Bradley Wright-Phillips and the making of an MLS legend

Bradley Wright-Phillips and the making of an MLS legend

As the ball squirmed under the arms of DC United goalkeeper David Ousted, the travelling New York Red Bulls fans knew they were witnessing a moment of history. Bradley Wright-Phillips, the one constant during the turbulent years of squad overhaul, was leading the celebrations.

The Red Bulls’ marksman was swapping his number 99 shirt for one adorned with the magical 100, for Wright-Phillips had just become the quickest player in Major League Soccer history to reach the 100-goal mark. The achievement took only 159 games, surpassing Taylor Twellman’s record of 174 games.

Despite the wonderful talents of Tim Cahill, Juan Pablo Ángel and Thierry Henry gracing the pitch at Giants Stadium and the Red Bull Arena, Wright-Phillips is the name which is the most synonymous with the former Metros, so much so that General Manager Marc de Grandpre announced that no future Red Bulls player will wear the number 99 shirt.

It has not been an easy ride for Wright-Phillips, however. Coming through the youth academy at pre-money Manchester City as the son of legendary Arsenal striker Ian Wright and younger brother of starlet Shaun Wright-Phillips, expectations were mounted high for the man from Lewisham. Despite a debut goal from the substitutes bench after just four minutes against Middlesbrough, he was unable to forge a career for himself in England. Disappointing spells at Manchester City, Southampton, Plymouth Argyle, Charlton Athletic and Brentford at various levels of the footballing pyramid saw Wright-Phillips disillusioned with the game, and the Red Bulls offered an escape and a chance to rediscover his spark.

Life in the Premier League could hardly have begun any better for Wright-Phillips with the immediate impact he made against Middlesbrough, but as with any young player, especially those from England, the expectations were quickly raised. And if there was one thing that the younger Wright-Phillips didn’t need, it was further expectation.

Following in the footsteps of one footballing member of your family is tough enough – just ask Phil Neville and Anton Ferdinand – but having two offers an almost impossible task. As the son of Ian Wright, there will inevitably be pressure to succeed. Wright, at the time of Wright-Phillips’ debut, was Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer, with 185 strikes in 288 appearances. His name alone brought media scrutiny, and following just a few years behind Shaun Wright-Phillips’ raised the bar.

Read  |  The storied career of Juan Pablo Ángel

Shaun had also come through the academy system at Manchester City – both players signed after the winger was released from Nottingham Forest – and had established himself as a regular in the three seasons prior to Bradley’s debut. Shaun was seen as a bright hope for England, and was part of a group alongside Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Stewart Downing and Kieran Richardson that were seen as adding some youthful exuberance into England’s “golden generation”. There were hopes for Bradley to be amongst that group.

As if often the way with young, talented footballers, the reality was vastly different. He was given chances to prove his worth for the Citizens, making 40 appearances, 32 in the Premier League, across two seasons for the side. He only managed to add to his debut goal once and was frustratingly inconsistent when playing.

City decided to cash in on his potential while it still existed and allowed him to move to Southampton for an undisclosed fee, believed to be around £500,000. Interestingly, half of his transfer fee was raised by a fan of the south coast club, one who had won a competition run by Coca-Cola to earn their club transfer money. City were still evidently enamoured by the potential they saw in the younger Wright-Phillips and inserted a substantial sell-on clause to try and cash in on any future transfer away from St Mary’s.

A debut goal for the Saints brought fresh optimism about the potential of the youngster. Just 21 years old and in a new club in a lower division, the chance was there for Wright-Phillips to build his career and start fulfilling his previously untapped potential. Ultimately, his time at Southampton offered little success, with just 25 goals in 121 total appearances. His most notable moments came off the pitch.

In June 2008, both Wright-Phillips and Southampton teammate Nathan Dyer were charged in relation to a burglary of a Portsmouth nightclub. The case against Dyer resulted in a conviction, but Wright-Phillips pleaded not guilty and saw the case against him dropped due to insufficient evidence. A year later, Wright-Phillips found himself in trouble again. Along with David McGoldrick, he was arrested on suspicion of assault against a Southampton supporter. The Crown Prosecution Service decided against pressing charges. Both incidents, despite not leading to convictions, were the most noteworthy moments of Wright-Phillips’ spell at Southampton and highlighted a young man struggling to cope with his newfound fame.

