Major League Soccer has a number of very good goal scorers. There are the high-profile players who came from the top leagues in Europe like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa. There are other MLS names like Josef Martinez, Gyasi Zardes, Ola Kamara, Nemanja Nikolic and Mauro Manotas, to name a few, who have made their name by playing in the league. But no one has been as lethal over the last six seasons as the New York Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The striker scored in Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over D.C. United. It was the third consecutive game in which he scored a goal. It also was his 100th finish in MLS, making him the fastest player in league history to reach that mark, in just 159 games.
On Saturday, Wright-Phillips look for his 101st goal, this time against Columbus Crew SC.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for how he plays, how he operates,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said of Wright-Phillips this week. “Because his timing and his movement is insane. That’s the difference right there. He puts himself in such good goal scoring positions. And then he’s clever enough and good enough to finish them. But it all starts with his movement.”
While Wright-Phillips has arguably been the most successful forward in MLS history, his career didn’t begin so prosperously. Despite great lineage — his father, Ian Wright, is one of the most prolific goal scorers in top-flight English soccer history — Wright-Phillips struggled early on in England.
In nine years playing in either the English Premier League or the Championship, Wright-Phillips scored 72 goals, or an average of eight per year. In his five and a half years in MLS, Wright-Phillips is averaging over 18 goals per season.
“He’s got this casual demeanor about him that he just kind of floats, floats and then bang. His change of pace and his timing are unbelievable,” Crew SC center back Josh Williams said of what makes Wright-Phillips so good. “His ability to lull you to sleep one way and then pop up in the most dangerous space he can get into. He’s one of those goal scorers, he’s a poacher.”
But even Wright-Phillips’ MLS beginnings were humble ones. When the forward first made his way from England to the United States in the summer of 2013, he did so on a trial with the Red Bulls. It didn’t take long for the club to realize his talent and sign him and he helped New York win the Supporters’ Shield that season.
“He’s got the pedigree,” Berhalter said of Wright-Phillips. “Maybe his size wasn’t good enough for the level he was playing at in England, but the guy’s just a killer goal scorer. Any time he gets the ball, you worry a little bit.”
Over the course of his time in MLS, Wright-Phillips has appeared against Columbus 11 times in the regular season. He has scored eight goals in those contests. Given his scoring rate, it’s almost surprising to look at Red Bulls’ scoresheet and not see Wright-Phillips name on it.
The June 9 match between the Black & Gold and the New York was one of the rare times the forward finished a game against Crew SC without a goal. In that contest, a 1-1 draw at MAPFRE Stadium, it was Alex Muyl who scored a second half equalizer. Because of the talent the Red Bulls possess, opponents can’t just key in on the striker.
On Saturday, the Crew SC defense hopes to not only hold Wright-Phillips scoreless for the second time in 2018, but keep his New York teammates off the board as well.
“I think just having your head on a swivel, talking early, taking that extra step into a space. Maybe even anticipating a little bit,” Williams said of defending the Red Bulls. “Just reading the game. Having a high soccer I.Q., being able to read the game. And also trust the guy to the right, left and in front of you. It’s a big part of how we defend is you have to trust everybody on your line.
If you step into a Wright-Phillips, a Wil (Trapp), an Arty (Atur), Rico (Clark), Mo (Abu), they’re coming back on a Kaku possibly at the top of the box. So it’s just trusting yourself, trusting your ability to go one on one with a guy and trusting the rest of the team’s ability to put in the work to get in the right position.”
The ultimate goal on Saturday for Crew SC is to come back from Red Bull Arena with a full three points. The Black & Gold have just two road wins this year, scoring just three goals away from MAPFRE Stadium. This puts a big emphasis on the defense to try and hold the opposition off the board to get some kind of result.
But with a player like Wright-Phillips on the field, you just have to do your job and hope for the best.
“A guy with that much quality, there are some days where he’s just going to beat you,” Williams said. “That’s why he has as many goals as he does. But I think we are vocal, we’re touch tight, we’re a little tough on him. I think we can limit his chances.”