of Noonan, with whom he is friendly despite being nine years his junior. “You have those roots. I followed the same path as Pat did…He’s definitely somebody I looked up to, and he was a great player.”
Noonan likes what he sees of Bruin as well.
“When the ball is in wide positions, Will knows where to be to help his team and give him a chance to score goals,” said Noonan. “He’s somebody who will stretch the game with runs in behind.”
Bruin tries to model his game after prolific striker Didier Drogba, who scored 100 goals with English Premier League giants Chelsea from 2004-12. At 6-foot-2, both are rather oversized for a modern professional forward, but Bruin admired how Drogba coupled his physicality and stature with his precision and finesse.
“[Bruin is] a big, strong lad,” said former Indiana head coach Mike Freitag, who recruited Bruin and coached him for his freshman and sophomore seasons. “He’s deceptively fast. If he gets a defender on his hip, he’s by him. He can hold him off…There’s no fluff with Will. He’s a blue-collar worker.
“We always look for goalscorers, and Will is a goalscorer,” he continued. “When you find one, they’re worth their weight in gold.”
For a player of his attacking ability, Bruin is awkwardly quiet. Many in his position tend to be boisterous and self-centered, on and off the pitch. Bruin is neither.
When he walks into a room, it may take a few minutes to realize he’s there. He even has a hard time looking people in the eyes unless he’s truly comfortable with them.
“It takes me a while to warm up to people,” Bruin said, his eyes glancing wayward, “but I’m a real down-to-Earth guy.”
Bruin left Indiana after his junior season, a standout year in which he scored 18 goals and was a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy. But even after the Dynamo selected him with the No. 11 pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, he never lost his soft-spoken, selfless nature.
“[Bruin] is more worried about the guys around him than himself,” Vitello said. “Anybody who he played with, even guys who never saw the field, would all tell you the same thing: They want to be on Will’s team. He’s that kind of guy, he’s a good teammate.”
Todd Yeagley, who was an IU assistant for Bruin’s first two seasons before taking over as head coach prior to his junior year, saw much of the same.
“Will is a team guy, he enjoys the banter among the players,” said Yeagley. “He’s not the loudest, but he’ll certainly chime in if he feels he can add something…He [makes] others grow with confidence.”
Part of being a good teammate is holding your peers accountable, which made Bruin’s time in Houston last season so difficult. He felt like despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get through to them.
Bruin contacted his agent after the season ended and expressed his desire to start fresh somewhere else. He felt he had given Houston everything and was ready to get out of his comfort zone, which he thought was holding him back from performing.
The Seattle Sounders hoped to offer just that. They traded Targeted and General Allocation Money for Bruin, hoping he could fill the void of Nelson Valdez, who departed in the offseason, as well as add attacking depth behind second-year forward Jordan Morris.
“Will is a known commodity as a consistent goalscorer that we believe can immediately bolster our attack,” said Sounders General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey. “The cliché is that you pay money for goals, and Will Bruin scores goals.”
Bruin arrived in Seattle not long after the trade, and his first impression of his new hometown was a simple one: “Clean air.”
He moved with his wife, Caitlin, who was a volleyball player at Indiana. They had their one-year anniversary last December and are adjusting to life in the Pacific Northwest.
“The heat sucked, and the older I got, the worse it got,” Bruin said of Houston. “It was all I really knew. There was no real downtown to walk around. That’s something that I’ve noticed [in Seattle] that’s amazing. People are out walking everywhere.”
Bruin is happy to be out of the smog and humidity, and his move to the Sounders is like its very own breath of fresh air. He already feels at home, and he’s embracing living and playing in the country’s biggest soccer hub.
“As a player, it makes you want to give it your all and win for the team knowing how much it means to the fans,” Bruin said. “Guys have been really good with welcoming me in.”
A challenge for Bruin and Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer has been integrating Bruin into a side coming off its first MLS Cup title. Bruin began the year on the bench, coming on as a super-sub late in games. He scored twice in that role, including a last-gasp equalizer at the Montreal Impact, and has recently played his way into the starting lineup. Schmetzer has opted to move Morris from up top to the left wing, a position he played at times in 2016, to allow a true No. 9 in Bruin to stretch opposing defenses.
Bruin is talented at combining with attacking midfielders and reads their movements well. He’s an asset as a target forward as well as a distributing hold-up man in the final third. He’s eager to contribute, even if it means putting aside his withdrawn and quiet tendencies.
Preseason stats and results don’t count for much, but the experience and opportunity to forge chemistry is invaluable. Bruin returned from the Sounders’ preseason trips to Tuscon, Ariz., and Charleston, S.C., in February revitalized and as confident as he has been in recent memory. He set up rookie Henry Wingo for his first professional goal against Atlanta United at the Carolina Challenge Cup before rising for a header and getting his name on the Sounders’ scoresheet for the first time.
“It’s very nice now to mesh with the group and play in a different system,” Bruin said after the Atlanta friendly. “I’m feeling more and more comfortable each day.”
To say Bruin is excited to play in front of playmakers Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro would be an understatement. Even with all his success, Bruin has never played with the attacking prowess surrounding him as he does now with the United States’ second all-time leading goalscorer and Uruguayan magician pulling the strings beneath him.
“I’m licking my chops,” Bruin said.
The amount of attention Dempsey and Lodeiro draw and the space they open is a forward’s dream, and Bruin knows if he makes his runs, those two will find him. Lodeiro assisted Bruin’s goal in Vancouver.
“I know I can score goals in this league,” Bruin said. “I can step in and be a threat in the box and take pressure off other guys, create space for other guys. When we get in the final third, I’m always sniffing around…It’s more for defenders to have to worry about.”
Several of Bruin’s new teammates know what he brings to the table and are eager to integrate his talent. Defensive midfielder Cristian Roldan is one of them.
“He has a pretty good resume,” Roldan said. “We’re excited to have him…and for him to make an impact for us.”
The ultimate goal for Bruin in addition to a revamped 2017 MLS season is another shot at the U.S. national team. He’s not been called up in four years. Bruin said even his brief experience at the international level helped mold him into the professional he is now and knows if he takes care of business at the club level, he’d likely earn a spot on Arena’s radar.
“If you’re playing and performing, odds are your name gets brought up,” Noonan said in January from U.S. national team camp. “Whether that leads to national team call-ups or not, that’s the first priority.”
Added Bruin: “After last year and not making it into the playoffs the last few years in Houston [my chances with the national team] went stale. [Seattle] is a great market to come into. If you play well, you get more publicity than in Houston.”
Expectations for Bruin in 2017 still need to be somewhat curtailed. He will need to show he can rebound and pick himself up while trying to fit into an entirely new culture. A long-term starting spot is not guaranteed either as Schmetzer continues to figure out how Bruin and Morris will coexist.
But this season represents a new chapter in the making of Will Bruin, and he understands that fully. He’s ready to put his head down, go to work and contribute as best and as quickly as he can.
“You have to keep grinding,” Bruin said. “You might not be the most talented player in the world, not the fastest, strongest, biggest, but hard work goes a long way. That’s how I was brought up.
“I’m 27,” he continued, “but I feel like I’m young again.”