By THOMAS FLOYD
Will Bruin expected too much out of his rookie season. That much, he acknowledges, is now clear.
The 11th overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, Bruin immediately stepped into the lineup for the Houston Dynamo that season, starting the first eight matches while bagging four goals — three of which came via a hat trick in a 4-1 win over D.C. United in April.
But after that contest, Bruin wouldn't find net again until mid-September. He hit the rookie wall, as they say, going scoreless in 15 appearances. Knee surgery that sidelined him for six matches didn't help matters. Although the Dynamo advanced to the MLS Cup before falling to the Los Angeles Galaxy, Bruin logged just 36 minutes throughout the four-game playoff run.
"All coming up younger, I had never really sat the bench," Bruin said. "So it was definitely a big learning experience that made me mentally stronger. Everything that happened last year happened for the better this year."
In 2012, Bruin has experienced quite the sophomore surge, starting 14 of Houston's 15 matches while scoring nine goals — good for third in the league. Four of those tallies have come in the Dynamo's past three games.
While the 22-year-old Indiana product is living up to the hype he created as a lethal college scorer, he's not getting too wrapped up in it. His career, he notes, has never been about outside perceptions anyway.
"I'm not really worried about the expectations," Bruin said. "I didn't really start this year going to prove to people what I can do. I have confidence in myself. I knew my coaches were confident in what I could do. The life of a forward is just playing on confidence."
Bruin's production has been a welcome development for a Houston side that entering the 2012 campaign wasn't sure who would occupy the starting slot up top alongside captain Brian Ching.
Even though speedster Calen Carr, bruiser Cam Weaver and offseason acquisition Macoumba Kandji were all in the running to win the job, it was Bruin who claimed the position.
"He knows the league better and he's a bit more prepared," observed Houston coach Dominic Kinnear. "He was scoring goals in preseason and his hold-up play was good. All in all, I think his overall game got better. We had high hopes for him coming out of preseason."
After rarely playing alongside Ching last year, Bruin has embraced the partnership this season, developing an effective rapport with the 34-year-old U.S. World Cup veteran who doesn't hesitate to impart wisdom on the young forward.
"Our partnership up top, I feel, is getting stronger every game," Bruin said. "I'm starting to figure out what he likes to do and he's figuring out what I like to do. We're still learning to play off each other, but he's been giving me good ideas and good pointers on just creativity in the final third and places he wants me to be."
In racking up the goals, the 6-foot-2 striker has at times served as a target forward in the box, waiting to poach on any half-chance. But Bruin also possesses underrated technical skill, as evidenced by his strong possession play and intelligent runs.
"I'm kind of a hybrid," Bruin said. "Obviously I'm not the fastest player in the world and I'm not the biggest player in the world, but I'm a little bit of both. I can make runs in behind and I can hold up the ball when called upon to do that."
For Bruin, the focus is now on keeping up the prolific pace he has established. After growing accustomed to a three-month season during his college days and making 21 starts his rookie year, Bruin is set to log far more minutes in 2012 than he has ever has before. It's a toll he knows will be a challenge. In his mind, "The physical part is easier than the mental battle."
And if the grind does wear him down, Kinnear has a simple message for him.
"I think for every forward, you have to have a short memory," Kinnear said. "If you miss a chance, don't worry about it. Just keep on making good runs and you're going to get the opportunity again. Just remember why you were successful and continue to do that."