There’s little doubt about his lifelong knack for finding the back of the net, as he did late in stoppage time at Montreal three weeks ago to stave off certain Sounders defeat.
Will Bruin has been called a lot of things on the soccer pitch but what he truly winces at is his actual nickname.
For six seasons with the Houston Dynamo, the high-scoring striker with the tall and stocky build was known as “The Dancing Bear’’ because of his celebrating during one game his rookie campaign. Bruin notched a hat trick against D.C. United and after each goal did a celebratory jig likened to a bear waving its paws.
“The day before the game we were doing a finishing drill,’’ said Bruin, a strapping 6-foot-2, 194-pounder who could start Friday night for the Sounders against Atlanta so Jordan Morris can rest his sore ankle. “Our coach was chipping it to the top of the box and you chest it down and you finish. I was chesting the ball and my hands were flailing and they (his teammates) were all like, ‘You look like a dancing bear.’
“The next day in the locker room (Dynamo scoring legend) Brian Ching was like, ‘If you score you’ve got to do ‘The Dancing Bear celebration.’ I had no idea what it was or what it consisted of, it just kind of happened.’’
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Not once, or twice, but three times. A legend was born, one the soft-spoken Bruin, acquired by the Sounders in a December trade for allocation money, wishes had never been let out of its cage.
“The way it looked, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll probably retire that one,’ ’’ he said.
But Dynamo fans wouldn’t. They clamored for a repeat whenever Bruin scored. He never obliged, despite plenty of opportunity: scoring five goals his rookie season, 12 in 2012, eight in 2013, 10 in 2014 and 11 more in 2015.
Bruin was on his way to eclipsing Ching’s franchise mark when he slumped last season and added only four more, leading to his trade. But there’s little doubt about his lifelong knack for finding the back of the net, as he did late in stoppage time at Montreal three weeks ago to stave off certain Sounders defeat when the ball bounded to him deep in the box.
“You can’t really teach it,’’ Bruin said. “You’ve just got to pop up in the right areas and the ball will find you.’’
And Bruin has done that since scoring 102 goals for De Smet Jesuit, his high school in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, Mo. Bruin was physically bigger than most his age and had excelled at baseball, dreaming of becoming a power-hitting outfielder for the hometown Cardinals.
But his club soccer coach issued an ultimatum: quit baseball and be on his first team, or play baseball and be on his second team. He stuck to baseball and the soccer coach kept his word and put him on the second team, which Bruin promptly led to victory over the first team in the state title game.
Still, Bruin realized a baseball career probably wasn’t in the cards.
“I couldn’t lay off the high cheese,’’ he quipped.
So, he threw his energy into soccer, where he could score like few had ever seen.
“He started on the varsity as a freshman and his body is what distinguished him right away,’’ said Greg Vitello, the soccer coach at De Smet for 46 years until his retirement in 2014. “He was always a big, strong guy. He was just so physically strong, even compared to juniors and seniors we had.’’
And Bruin, then nicknamed “Bull,’’ would force his way beyond defenders into scoring position. Bruin was good friends with Taylor Twellman, the now-retired U.S. soccer star, and Vitello remembers both “played on the hunt” for goals with a natural knack.
“They always were seeking someplace on the field where they thought the next opportunity was,’’ Vitello said of the two. “And you can’t coach that.
“That’s what distinguished those players above all the others. They knew where to be. They knew how to hunt out those spaces.’’
Bruin kept hunting at Indiana University, becoming a two-time All-American and a Mac Hermann semifinalist after scoring 18 goals his final season. Then came the Dynamo, where his 51 regular-season goals trail only the 56 by Ching for the all-time franchise lead.
But there was a price to pay for all that scoring.
“I know that over the years, in his career, he’s had to absorb a lot of punishment,’’ Vitello said. “And I think a lot of people think that because you’re that size and that strong, you should be able to handle it. But I think it’s taken a little bit of a toll on his career. It’s beaten him up a little bit.’’
Bruin is only 27, but sensed last year the Dynamo was going in a different direction.
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey had wanted to draft Bruin back when he was the Real Salt Lake GM. So, when Bruin’s agent let the Dynamo know he was seeking a trade, Lagerwey phoned Houston GM Matt Jordan – his onetime FC Dallas teammate – to get the deal done.
“We saw 50 goals, which is a big deal,’’ Lagerwey said. “There aren’t that many active players that have 50 goals, particularly not at his age.’’
And Bruin feels he’s got more left in him. He admits the uncertainly over his future last season took a toll. “It’s more mental, I was just ready for something new and my feet were just dragging a bit,’’ Bruin said. “It was just a culmination of things.’’
He’s content with spelling Morris and others off the bench, notching the one goal already and some near misses. But not happy enough to break into any dance moves – bear-related or otherwise.
“That really isn’t me,’’ he said. “I just black out now when I score. I can’t remember how it happened or think about what I’m doing. I’ll leave that to everybody else.’’