Eric Brunner: It's always the work first

Centerback Brunner anchors Timbers defense

Eric Brunner, Timbers vs. Union, 5.6.11

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

You may have noticed Eric Brunner when the Timbers beat the Philadelphia Union a couple of weeks ago. At one point the 6-foot-4 defender sent a looping header just inches over the bar, the ball landing on to the top netting of the Philly goal. Later in the game he appeared from nowhere to slash the ball just wide from five yards out. That Brunner should be up in attack was testament to the nervous energy of that 1-0 win. (The single goal was scored by another defender, Futty Danso).

Brunner is one of those players whom fans might not name check very often, but whose job in the back four is crucial to the team. He also embodies the workman-like qualities valued by head coach John Spencer. 

“There’s never really a time when I’m walking, per se,” said Brunner recently after practice at JELD-WEN Field. (He had stayed late to work on ball control.) “It’s always at least jogging, and then I’ll explode into a space.”

Among Brunner’s jobs as a defender is to spring the offside trap, feed the ball into midfield and prevent opposition breakaways. To do all this he has to be very verbal.

“It’s a lot is talking, telling [the other defenders] where an offensive player is,” he said. “If I see a guy cut in front of me I’m going to tell Futty he’s coming, or Dave [Horst] or Kevin [Goldthwaite].”

There’s no time for names.

“If you talk too much it’s a lot of stuff to analyze, so we just say ‘Guy on your right.’”

He expects the same warnings from of his fellow defenders as to when an attacker is moving behind Brunner.

“I’m constantly keeping my head on swivel,” said Brunner. “Always looking to see where a space is, or a guy is.” He also reads the eyes of the player with the ball, and pairs that with a good knowledge of where the intended target is.

The other aspect of Brunner’s game is organization. For Brunner this is rooted in anticipation.

“On the field I try to organize stuff ahead of time, get myself in position,” he said. “I talk with [coaches] John [Spencer] and Trevor [James] about this, what I see shape-wise and how we can be better as a defense.”

His philosophy? “You get in a good starting position. Then it’s less running for you. You can cut out a ball bit better.”

Brunner says he is a hard tackler but not a dirty one. “I don’t go to ground, I don’t slide tackle much, because if you do you’re behind the play.”

However, he sees the necessity of fouling as a way of changing the tempo of a game and killing the opposition’s attacking momentum.

Brunner says there are different ways of fouling. “You don’t two-foot someone, you just leave your leg in. You don’t do it maliciously. It’s a professional foul, so to speak.”

He says his dream style of play would be to combine Nemanja Vidić (Manchester United) and Gerard Pique (Barcelona). “My ideal is Gerard Pique’s feet with Vidic’s tackling.”

Portland’s Scottish-born midfielder Adam Moffat knows Brunner’s play well. They played together at the Columbus Crew in 2009 and 2010.

“Eric’s always been a solid defender, a big guy who wins a lot of headers,” said Moffat recently. “But he’s good with his feet for a big guy, and he’s fast. Not many people can get away from him.”

Moffat has noticed that Brunner’s positioning has improved at the Timbers.

“When it comes to being in the right spot, the ball getting cleared or making a last-ditch tackle, he’s there,” said Moffat.

He adds that at Columbus, captain Chad Marshall was the dominant center back.

“I think Eric’s taken now that role, he’s become a little bit more dominating,” Moffat said. “It’s been good to see.”

Brunner is enjoying life in Portland. He lives with Peter Lowry in the Pearl District and likes playing golf and fishing. Growing up in Ohio, he fished for bass.

“Peter’s been going salmon fishing and telling me all about the runs,” said Brunner. “I need to get a fishing pole and get a rig set up and go out with him.”

Not that he’s been out much, it’s always work first for Brunner.

“There’s a lot of games coming up, and you’re just trying to get your body recovered.”