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The BWP Effect: why Bradley Wright-Phillips deserves more credit

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BWP could finish this season as an all-time Metro legend. Let's not conflate his achievements with those of another all-time club great just because they happen to play together...

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

At the time of writing, Bradley Wright-Phillips has scored 18 goals in 22 league appearances for New York Red Bulls in 2014.

His next goal in MLS will bring him level with Juan Pablo Angel's single-season club record for league goals scored; if he scores another three goals this year, he'll be level with Adolfo Valencia's single-season club record for goals scored in all competitions. Four more goals, and he'll have had the most prolific season anyone has ever managed in the history of this team. And you, lucky reader, are alive to see if it happens.

Such is RBNY's limited success at hanging on to consistent goal scorers, BWP is already just the 11th player to reach 20 goals for the team in all competitions (he had a couple last year, remember). Since he won a regular starting role in 2014 and was allowed the opportunity to log serious minutes alongside his teammates, BWP has been exceptional for this club.

He has been exceptional in the context of MLS overall as well. An article published on mlssoccer.com in the build-up to the All-Star game noted BWP was (at  the time he had 17 goals from 20 games) matching the pace of the most remarkable MLS single-season goal-scoring spree since 1996: Chris Wondolowski's 2012, which ended with the Quakes' striker bagging 27 goals, matching Roy Lassiter's tally in the league's inaugural year.

That is a great many goals, and the sort of scoring glut MLS perhaps ought to be getting more excited about, but the same article took a different tack.

Despite noting BWP's goals came from fewer shots (approximately 20% fewer) than Wondo's, the Englishman's success was attributed to the "Henry effect" - which was described as the reason behind the fact Wright-Phillips was scoring his goals from closer range than Wondo had averaged through his first 17 goals in 2012.

Really? I've seen BWP shoot from distance: he has power in his shot, but he's not the most accurate from long range. One might suggest BWP scores from closer to goal than other top-tier MLS strikers of past years because he isn't great at shooting from long range (there's a reason that goal against Bayern Munich surprised a lot of people), so he doesn't do it very often. Perhaps others have simply chosen to shoot more often from further away because that's what they like to do.

For BWP, his shot count is arguably lower than might be expected of basically the only striker in the RBNY tactical set-up at the moment because he is focused on finishing, not shooting. And, because he is very good at outmaneuvering defenders in the box to get close to goal, he is getting himself a lot of chances to finish.

Will BWP get to 27 for the season? Unlikely.

Wondo's 2012 Quakes were much better than RBNY in 2014. The 2012 San Jose Earthquakes scored goals for fun, won the Supporters' Shield, and by the end of the season were united in the task of helping Wondo get 27 goals. Wondo finished the regular season having taken 127 shots, second only to Kei Kamara.

Roy Lassiter's Tampa Bay Mutiny also won the Shield in 1996. Lassiter's stats for that season are extraordinary, but so too was the team he was playing for overall (it included Carlos Valderrama and that year's Rookie of the Year and future all-time MLS assist-leader, Steve Ralston).

Wright-Phillips plays for a different team than Wondo did in 2012 or Lassiter in '96- a lesser team, despite its captain, its Cahill and its 2013 Shield title - and he gets fewer opportunities as a result. It is part of the reason why his tally to date should be acknowledged as outstanding: he's not playing for a very good side. Not as bad as Chivas USA, but only four points better than the Goats at the moment.

Since Bradley's potential was first recognized by Manchester City and the England Under-20 side, he has proved to be a goal scorer of note   -Andy Roxburgh (mlssoccer.com)

As of August 22, just before RBNY starts its helter-skelter season run-in, BWP has scored more MLS goals in fewer minutes (1761) and with fewer shots (68) than his three closest rivals for the Golden Boot. Dom Dwyer has 16 goals from 1932 minutes and 80 shots; Erick Torres has 14 from 1985 minutes and 72 shots; Robbie Keane has taken 86 shots in 1889 minutes on the field for 13 goals.

The reasons behind BWP's exceptional scoring run should be clear from the statistics: he is being exceptionally efficient in front of goal.

He is exceptionally accurate: second in the league for shots-on-target (37) to Keane (38). He is exceptionally successful: no player in the league who has attempted more than 40 shots has a higher percentage conversion of scoring chances at the moment (26.5%). And a high success rate coupled with the relatively low number of shots he takes compared to other players in his position (that would be: a striker carrying most of the attack for his team) suggests he is exceptionally judicious.

Nearly every one of [BWP's] goals was scored inside the box and Henry...has been able to put the ball on [his] foot   -Frank Giase (The Star-Ledger/nj.com)

Or not. The chat about BWP prior to the All-Star game was largely trying to explain why he wasn't one of the players many of the opinion-makers were pushing to make the squad. He was added to the roster as a Commissioner's pick, because how do you leave your runaway top-scorer off your All-Star team? But the general take on BWP appears to be he's running around tapping in the goals created by Thierry Henry.

This analysis seems limited.

First, it discounts the simple fact that BWP was a proven and prolific goal scorer well before he arrived in MLS. In two seasons, 2010-11 and 2011-12, he scored 43 goals in 87 competitive appearances. In England's League One, which is why perhaps the league doesn't like to talk about it very much and why he wasn't more heavily promoted as an exceptional goal scorer when he arrived (remember Andy Roxburgh's suggestion Wright-Phillips would play on the wing?). But that is why he is here: he's very good at scoring goals, against less-than-elite defenses anyway (pace, Bayern Munich).

So one cannot say this is unprecedented in his career. BWP has never played with Thierry Henry before, but he has scored more than 20 goals in a season without such illustrious assistance. Twice. If he does it a third time, it ought to take a little more effort than simply being able to name his most famous teammate to attribute his record to the "Henry effect".

