Bradley Wright-Phillips has been here before.
Having hit a league-record-equaling 27 goals in 2014, Wright-Phillips could have been forgiven for expecting a little respect. Instead, he was popularly painted as the fortunate beneficiary of Thierry Henry’s genius, and even slighted for his efficiency in “only” scoring the amount he did. The thinking was that Wright-Phillips would struggle without Henry.
Instead, he has thrived, becoming the first MLS player to manage a second 20-plus goal season and not for nothing, developing a nuance to his approach play that paid dividends in spectacular fashion in Tuesday night’s Champions League victory over Tijuana.
Yet the same doubts that hung around the player at the start of 2015 could still be found at the start of 2018, as speculation abounded about what the departure of Sacha Kljestan would do to the Red Bulls’ creating chances, and in turn BWP’s goal ratio.
Against Tijuana, Wright-Phillips appeared to come up with a novel answer across the two legs as two coolly finished goals in Mexico gave his team the first-ever multiple-goal victory by an MLS team over a Mexican side in the knockout rounds of the CCL. In the return at Red Bull Arena, he did a passable imitation of Kljestan himself, with Wright-Phillips’ passing and vision setting up all three Red Bulls goals.
In between, Wright-Phillips made a cameo appearance against the Portland Timbers on Saturday — coming off the bench to score his team’s second goal. In doing so, he reached a remarkable efficiency benchmark; among the top 15 goalscorers in MLS history, his goals per 90 minutes rate of nearly 0.70 has now moved him ahead of Robbie Keane to the top of the list.
Keane is perhaps an apt reference point for Wright-Phillips. Where other players like David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco have both the technical and cultural components that go into becoming impact Designated Players — Villa as a prodigious goalscorer and excellent club ambassador, Giovinco as the touchstone that transformed what had looked to be a terminally snakebitten franchise — Keane and Wright-Phillips are footballers who do the hardest job on the field with metronomic regularity. Taking them for granted is almost a compliment.
Almost a compliment.
In truth, there was something off-kilter about not even mentioning Wright-Phillips’ contribution, much less dismissing it, in the past weekend’s conversation regarding Villa as potentially the most successful foreign MLS Designated Player ever.
Speaking with ESPN FC before Tuesday’s game, Wright-Phillips’ coach, Jesse Marsch, insisted on his place in that conversation:
“He’s at the top. Because ultimately DPs are typically brought in to be impact players, and Brad’s impact is scoring goals— and ultimately there’s no more impactful way to affect the game than scoring goals.
“Obviously, when you talk Villa and Giovinco you’ve got two other guys who are really well-rounded players and certainly make big cases for themselves, but I think Brad’s longevity and consistency in scoring goals is better than anybody we’ve ever seen in this league. That for me, for sure, makes him one of the best.”
More than that though, Wright-Phillips’ sheer efficiency has bought space for Marsch to reinvent his team around youth and increasing technical versatility — with the knowledge that for every personnel change or system tweak, the goalscorer up front will make the learning curves much less steep.
“Look, we know that with the style of play that we have that we will always create chances,” Marsch said. “We make the opponent uncomfortable. We impose ourselves and put the game on our terms. And the key to taking that and converting it into results is our ability around the goal.
“So when you have a guy like Brad — who, first of all, fits the tactical system because he works and he’s smart and clever with fitting into our team, but also when you create the opportunities for him and you know his success rate of scoring goals is so high — it’s key for this system to work. We’ve tried at different times with different strikers other than Brad and never been nearly as successful.”
There could be a little foreshadowing in that praise. Marsch has been unsentimental in moving senior players on before — even in advance of their production dipping, as Dax McCarty and Kljestan can testify. Marsch has also spoken of the difficult buy-in he asks of senior players, to essentially train their eventual replacements.
But Bradley Wright-Phillips has been here before. And his numbers don’t lie.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.