Will Bruin is taking to solitude better these days. The veteran striker has found himself working as the lone center forward, and – unlike in the past – he is making the most of it.
On an island for long stretches the past two weeks, Bruin has produced, scoring three goals in back-to-back wins in his return to the starting lineup.
Bruin’s resurgence is owed partially to the transition to head coach Owen Coyle’s one-forward setup. His combination play with Giles Barnes, who lines up "in the hole” underneath Bruin in Coyle’s 4-4-1-1 formation, hasn’t hurt either.
To create space for Barnes and others, part of Bruin’s job is to occupy defenders, something the big striker relishes.
“It takes a mentally tough individual to do that, because it’s not always glorious,” Dynamo captain Brad Davis said. “You’re usually getting hit from behind, usually up against two or three guys. It’s more about his mental strength than anything. He’s got the physical and athletic ability to handle that; that’s why he is there.
“But you also need that special kind of player that has that, mentally, and knows it’s going to be kind of a rough-and-tumble type of job. He’s a guy that’s willing to do that.”
It’s a lonely job, but Bruin has been finding a way to make it work. That has not always been the case.
When the Dynamo moved to a 4-2-3-1 in 2012 to shore up the spine of their team, Bruin struggled to produce. He scored most of his goals while playing in a two-forward system. Coming into this season, one of the questions surrounding the team was if Bruin could do the role justice if Coyle committed to a one-forward system.
“Under [former head coach Dominic Kinnear] was genuinely my first time ever [playing as a lone forward],” Bruin told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s a learning process, and the best way to learn is trial-and-error. Here, I think Owen playing the position really helps me. He tells you things you have to look for and things that are a little overrated.”
As a former striker, Coyle knows the ups and downs of the position.
“I obviously know from my own playing days how tough a job that is,” Coyle said. “It’s a thankless task for a striker to do the work that the team needs.”
A big part of the change has been how Bruin expends his energy. Instead of running just to run, Bruin has worked to find ways to maximize his energy and make his runs count.
“If you just chase and chase and chase and do pointless running, you’re going to wear yourself out when you get the ball,” Bruin said. “Earlier I would’ve just run to run. You’ve got to be smarter with your running, and that comes down to game management and choosing when you’re going to go.”
That mentality was on display for his second goal in the Dynamo’s 3-1 win Saturday over the Portland Timbers, when Bruin ran past center back Nat Borchers to hit a one-time chip off a Jermaine Taylor through ball. It’s a play the two look for early and often.
“We’ve got to keep them honest,” Bruin said with a smile. “You can ask Jermaine. He hates chasing, so we were like, ‘I’m sure every other center back does, too.’ If we can dump it early, then they’re going to second-guess stepping into midfield and also get them running, too.”
Bruin’s not a finished product up top. Coyle has talked about bringing more out of Bruin's ability and continuing to work with him on aspects such as holding up the ball, being an outlet to bring his teammates into the game and, of course, finishing.
“What we’ve tried to do is help him, because I think he has every attribute to be a top striker,” Coyle said.
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.