For Eric Brunner, the time was right. The 28-year-old Houston Dynamo defender retired from professional soccer on Wednesday, ending a seven-year MLS career that included a Supporters’ Shield, a key role in Houston’s run to the 2013 Eastern Conference Championship and a big part in the Portland Timbers’ first season in MLS.
Professional athletes detest including injuries as an excuse for performance. The same can apply for a player on the verge of retirement, his instinct to push on and overcome the obstacle, but his mind more realistic about the future. For Brunner, a right ankle that never fully recovered after two surgeries solidified a difficult decision for a player still in his twenties.
“I’ve had two surgeries on my ankle in the last two years and my ankle hasn’t really felt 100 percent,” the center back said on Wednesday. “Part of the thinking was, ‘Can I maybe grind it out a couple more years, or do I want to end when I feel it is right?’”
Brunner decided the time is now, informing Dynamo general manger Matt Jordan and president Chris Canetti of his decision late Tuesday afternoon.
The Ohio native started all five playoff games for the Dynamo in 2013, partnering with Bobby Boswell as Houston defeated the Montreal Impact before upsetting the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, including the club’s first ever win in New York.
Brunner enjoyed a healthy preseason in 2014, but an awkward tackle caused an injury to his right ankle in the final preseason game, March 1 against the Charleston Battery. After weeks of deliberation with the Dynamo training staff, weighing the prospect of playing through the pain or attempting to fix the ankle through surgery, Brunner elected for the procedure, his second on the ankle after a major operation in October 2012.
Following the surgery, Brunner said his ankle felt its best since high school. Looking back, he knows that may have been a hopeful outlook.
“I was trying to feel optimistic, I think trying to psych myself out of maybe not being 100 percent. The mind can be a wonderful thing sometimes. I just kept feeling it as the season went on and even now it is still sore, and I haven’t done anything since the season ended. I can tell where it is going to go, listening to my body.”
“The ankle doesn’t feel how I know it should feel. Mobility wise, I wasn’t able to do what I thought I should be able to do.”
A day after informing the club of his decision to hang up his cleats, his best memories of his career are clear.
“I won a Supporters’ Shield (with Columbus), I went to the Eastern Conference Final with Houston, I got to be a part of an expansion team from the beginning (with Portland), so I’ve had a few cool things I was able to be a part of. One thing I am extremely pleased about is the friendships that I’ve made with players and coaches. I was fortunate enough to play with some great players and play against some great players and build relationships and friendships that will carry on through a lifetime.”
Brunner was captain of his hometown Ohio State University as the Buckeyes reached the 2007 NCAA College Cup Final, falling to Wake Forest, 2-1. Brunner earned NSCAA All-America first team and College Cup All-Tournament Team honors. Seven years later, he is satisfied with his professional career.
“I think anybody that gets to play a game for a living, and get to do it for an extended period of time is lucky. I’m blessed to do what I’ve been able to do. You can’t really control injuries. That’s professional sports. They can end it sooner than you want, but that’s the nature of the beast. I’m happy and pleased with what I was able to do and learn and experience. Our sport is more documented than before, with YouTube, so I’ll be able to show my kids, whenever I have them.”
Brunner joined the Crew ahead of the 2009 season, a few months after Columbus won the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield. He became a mainstay in his first full season, making 25 appearances to earn Crew Newcomer of the Year honors as the club won its second consecutive Supporters’ Shield.
“In Columbus I played with a veteran back line, with Frankie Hejduk and Chad Marshall and Gino Padula, so I learned bucket loads in a short amount of time. I got to play with Adam Moffat on three teams (Columbus, Portland and Houston). That is an experience that is really cool to have; we share a lot of moments together. Brian Carroll was our center mid in Columbus, and I looked up to a lot of players then.”
“I still look up to players, to see how Brad (Davis) handles stuff on and off the field. In Portland, Jack Jewsbury was another. I looked up to the older guys because they’ve been around. It is great to see them still playing and have the careers they had and you were a part of it somehow.”
The Dynamo traded for Brunner ahead of the 2013 season, seeking depth at center back. Brunner was forced to wait until October to make a significant impact but capitalized on his chance, stepping in after Jermaine Taylor suffered a foot injury.
He helped the Dynamo clinch a playoff berth win a win at D.C. United on the final day of the season and then was on the field for all 120 minutes of Houston’s historic road win at New York, an 2-1 victory in extra time as the Dynamo overcame an early 1-0 deficit. According to SI.com’s Brian Straus, among 10 two-leg MLS playoff series in league history, it was the first time the road team outscored the home team in extra time.
“It was great to be a part of something that was historically consistent with Houston, making it to the big games. You prepare yourself for it all season, and train to be ready when someone gets injured. We had a really good team and everyone was confident and there was no hesitation with me coming in, which makes you more confident as a player stepping into situations like that. We had a great locker room. It was unfortunate not to make it to the Final, but everything considered, we did a good job.”