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Will Bruin showing promise in Sounders’ new formation

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The Seattle Sounders opened the season on April 16 deploying a two-forward formation for the first time in nearly five years. After a ragged start, it bore fruit quickly: the season was just 70 minutes old when the forward tandem of Will Bruin and Raul Ruidiaz combined to score against visiting Minnesota United.

It was a simple goal. With the hosts already leading 1-0, Bruin received the ball roughly 25 yards out, his back to goal and Brent Kallman climbing up his backside. With speed befitting a much smaller human being, Bruin spun and left the defender on the half-turn. Kallman made a halfhearted attempt to grab the Sounders’ striker from behind, but Bruin, 6-foot-2 and a hair under 200 pounds, shed him like a fleck of the recycled tires that make up the playing surface at Lumen Field.

“I was able to just roll him,” Bruin said later.

Getting rolled left Kallman with the best seat in the house — on his rump at the edge of the penalty area — to watch Bruin race toward goal and find Ruidiaz at the penalty spot for a chip into the roof and a 2-0 lead. The Sounders went on to win 4-0.

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Bruin played a key role in another goal on Saturday in the Sounders’ visit to take on fellow West powerhouse Los Angeles FC, this time without touching the ball. With the Sounders trailing 1-0 in the 54th minute, Alex Roldan sent a cross into the heart of the penalty area. The ball sailed over Bruin’s head, but his near-post run drew both center backs and left a pair of teammates 2-on-1 at the edge of the 6-yard box. Pablo Sisniega initially saved a Ruidiaz header, but Brad Smith — completely unmarked — was there to head in the rebound.

Simple plays both, but both highlighting what Bruin can do as a second forward. And both a long time coming.

At some point in the last three years, Bruin surely wondered if his head coach was pulling his leg. After all, Brian Schmetzer first suggested at least occasionally ditching the Seattle Sounders’ 4-2-3-1 formation to start a second forward — that’d be Bruin — before the 2018 MLS season.

Bruin, the 11th pick in the 2011 draft, first made his mark in MLS with the Houston Dynamo. The University of Indiana product delivered 50 goals and 20 assists over six seasons in Houston. He then outperformed expectations in 2017, his first in Seattle.

The Sounders traded allocation money for Bruin because they needed depth at forward. They needed insurance in case the heart troubles that sidelined Clint Dempsey down the stretch the previous season resurfaced. Even if Dempsey fully recovered (he did), they needed someone to fill in for both Dempsey and Jordan Morris during World Cup qualifiers and Gold Cup matches, to provide a late-game boost, and maybe to start some midweek league and U.S. Open Cup games.

Bruin did a lot more than that. He ended up making 31 appearances — and 20 starts — in league play, finishing the season with 11 goals and a pair of assists. Only Dempsey scored more goals for the Sounders that year. But Bruin wasn’t done: With Morris out with an injury during the playoffs, Bruin scored two more times and added another pair of assists in five playoff starts, helping the Sounders reach the 2017 MLS Cup final.

It was far from the first time Will Bruin surprised people. A St. Louis native, he’s faced a lifetime of people underestimating him because of his build and his nationality. The word burly gets thrown around a lot in his presence. No one expects a Midwesterner built like a corn farmer to have soft feet and make creative plays, to be fun to watch. Not that Bruin can’t bang.

“Will’s no fun to play against, that’s just the reality,” said teammate and center back Shane O’Neill. “It’s terrible playing against Will in practice, because he’s big and he’s strong, and he will bully you.”

He can bully you, but — as Brent Kallman can attest — he can also spin on you and leave you on your butt, or even drop back.

“I kind of like to consider myself as a hybrid forward,” Bruin said on Thursday. “People look at me and think I’m just a prototypical big No. 9: kick it up to him, let him hold it, drop it off, and get in the box. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy doing that, but I also like to drop in and get on the ball, get involved in the buildup.”

Bruin impressed enough in 2017 to make Schmetzer toy with a 4-4-2 in the 2018 preseason. Then Jordan Morris — still a forward at the time — tore an anterior cruciate ligament before the season even began. Out went the 4-4-2. There was brief talk of resuscitating it after the Sounders signed Ruidiaz that June. It never went anywhere.

Until now. The Sounders have finally swapped formations, opening the campaign in a 3-5-2. Not just to start Bruin, but to hide the club’s lack of wingers and to get Nouhou and Brad Smith on the pitch together. But what the formation does for Bruin is surely one of its early highlights. So far he is loving it.

“I enjoy the two forwards,” he said. “It lets me as a forward be a little more creative, gives me a little more space to operate in. That comes with a little more responsibility on the defensive side. But I’m enjoying it. I’m really excited about it. And I’m looking forward to keeping it going.”

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After registering an assist against Minnesota United, Bruin failed to record a goal or assist against LAFC. He nonetheless put in a classic Will Bruin performance — mostly blue plate special but a little bit haute cuisine.

“LAFC put us under pressure,” said Schmetzer after Sunday’s match. “We got stuck a couple of times, and then all of a sudden you have Will with his big shoulders, and big heart, and big fight in him. He won some clean headers, was able to hold possession of the ball, [and] he fought with two big center backs.”

On another day Bruin could have recorded two assists within the opening half-hour. Twenty minutes into the match he worked a lovely give-and-go with Brad Smith, playing the wing back into open space in the penalty area. Smith, off to an uneven start this season, shot the ball into the stands. Just five minutes later a Bruin dummy drew in a pair of defenders, freeing Cristian Roldan to take two touches before slapping the far post with a shot from the top of the arc.

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“Will was massive,” Roldan said after the match. “It was really unfortunate that he didn’t score or contribute in the stat sheet, but his work ethic and his attributes that we saw today really helped us.”

For much of the match Bruin spearheaded the Sounders’ attack, but he also drifted underneath Ruidiaz, got involved in some midfield buildups, and even popped up near his own penalty box in moments of danger both early and late. He won headers and drew fouls in key moments.

“He was a workhorse,” said Roldan.

Parts of the Sounders’ formation switch remain a work in progress. Xavier Arreaga had a rough match at center back on Saturday. It’s not clear why he’s starting ahead of Yeimar Gomez Andrade, the club’s 2020 Defensive Player of the Year. Smith has yet to look entirely comfortable as a wing back. Both Minnesota United and LAFC made the Sounders look uncomfortable for significant stretches.

But Will Bruin? He looks poised for a big year. Try not to be surprised.

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