Justin Braun is no longer just a feel-good story. He's the real deal.
He's one of the most physical strikers in MLS, he's Chivas USA's leading scorer heading into Saturday night's match at Real Salt Lake, and he's also on the U.S. National Team radar.
It's safe to say Braun, a former Skyline High School star, has come a long way since his days of toiling on an amateur team in Utah, just hoping and praying for a chance at something bigger.
Former Chivas coach Preki gave him that chance early in 2008 after seeing him play in an amateur tournament in Southern California, and he hasn't wasted that opportunity.
His playing time has gradually increased in 21/2 seasons with Chivas, and his six goals this year leads the team. A few weeks ago, he was named the Major League Soccer player of the week after scoring a pair of goals in a 2-0 win at Kansas City.
He's no longer just a fast-paced, 6-foot-3 striker with potential. Now he's a dangerous striker.
"The biggest thing now is the confidence is there when I step on the field, whereas before I was a little more timid and a little more afraid," said Braun.
That confidence should be on display this Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium as an estimated 50 or so family and friends come to watch him play. Despite missing Chivas' last two SuperLiga matches with a bruised knee, Braun is confident he'll be available to face his hometown team.
"I should be good to go. I've just been kind of resting this past week to make sure I'm healed up and ready to go this weekend. So I'm definitely looking forward to coming back to Salt Lake and playing in front of the hometown crowd," he said.
Braun believes two things are responsible for his improved form this season.
Back in January, he was one of 30 MLS-based players called into U.S. National Team camp in California in preparation for a couple of friendlies. Real Salt Lake players Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Robbie Findley were also in that camp, and for Braun, it was a dream come true and an eye-opener all rolled into one.
He didn't play in any of the friendlies, but being exposed to that level of soccer boosted his soccer IQ.
"Going from playing in the men's league to being called up to train with the National Team, it was definitely a huge honor for me. It's been a dream of mine since I was a little kid to be able to represent our country," said Braun.
"It was a good learning experience. I took a lot out of that camp, and I think that's been one of the reasons I've had some success this year."
The other big influence on Braun has been new Chivas coach Martin Vasquez.
When Preki bolted after the season to become coach at Toronto FC, some wondered if Braun would even still be a good fit at Chivas. After all, it was Preki who discovered Braun and showed more faith in him than anyone else, and there was a chance that Vasquez might not see the same qualities.
Instead, the opposite has occurred.
"He's changed me as a player, as far as he's given me a lot of freedom on the field to go out and do my thing. He's a little more attack-minded, he's brought out that attacking creativity in me," said Braun.5 comments on this story
That attack-minded approach hasn't produced many results, though. With a 4-2-9 mark, Chivas sits in last place in the Western Conference with just 14 points — 16 behind second-place Real Salt Lake and 25 behind the L.A. Galaxy.
Braun is optimistic about a turnaround. If it doesn't happen, though, he still has his own personal goals to shoot for. At the start of the season, Braun set out to score at least 10 goals this season, and with six goals through 15 games, he's on pace.
"The goals are coming for me right now, and I'm just hoping to keep building and growing as a player as I continue to play in this league," he said.