Tucked into the start of this MLS season is a tale of two forwards, both of whom seek redemption.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez grabs the headlines. The Los Angeles Galaxy forward signed a three-year deal worth more than $9 million last year, but flopped in his MLS debut. Hernandez, who is Mexico’s all-time leading goal-scorer, was ultimately benched, scoring two goals in 12 games during the league’s truncated 2020 season.
Then there’s Will Bruin. The 11-year league veteran was breaking through the Sounders’ rotation when a torn ACL injury ended his 2019 season after nine appearances. Bruin’s return last year began with a minor injury and had to overcome the pandemic.
Bruin and Hernandez were put into tactical positions this season that could showcase the talent they’ve individually expressed they know is within them. Sunday is another opportunity when the Sounders (1-0-1) host the Galaxy (2-0) at Lumen Field.
“I’m not a quitter,” Hernandez told the Los Angeles Times before the season. “Completely the opposite. I touched rock bottom. There’s nothing else (but) to go up, you know? So it’s like a challenge.”
Chicharito, 32, has already regained some respect. He’s scored five goals in the club’s opening two matches. If he bags a brace against the Sounders, Hernandez will break the MLS record for most to open a season. Chicago Fire FC forward Ante Razov scored six times in his first three games in 1999.
Bruin, 31, is still searching for his first goal, instead continuing a theme from last season. Seattle’s shift to a two-forward system was in part designed for Bruin to play off striker Raul Ruidiaz. A keen eye can spot how essential Bruin’s decisions are in the lead-up to Sounders scores and near-chances. But nothing shows on the score sheet.
Last season, Bruin had one goal and one assist, although another assist was during the MLS is Back tournament knockout rounds, thus not counting toward regular-season stats. Another possible assist was secondary and not given.
“I try to erase it out of my head,” Bruin said of last season. “On paper, it doesn’t look good at all. But when you look at the whole scheme of things last year, I think when I played, I was very effective. Whether that’s not getting a secondary assist or something, I was involved in a lot of goals when I was on the field. Whether that was in the box score or not, it is what it is.
“I’m kind of hitting that restart button and saying, ‘All right, let’s make sure that we stay 100% healthy this year and show well every day in training and every time I get in the game so I can get those minutes back that I deserve.’ The goals will take care of themselves. I know how to score goals.”
Every season Bruin sets double-digit scoring as his season target. After two matches, he has one assist and no shots on goal in 155 minutes of play.
But Bruin’s ability to get clean headers, use his 6-foot-2 frame to block opposing center backs and hold possession of the ball played a role in three of the Sounders’ five goals to open the season.
It’s a welcomed evolution from when Bruin was acquired via trade from the Houston Dynamo in December 2016. He started 20 matches for the Sounders in 2017, totaling 11 goals and one assist. It’s the last time he reached double-digits in scoring.
“I’m more of a well-rounded player now,” Bruin said during a recent video conference call with media. “I’m smarter and maybe that comes from getting a little bit older, just a little older. But I’m smarter in the way I use my energy. When I was younger in Houston, I would just run around like a mad man and tire myself out. Then on the offensive side, my legs would be tired.
“Now, with work with the coaching staff and getting in pockets and spaces earlier, even in defensive angles and stuff, you have more energy on the offensive side.”
The Galaxy are led by first-year coach Greg Vanney, whose last stop was Toronto FC. The Reds were 1-2 against the Sounders in three different MLS Cups.
Vanney was complimentary of Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer’s switch to a two-forward system during a video conference call with media Friday. Vanney suspects it will be tough to counter. His L.A. club has shown a leaky defense, conceding four goals combined in wins against Inter Miami CF and New York.
Could that be the opening Bruin needs to begin his redemption tale? Or will Hernandez, who received the league’s past two player of the week honors, continue to grab headlines and break records as he ascends to his former stardom?
“Will is massive for us,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said during a video conference call with media after the LAFC draw. “It’s really unfortunate that he didn’t score or contribute in the stat sheet but his work ethic and his attributes that we saw (against LAFC) really helped us. On another day, we could win that game. We had chances. But Will was massive. His characteristics really show in this formation.”