Wright-Phillips has admitted to enjoying nights out more than football at stages of his career. He had fallen out of love with the game after starting in the Premier League but having to rebuild his name in the lower ranks of English football. All throughout his early struggles, the comparisons to Shaun rarely faded. His elder brother had left City a season prior to Bradley in wholly different circumstances. Shaun had been poached by the newly-minted Chelsea for £21m and had begun to appear for the senior England side.

With Southampton relegated to League One and struggling to stay afloat, many players were allowed to leave. The list included Wright-Phillips. Opting to stay on the south coast to minimise the disruption to his family, Wright-Phillips joined Championship side Plymouth. His spell for the Pilgrims was plagued by two serious injuries, meaning he only managed 37 appearances. Halfway through his second season, which produced his most fruitful goalscoring return to date – 13 in 17 – he moved to Charlton, ultimately avoiding the relegation that befell Plymouth.

Read  |  How a culture of producing athletes and accepting mediocrity turned me off the US game

The Addicks was seemingly in a situation Wright-Phillips needed to thrive. His 22 goals during the 2011/12 season saw Charlton win League One comfortably, eight points clear of second place. It was the highest scoring return of his career in England, and he appeared ready to step back into the Championship and up the ranks.

Unfortunately, 19 games produced a solitary goal in the higher tier, and he spent the second half of the season on loan at Brentford back in League One. Five goals in 15 games weren’t enough to convince Charlton to gamble on his worth, and Wright-Phillips found himself without a contract for the new campaign.

By this stage in his career, Bradley was 28 years old, had failed to make a significant impact on the pitch – although he was much loved by staff and fans of clubs who had employed him – and was disillusioned with football. But life has a curious knack of bringing the perfect opportunity at the perfect moment, and for Wright-Phillips, that opportunity was awaiting in New Jersey.

The move for Wright-Phillips seemingly followed a trend for the Red Bulls. In an effort to grow their franchise and become a leading side in Major League Soccer, the Red Bulls had taken to signing the younger brothers of previously established stars. Wayne Rooney’s brother John and Kaká’s brother Digão had both been signed already, and Bradley seemed to be the latest sibling in this trend.

Wright-Phillips had been brought Stateside for a trial period and has openly admitted that he underestimated the relative strength of MLS before arriving. As is often labelled at players and fans of the Premier League, he knows he was ignorant about the standard of the league viewed by many as nothing more than a retirement home for superstar names.

New York Red Bulls then-sporting director Andy Roxburgh was immediately impressed, spotting his pace and finishing ability, the hallmarks of Wright-Phillips’ spell in America. Whilst the club was enamoured with the player, the feeling was more than mutual. For a player with unfulfilled potential, the important factor was finding a team that would allow him to express himself away from the headlines. New York was, surprisingly, the perfect fit.

In the sports world, we are repeatedly made aware of the pressures that come with playing within the media market of New York. Recent New York Jet’s first-round NFL draft pick Sam Darnold has been praised nearly as much for his ability to handle the infamous New York media as his on-field skills. Yet, for Wright-Phillips at least, the Big Apple was a safe haven away from the scrutiny of the English media.

Read  |  The endless evolution of David Villa

He joined the Red Bulls during their 2013 campaign, scoring once in seven games as his new side won the MLS Supporters’ Shield, the trophy given to the team with the most points during the regular season. Wright-Phillips’ first few months were uninspiring, with the team looking to cut him from their roster once the season had finished. His career was saved by an unexpected source: Gérard Houllier.

The former Lyon, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain manager was appointed head of global football for Red Bull in 2012, and, upon hearing of the plans to cut Wright-Phillips, the Frenchman intervened and saw that the Englishman would be given another shot to prove himself. His faith was duly rewarded.

The 2014 season that Wright-Phillips would put together would prove to be one of the greatest in MLS history, with the striker tying a record that had stood since the inaugural MLS season in 1996. The partnership between Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry, the man who broke his father’s goalscoring record at Arsenal, proved extremely fruitful. Henry, playing in a deeper role, was the provider, and Wright-Phillips was the finisher. It led to the latter netting 27 times in 32 regular season games. The partnership failed to bring more silverware, however, with the Red Bulls finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference and losing 4-3 to the New England Revolution in the Conference finals.

Despite the successes of the previous season, many were still unsold on Wright-Phillips’s quality, crediting Henry’s creativity for the sudden success. The Frenchman’s retirement prior to the 2015 season, and the arrival of new head coach Jesse Marsch, had fans and pundits fearing for the Red Bulls.

