PORTLAND, Ore. – At Portland Timbers training on Monday, head coach John Spencer took defender Eric Brunner aside for a solo conversation that lasted well past the session’s conclusion.
And while Brunner didn’t share what they spoke about, saying it was between coach and player, he was clearly inspired coming off his benching Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It paid off on Wednesday. Brunner scored the lone goal of the game off a Mike Chabala corner kick and helped keep a clean sheet in a 1-0 victory over Chivas USA, giving Portland its second-straight victory and tying them for the final wild card playoff spot with the New York Red Bulls.
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“I wanted to come in and prove that I deserved to be in there,” Brunner said.
And it wasn’t just his third headed goal of the season that made Brunner’s play stand out. He helped knock back a furious Chivas attack in the final minutes and made a number of key tackles around the box throughout the game. Chivas’ motivation was on par with Portland’s as the Goats came into the match two points ahead of the Timbers in the standings, very much in the playoff hunt themselves.
“We work for each other,” Brunner said of his team. “We may have got lucky a couple times, but we were resilient out there.”
It was the left-footed, hooking corner kick from Chabala that led to Brunner’s heroics. He skied over Chivas defender Heath Pearce at the near side of the box and sent an unsaveable shot to goalkeeper Dan Kennedy’s far post.
Spencer said it was a “premonition” that led to his decision to go with the combination of Brunner and Chabala on the set piece. Brunner had started all but two previous games – one because of illness and the other a suspension – before coming off the bench on Saturday.
“I wish I would have played the lottery numbers,” Spencer said. “I just felt we had a slight height advantage.”
The 6-foot-4 Brunner certainly has developed a knack for scoring off headers in big games. His aerial work has earned him goals against his former team Columbus, league-leaders LA Galaxy and now in a match with serious playoff implications.
“Fortunately, I’ve been able to get my head on a few,” Brunner said. “It doesn’t happen without good service.”
And as Brunner has developed into a legitimate airborne attacker, he said his celebration has evolved as well. After scoring Wednesday, he ran over for a hug from Chabala.
“I didn’t think it went in,” Brunner said. “I did a double take, actually. But I’m learning how to celebrate. I was kind of an amateur before.”