Englishman in New York: A Tribute to Bradley Wright Phillips
When the LA Galaxy unveiled a statue of David Beckham recently the discussion quickly moved to which other clubs may one day immortalise a player —past or present— outside their stadium.
For the New York Red Bulls the candidate was obvious; Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Unlike Beckham, there was no fanfare or ticker tape when Wright-Phillips arrived in MLS. He began life in the United States as a trialist, a journeyman striker in England’s lower-leagues and someone that, (in his own words) was looking to refocus his mind.
“I would stay up till 3 am playing Xbox or Playstation, go training at 8.30am, go home and sleep and wake up at a crazy time like 7 pm and eat something ridiculous like a pizza and then get back on my computer," he said. "I was not living right, and I wondered why I was not starting games.”
A quiet arrival didn’t precede an immediate flood of goals. The now 34-year-old signed mid-season, and during his first few months in MLS, he scored once in 337 regular-season minutes spread across seven games.
At the time Thierry Henry was the team's star attraction and captain. Wright-Phillips was to be a foil for Henry, and in his first full season, he did just that, notching over 30 goals during the regular-season and playoffs.
Henry called time on his playing career at the end of that season. As he waved goodbye to New York concerns surfaced about whether Wright-Phillips could survive without him. He continued to score goals. Those same doubts emerged again in 2018 when the club traded their creative fulcrum Sacha Kljestan to Orlando City. He continued to score goals.
Wright-Phillips also grew as a player during that time. He began tracking back more and looked to create chances for teammates. He was asked by coaches to become more of a leader and did so.
That evolution has been key to Wright-Phillips' longevity with the club. Staying on one team in MLS can be difficult. Player contracts often run year-to-year, and if that instability is not anxiety-inducing, there is the looming threat of being traded.
In the last three seasons the Red Bulls have twice traded away their captain, and yet Wright-Phillips remains. He is currently their longest-serving player after Luis Robles. There is, however, no sentimentality attached to his stay.
Perhaps it was destiny that Wright-Philips found a home with the club after a childhood visit to New York saw him leave with a prophetic memento.
“I have relatives in New York. And as it happened my cousin and I both picked up MetroStars shirts – I think they were Nike at the time and we liked the red and black. And now years later I’m playing for New York Red Bulls [the reincarnation of the former New York/New Jersey MetroStars].”
Although BWP is still attempting to win his first MLS Cup, he has won three Supporters’ Shields. Last year, against D.C. United, with Wayne Rooney watching on, he also became the fastest player to score 100 MLS goals as the Red Bulls beat United 1-0. When celebrating, he did not produce his trademark heel- click but instead removed his No. 99 shirt to reveal a white No. 100.
The moment was reminiscent of how his father Ian had celebrated breaking the Arsenal goal record in 1997. Not long after that, the club confirmed they would retire the No. 99 when he leaves the club; Wright-Phillips described it as 'some Michael Jordan stuff.'
“The success that the club has had [in recent years] is largely due to Brad,” said Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas. “The goals are only part of the story. When you have guys like him in the locker room, it raises the standard of everything. When he speaks, and he’s not a guy of many words, but he does command the locker room and the video room, and people listen.”
If the time ever does come to erect a statue of Wright-Phillips he won’t gloat. That's not who he is.
“I don’t really like too much credit,” he said. “I know nobody’s going to believe this, but I’d rather be able to score goals and nobody saw or even spoke about it. That would be just about the perfect world for me.”
The 34-year-old may never get that ‘perfect world.’ A statue celebrating his time at the club is something few fans would argue against, even if he’d prefer to click his heels one last time and walk off as quietly as he arrived