Those fears would prove to be unfounded, with the franchise reclaiming the Supporters’ Shield. Wright-Phillips may have only scored 17 during the season, but both he and his teammates believe he became a more rounded player. Marsch’s arrival as head coach also saw a change in the playing style of the Red Bulls, with a greater emphasis on a high press from the forwards. Wright-Phillips bought into the new regime, raising his assist numbers from two to seven and becoming a greater influence on winning the ball back and helping the team advance. Once again, however, the Red Bulls were defeated in the Conference finals, losing 2-1 on aggregate to the Columbus Crew.

It was during this season that the Wright-Phillips brothers were reunited on a football pitch. By this stage, Shaun’s own career had stalled, with struggles at Chelsea, Manchester City again and Queens Park Rangers, and so he followed his younger sibling to New Jersey. For the first time in their careers, Shaun was the “other” sibling. Whereas everybody thought that the roles had reversed, Shaun was simply witnessing the player Bradley always had the potential to develop into. The pressure to succeed had returned for Bradley, but it was a pressure that he was comfortable burdening.

Read  |  Josef Martínez: the Venezuelan hotshot breaking MLS records and raising eyebrows for Atlanta United

A second straight Eastern Conference win followed in 2016, although it only proved productive enough for third place in the joint table. Once again, it was Wright-Phillips who would grab the headlines as the striker broke three significant goalscoring records. His 24 league goals made him the first player in MLS history to score more than 20 in two seasons; his 68 goals from 2014 to 2016 were the most prolific in any consecutive three-year spell; and with his 90th-minute equaliser in a 2-2 with Chicago Fire he scored his 63rd Red Bulls goal, breaking Ángel’s record.

The next campaign, 2017, was relatively weak for the Red Bulls in the Wright-Phillips era, only managing to finish sixth in the standings. They lost on away goals after a 2-2 draw with eventual champions Toronto in the playoffs, were defeated 3-1 over two legs by the Vancouver Whitecaps in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals, and fell 2-1 to Sporting Kansas City in the MLS Open Cup final. Wright-Phillips managed 17 goals, joining Robbie Keane as one of only two players to manage 15 or more goals in four consecutive seasons, continuing his own personal journey to MLS legend status.

With just a few games remaining of the 2018 MLS regular season at the time of writing, the Red Bulls have a chance to win their third Supporters’ Shield since Wright-Phillips’ arrival. A mere four points behind Atlanta United with four matches remaining, including a head-to-head between the two, leaves the door open for another triumph, and the potential for finally winning Major League Soccer. A deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League was ended at the semi-final stage by Mexico’s Guadalajara, but the season can still be considered a success for the Red Bulls, who have blooded a new generation of promising talents.

Wright-Phillips has managed 19 goals so far this season – the first player in MLS history to score 15 or more in five straight seasons – and the early winner against DC United cemented his legacy. A hundred goals in any league is no easy feat but doing so in just 159 games is remarkable. He has even chipped in with eight assists for his teammates, highlighting his role as a leader for his team. A natural goalscorer, he has moulded himself into a complete striker, chasing down defenders and providing for his teammates. 

Due to the notion that MLS is an easy league, his achievements have gone largely unnoticed outside of America. It’s certainly a weaker league than the Premier League, but definitely not League One, where Wright-Phillips spent the best year of his career in England. It’s easy to ascribe the London-born striker’s success to the quality of the league, but that would be doing his hard work and talent an injustice. He has reinvented himself when clubs turned their back on him, and for that, he deserves great credit.

Coping with pressure is something many footballers struggle with. When that pressure involves a father who was the all-time leading scorer at one of the biggest clubs in the world and an older brother who was beginning to break through for the national team, it is understandable that any player would struggle.

For Bradley Wright-Phillips, a move to a different country away from all the pressure has proved wonderous. It highlights the possibilities that can await players struggling to settle in England, that there are other leagues out there in which a career can be forged. Rather than waste his prime years bouncing between the lower levels of professional English football, Wright-Phillips gambled on Major League Soccer being the place that would allow him to shine. With 168 games and 105 goals under his belt, Bradley Wright-Phillips has become the greatest import in Red Bulls history, marking him out as one of the league’s finest arrivals.

By Michael Gallwey @michael95angelo

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed