HOUSTON — It had been 20 months since a Houston crowd had witnessed that once-common sight, a Will Bruin goal at BBVA Compass Stadium. On Tuesday it was the last thing they wanted to see.
The striker was traded from the Houston Dynamo to the Seattle Sounders two days before Christmas last year and his revitalized career enjoyed its highest point in awhile as he scored the second goal in a 2-0 road win, all but killing off 10-man Houston’s hopes of an unlikely comeback in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship.
A Dynamo mainstay for six seasons, Bruin’s switch to the Sounders provided a needed fresh start after some fans singled him out for criticism last year as Houston slumped to last place in the West.
“There will be no better feeling for me than to score for Seattle in BBVA,” he said earlier this month.
Notice: “will”, not “would”. So, what was it like to deliver as planned? Enjoyable, if confusing.
“It was good, I heard a nice ‘F-U Bruin’ chant so that was good. Doesn’t surprise me though. I was happy to score and get the win and anytime I can score for my team, no matter where it’s at, I’m happy,” he said.
Seattle’s “other” forward – the one who’s not named Clint Dempsey or Jordan Morris – took center stage in the 42nd minute when he peeled away from defender DaMarcus Beasley to connect with Joevin Jones’ left-wing cross and place a high header past goalkeeper Joe Willis from six yards out. If his celebration was relatively muted — certainly compared to the “Dancing Bear” routine of old — he clenched his fists tightly and his smile was as high-wattage as a stadium floodlight.
“It was kind of weird because I’ve had a lot of celebrations in that corner before with the Dynamo bench right there, and I realized that wasn’t my bench I was running to to celebrate so I was kind of by myself; but I don’t plan anything out, I don’t have any intentions to celebrate, whatever happens happens,” the 28-year-old said.
Taking full advantage of Morris’ absence through injury, it was his first goal in Houston since he found the net in an orange jersey with a scrappy late goal in a 5-0 win over FC Dallas on March 12, 2016.
The Seattle head coach, Brian Schmetzer, paid tribute to the technical execution. “Will’s goal was a really well-crafted goal – the ball that Joevin Jones put in, and Will’s header was a very good header,” he said.
Bruin, who made two US national team appearances in 2013, is now one step away from a return to MLS’s finale. He was an unused substitute in the 2011 MLS Cup and a starter in 2012 as the Dynamo twice lost to the LA Galaxy.
An unhappy knack for glaring misses during the latter part of his spell in Texas — generally when he had too much time to think in front of goal, rather than acting on instinct — masked his status as one of the league’s most consistently reliable goalscorers, making him a shrewd addition for the reigning MLS Cup champions.
A target man who tends to score in bunches, he started 20 times in the regular season, providing 11 goals and two assists – marking the fifth time in his seven MLS campaigns that he has scored double figures, including the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Those 11 goals were good for second on the Sounders, one fewer than Dempsey – and far better than last year, when he delivered a career-worst four goals in 31 appearances.
He led the line on Tuesday, with Dempsey — who was quiet and substituted at the break — roving behind. “Whenever I’m fired up and feeling good before a game that’s better for me than being like, ‘alright, let’s go play’,” Bruin said.
“For me mentality’s a big thing. I was ready to play, I was focused on it, I didn’t want to get overhyped because sometimes you think about it too much, you’ve got a long break and you can think about it too much, you can overanalyze, so I just wanted to keep it simple, connect my passes and then get in good spots.”
Facing his only other MLS club was not an entirely new phenomenon. Bruin played 14 minutes as a substitute in the opening game of the season as the Dynamo kicked off the Wilmer Cabrera era with a 2-1 home win against the Sounders last March. Bruin scored the only goal of the game against the Dynamo at CenturyLink Field in June.
Job done on Tuesday, he was brought off late in the match to the sound of a few boos from the stands – a painful experience last year, but here the jeers probably never sounded sweeter.