Second, the number of goals created for BWP by Thierry Henry isn't all that great.

Thierry Henry has been credited with an assist on seven of BWP's 18 MLS regular season goals to date. The first of those - the opener in the 4-0 win over Houston back in April - is Exhibit A for those making the case Wright-Phillips is no more than a tap-in merchant for Henry's sublime passes:


It's a sweet cross, no question. And it certainly helps to take some heat off the Dynamo's defense if we chalk that one down to Henry's genius rather than the peculiar decision to let BWP stroll around the six-yard box unmarked. Nonetheless, that goal was definitely a tap-in, and it was definitely set up by Titi (who was directing the play before he even had the ball - watch him tell Kosuke Kimura where to send his pass).

But all assists are not created equal. Take the second goal of the very same game against the Dynamo:


That's another goal in which Henry is credited with an assist to BWP, but Henry's pass down the line wasn't quite good enough - it should have been intercepted by Warren Creavalle. Roy Miller keeps the play alive, and BWP outfoxes Jermaine Taylor. Credit Henry, by all means, but his work should have led to a throw-in; the goal was down to the effort of Roy Miller and BWP's ability to bamboozle a center back.

Of the other BWP goals where Henry has been credited with assists, it is certainly true most were down the captain: the match-winner against FC Dallas in May (also one of Dax McCarty's better moments this year); the second goal against Chicago the following week; the equalizer in Kansas City on May 27 (also thanks to the linesman - that's a 50/50 offside call going RBNY's way); the opener against Columbus in July.

Finally, there is the most recent product of the alleged Henry-to-BWP factory: RBNY's consolation goal in the 3-1 loss to Philadelphia Union:


For me, that goal has a lot more to do with BWP's finishing than Henry's creative and technical ability. Yes, Titi does an excellent job of controlling Ambroise Oyongo's pass, but his pass to BWP isn't on the "doorstep" - not by a long way. Ethan White gives BWP a little too much space to shoot, but it isn't an easy shot and it had to be taken quickly. BWP makes the right decision (Shoot!) at the right time (Now!) and executes perfectly (Goal!).

In fairness to the "Henry effect" hypothesis, seven assists out of 18 is a lot. If you consider that four of BWP's goals have been penalties, you can say  - without fear of contradiction - Bradley Wright-Phillips has been assisted by Thierry Henry on 50% of his goals from open play. And that is a great many.

Except, if you want to say BWP is depending on Henry for goals, I think you have to subtract the second goal against Houston in May (because Roy Miller made that happen) and the one against the Union in July (because if a pass from Henry is enough to turn a shot from 18 yards into a goal, RBNY would score six or seven goals a game).

So we're down to five goals following the Titi-feeds-BWP-on-the-doorstep model - less than a third of the 18 to Wright-Phillips's name.

One might as well talk about the "Houston effect" (BWP has five goals against the Dynamo this year) or start talking about the "PK effect" for Dwyer and Torres (six and five goals from the spot this season, respectively).

Still, five doorstep-passes to one guy is significant - for Henry; he's only got 10 assists for the season so far.

Without [BWP] who knows where we'd be right now   -Mike Petke (mlssoccer.com)

And therein lies the point: it is perhaps not so much that BWP is disproportionately relying on Thierry Henry for his goals, but maybe more that Titi is getting an unusual number of assists because he's passing to BWP. The captain has 70% of his assists for the season courtesy of Wright-Phillips.

Thierry Henry is the team's best player: its most accomplished, its most technically adept, and its most intelligent. Titi sees things the other guys don't - including when BWP has made a smart run to an open position - and he can put the ball where he wants it more often than most players in the league, let alone in RBNY's squad.

But the "Henry effect" is overstated. What RBNY is currently profiting from is the service of a smart striker who is playing his position extremely well: getting into the right places, making the right decisions, and carrying the burden of scoring for a team which has struggled to find a tactical plan to get Tim Cahill or Henry regularly into scoring positions.

Mike Petke cycled through a number of forward options during RBNY's opening, winless, six games of this season. Someone needed to step up and start the team scoring more fluidly. The team's first win came in its seventh game (against Philadelphia) this year, which happened to be BWP's third start. The very next game brought the second win, and Wright-Phillips's first hat-trick at Red Bull Arena. He's been leading the line ever since.

He's been assisted by Henry, Lloyd Sam, Eric Alexander, Ambroise Oyongo, Roy Miller, Dax McCarty, Matt Miazga, Tim Cahill and Jonny Steele. He's scored with his headright foot and left foot.

And he usually scores from close range - regardless of who is passing him the ball, regardless of whether he's chasing a cross or a through-ball, anticipating a flick-on or conjuring something out of nothing - because this is what the team has needed: a finisher.

RBNY has been figuring itself out all season. The tactical consistency of last year has gone out the window, in part because the club elected to tinker with a settled lineup, in part because the tinkering didn't work out, and in part because there's only so many times you can bring the same tactics to a game before your opponents start to figure out its weaknesses.

More often than not in 2014, RBNY has the top scorer from last year playing in midfield and its most consistent scorer of the past four years playing anywhere he pleases. This is a side which sometimes relies on Thierry Henry, sometimes leans on its wide-men, occasionally resorts to simply punting the ball long and hoping for the best.

The lineups have been varied, the outcomes even more so. And the only thing keeping the whole season from falling apart (just - he's a man, not a magician) has been a striker sufficiently versatile, intelligent and hard-working to keep finding the right positions to finish chances and make sense of whatever nonsense has taken hold of the team on a particular day.

Let's call that the BWP effect.