CARSON, Calif. – In 2011, Houston Dynamo Dominic Kinnear was kicking himself for not playing Will Bruin in the team’s 1-0 MLS Cup loss to the LA Galaxy.
He won’t make that mistake this time around (Saturday, 4:30 pm ET; ESPN, TeleFutura in the US; TSN and RDS in Canada).
Bruin, who leads the team with 12 regular season goals and another four in the playoffs, has emerged as one of the focal points of a Dynamo team making its second consecutive MLS Cup appearance and a mainstay in Kinnear’s lineup, regardless of how they set up.
"If you look at all four goals in the playoffs have all been a little bit different," Kinnear enthused at a press conference previewing Saturday's MLS Cup showdown. "Makes good runs. He’s tireless. He’s just gone out there and led the line great whether it’s with a guy next to him or by himself.
"For me, there are several good young forwards in America right now and he’s definitely at the top of that list."
That didn't always look to be the case, though.
After an explosive start to 2011, when Bruin scored four goals in his first seven games, the rookie only managed one more goal over the regular season and 37 goalless playoff minutes. That left Kinnear to look at other options for the final despite the youngster's clear potential.
“I didn’t play him last year and I felt kind of bad about that,” Kinnear revealed. “Maybe you can do some things different and you always sometimes second guess yourself in games as a coach. That was one of the things walking off the field, I was kind of kicking myself later.”
Kinnear also acknowledged that the pressure on Bruin, especially after his hot start to the season, was ultimately a detriment to the player.
“I’ll always go back to a conversation [Dynamo assistant coach] Tim Hanley and I had on the bench,” Kinnear recalled. “[It was] in the middle of last season and something was going on during the game and I was kind of talking and Tim just said ‘take a break and sit back and see how this kid’s going to be in a year or two.'
"And that made me realize that yeah, there was a lot of pressure on Will to perform last year but he was a young man coming out of college. It was kind of loosen up on him and see how he goes. And he’s been wonderful this year.”
And though easing the pressure on Bruin has certainly produced results, the player himself admits that he’s still got plenty more to learn. Luckily for him, he has two top-notch role models, both of whom could be taking the field at the Home Depot Center on Saturday.
One is obvious: Houston legend Brian Ching, who has scored 56 goals for the Dynamo and 25 for the club's previous incarnation as the San Jose Earthquakes.
“I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from Brian is his work ethic,” Bruin said. “And little things like making little runs in the final third and trying to read off defenders is something he’s been working on me with. And I’ve been trying to implement it more but there’s still more room for improvement.”
Bruin's other role model may seem odd, given the Dynamo's opponent on Saturday afternoon, but as far as off-the-ball movement goes, there are few forwards better than LA's Robbie Keane.
“I think movement from Robbie is something I can really focus on and try to implement in my game,” Bruin explained. “I think [Keane’s] movement is really good and he makes more than two runs when he’s in the box. Something I’ve been paying more attention to is that in the box you’ve got to make more than one run to lose your defender.”
What's clear now, though, is that Bruin is well on his way towards not simply emulating the likes of Ching and Keane, but establishing himself as a feared MLS forward in his own right, and a strong Saturday night may be all he needs for that possibility to come to fruition.