Signing players who won’t likely have a starting role doesn’t typically bring a lot of excitement to soccer club’s fanbases, especially ones who have just won big. But if you were anywhere near Twitter one week ago when the Columbus Crew announced the arrival of veteran striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, you probably noticed the exact opposite among Black & Gold fans.
Crew fans are rightfully still ecstatic with the team’s victory at the 2020 MLS Cup Final and the movement of bringing one of the greatest strikers to ever play in Major League Soccer for what’s presumed to be a backup role only reinforced the feeling that the team is determined to stay among the best in the league.
Signing Wright-Phillips, a two-time MLS Golden Boot winner, is a move that makes complete sense for Columbus for a number of reasons. First, players who are able to score more than 100 goals in MLS don’t grow on trees and if you have a chance to get your hands on one of those, you absolutely should do so. If that player is still productive, the signing becomes a no-brainer.
Wright-Phillips, the league’s sixth all-time leading scorer with 116 goals, will turn 36 around the presumed start of the 2021 season in mid-March, and will very likely be the oldest player on the Black & Gold roster. But he showed in 2020 while playing for LAFC that he still has some gas left in the tank, winning the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award.
This year, the veteran Englishman played the fewest regular season minutes since his arrival in MLS (excluding 2013, when he was signed by the New York Red Bulls midway through the season) but still managed to produce eight goals and six assists in 18 matches (14 starts). Simply put, that’s more than any Black & Gold player not named Gyasi Zardes did in 2020 — winger Pedro Santos had similar production with six goals and eight assists.
However, more than just adding a nice piece to an already strong squad, what the Crew did with Wright-Phillip’ss signing was addressing one of the roster’s most glaring needs ahead of the upcoming season. In 2020, the Crew was fortunate to have Zardes in good form and scoring all season because none of the three players behind him on the team’s depth chart seemed to have a lot of confidence from head coach Caleb Porter.
Fanendo Adi’s reclamation project clearly failed with the athletic striker only seeing the field for 175 minutes and failing to score a single goal. Jordan Hamilton had only two appearances off the bench combining for 13 minutes of action. Krisztian Nemeth was arguably the most promising of all three after arriving late in the season and scoring a game-winning goal against the Philadelphia Union, but if the Crew needed to let him walk to be able to bring Wright-Phillips, the team was glad to pay that price.
The 2021 season should be different for the Crew in a number of ways and Wright-Phillips will be able to help many of them. For starters, there will be extra pressure on the team to repeat its 2020 championship-winning performance and, having a player forged in the English Premier League’s Manchester City academy and with years of experience in England before coming to MLS certainly doesn’t hurt.
Also, Zardes won’t be around as much as he was in 2020. International play is expected to resume and the striker should be part of the plans of former Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. Men’s National Team during both the FIFA World Cup qualifiers and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, meaning he could be out for a decent portion of the season. In that case, having a backup as reliable as Wright-Philipps could prove very important.
Add in that Columbus will play more games in 2021 than it has in a long time after qualifying for the CONCACAF Championship League and the return of the U.S. Open Cup, and it’s apparent that the team will need more than Zardes to supply minutes at the forward position and score goals.
Also, the veteran striker’s adjustment to the team should be seamless. As is the case with Zardes, what makes Wright-Phillips lethal inside the penalty box is not his athleticism or his pace, but his smart movement. Like the Crew’s striker, the Englishman consistently puts himself in position to score with a single touch on the ball and once he gets some chemistry with his new teammates, he should be ready to cause havoc.
One area of the game in which Columbus will need to adjust when Wright-Phillips is on the field is defense. Even though he played for seven seasons in the Red Bull’s high-pressing system, he is not expected to have the energy to replicate the hard work Zardes does off the ball, especially if he’s expected to start for consecutive matches.
Wright-Phillips’ track record in MLS and his playing style indicate the Black & Gold made a great signing. The only yellow flag is his injury-riddled 2019 season, in which he started only nine matches and scored two goals with the Red Bulls, but his 2020 play seems to indicate that was just an off year in his career.