PORTLAND, Ore. — As if Portland Timbers defender Eric Brunner needed extra inspiration to face his old team on Saturday night, his coach John Spencer provided it via text message.
Spencer sent Brunner — who played for the Columbus Crew for two years before Portland took him in the second round of last year's Expansion Draft — a message saying someone on his old team was going to kick his … “behind.”
Spencer being Spencer, however, always one with words, didn’t exactly use the word “behind.”
“He didn’t respond though,” Spencer said after Portland's 1-0 win at JELD-WEN Field. “I don’t know what he was doing. … Maybe out having some tea.”
But Brunner most certainly received the message. The Columbus native, who played at Ohio State University, sent in the game’s only goal via a header off a set piece in the 46th minute to give Portland the victory. The goal highlighted a physical, back-and-forth match on a drizzly night in front of a raucous, sold-out Portland crowd.
“I kind of just laughed about it,” Brunner said of his coach’s prodding text. “I didn’t know how to respond. It was good, reminding me it was an important game.”
The goal came just in time, too, for Spencer. He said he admonished his players at halftime for a lackluster effort in the first half, during which the Timbers managed just three shots. They subsequently collected seven shots in the second half.
“I felt we were very, very flat starting the game,” Spencer said.
The goal was set up thanks to a foul when Timbers forward Jorge Perlaza was tackled in the right corner just beyond the box. On the free kick, captain Jack Jewsbury dropped a quick pass to midfielder Kalif Alhassan, who found Brunner on the cross for the neatly directed header by Brunner. It was the defender's first goal of the season; he had two during his time with Columbus.
“We talked about it at halftime, maybe getting a quick one to get on the board and catch them off guard,” Brunner said. “Regardless of who it is, it’s nice to get a goal.”
After the goal, Brunner sprinted to the bench where he met Spencer for a hug. They were quickly mobbed by the team.
“I think it’s special for him, going against his old club,” Spencer said. “It was good, but do you ever have that short man’s syndrome in a group of six-foot guys jumping up and down? Just to see his big, stupid face so smiley and happy made me feel good.”
Brunner was originally drafted out of Ohio State by the New York Red Bulls and spent a season with the USL’s Miami FC before heading to Columbus. He has started all nine games for Portland this season and is one of only two Timbers players to have played in every minute this season.
“They picked me up in the Expansion Draft and had faith in me,” Brunner said of Portland. “To get a goal against [my old team] is pretty special.”