At first glance, he was just a journeyman striker shipped in to Harrison to partner Thierry Henry. Just the latest in a long line of players the Red Bulls had paired with Henry: Luke Rodgers, Kenny Cooper, Fabian Espindola, Tim Cahill; BWP was just another striking option for a team that had made a habit of cycling through striking options fairly quickly.
Bradley Wright-Phillips arrived at RBNY with a lot of experience. He had played for Manchester City, Southampton, Plymouth Argyle, Charlton Athletic, and landed in MLS after a short loan stint at Brentford.
He was not famous, though he had spent his life in close proximity to soccer celebrity. We knew about his famous father, Ian Wright - a legend at Arsenal. We knew about his older brother, Shaun Wright-Phillips, who found success with both Manchester City and Chelsea, and collected several England caps. And in its own way, perhaps having lived in the shadows cast by his better-known relatives recommended BWP to the job of playing in the shadow cast by Thierry Henry at RBNY.
BWP had been almost 10 years a pro when he arrived at Red Bull Arena. He landed with an open mind and an understandable interest in seeing RBNY's best-known player up close:
I came to play first of all to train, to see what it's like. I wasn't sure about playing in America, obviously Thierry (Henry) is here and I also know Lloyd from home - so that was a nice opportunity to play with him again. And now we're here.
His friendship with Lloyd Sam was instrumental in convincing both player and club (helmed by Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh at the time) to give each other a try. And, of course, there was the attraction of playing alongside Henry, the man who broke Ian Wright's Arsenal scoring record.
BWP signed in late 2013, mostly providing off-the-bench depth for RBNY's run at the Supporters' Shield. He scored his first goal for the Red Bulls on October 20, 2013, knocking in his team's third against a Houston Dynamo side that had been floored by Tim Cahill's (at the time) record-breaking fastest goal in MLS history.
Every fan in BBVA Compass Stadium knew history had been made that day, they just didn't realize it had been made twice: Cahill's wonder-goal was accompanied by the beginning of one of the most productive scoring careers MLS has ever seen.
BWP was on the pitch when RBNY clinched its first-ever trophy: the 2013 Supporters' Shield. And he was the last player to score for the team that season, bagging his first playoff goal (and first at Red Bull Arena) in the team's doomed effort to get by Houston in the post-season.
He was the first player to score for RBNY in 2014, grabbing a consolation goal against Vancouver in the Red Bulls' opening-day defeat by the 'Caps. Still there was no great sign of what was to come. BWP stayed quiet as his team struggled through the first six games of 2014: four ties and two losses, and just that solitary first-day goal from Wright-Phillips.
If you had been watching RBNY, you saw potential in BWP's movement off the ball. He made the right runs for a team that increasingly depended on Henry as a play-maker rather than a goal scorer. He looked like he could be the piece the Red Bulls were missing: a disciplined, dedicated, run-the-channels striker to make something of the vision and ability of a midfield featuring Henry and Peguy Luyindula. But he needed to start finishing chances.
Houston came to the rescue. On April 23, 2014, the floodgates opened: BWP bagged a hat-trick against the Dynamo and has really never looked back since.
What followed was one of the all-time great single-season scoring sprees in MLS history. BWP was rarely off the scoresheet for the rest of the year. He scored 27 in the regular season, matching the league record held by San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski and former Tampa Bay Mutiny and DC United Striker Roy Lassiter.
His early dominance in MLS was astonishing. A near-unknown on the cusp of 30, tearing up the league, outscoring more illustrious reputations. A closer look at his career history suggested this was within the spectrum of BWP's ability: he had back-to-back 20+ goal seasons in England in 2010-11 and 2011-12. But those were achieved in League One - the third tier of English football. And it was a dramatic fall-off in scoring in the 2012-13 season that meant he was available to RBNY in the first place.
Comfortable in his role with the Red Bulls, we saw what BWP could do: he could score. His job was to provide the finish to service provided by Henry, his buddy Lloyd Sam, Peguy Luyindula, Eric Alexander and even the fledgling star, Ambroise Oyongo (who was traded to the Montreal Impact for Felipe in 2015). A curious narrative emerged: "the Henry effect" - it was the service that made BWP look good. It became part of a remarkable effort to diminish the striker's achievements, one that succeeded in excluding him from even the top three in the 2014 MVP voting.
It seemed suspiciously as though the league's taste-makers simply couldn't accept that a guy whose previous biggest achievements had been on a modest stage could tear up MLS. You can judge a player by the achievements of the present or the past. In BWP's case, it seemed his past was held against him, and one of the all-time great single-season performances in league history was buried under a barrage of nonsense: "all he does is score goals" (that is how games are won: it's not a bad talent to have); "he scores too many penalties" (BWP has always maintained that PKs aren't his strength, and he proved it by missing so many in 2015 he was relieved of the responsibility).
No matter. Perhaps the absence of accolades is what fueled Wright-Phillips. He scored multiple goals six times in 2014 and three of them were hat tricks - against the Dynamo, Chicago Fire and the Seattle Sounders, all at Red Bull Arena. The Dynamo deserves special mention, since it was the club that got BWP scoring in 2013 and 2014. He plundered seven goals in all competitions against Houston over those two seasons - more than 20% of his two-year total (33).
While the league's promoters closed their eyes and ears and hoped BWP would go away, he proved his stand-alone talent to anyone who cared to see it at the end of 2014. In the last game of the regular season, the Red Bulls - who had struggled on the road all year - went to Kansas City without Thierry Henry. BWP scored twice, and his record-equaling 27th goal of the season was a single-handed demolition of one of the league's best center back pairings.
All future teammate Aurelien Collin could do was watch.
BWP scored twice again in RBNY's very next game: the opening match of the 2014 playoffs, also against KC. The last-minute winner that sent the Red Bulls through to the next round was a header off a scuffed cross that skewed awkwardly in the air for a long time. Only BWP judged its flight correctly.
He scored again in the first legs of the series against DC and the New England Revolution. But he was suspended for the second leg of the Eastern Conference final against the Revs - and that is where RBNY's 2014 season ended.
It seemed possible that might also have been the end of BWP's incredible work for the Red Bulls. The midfield creators with whom he had enjoyed such chemistry - Henry and Luyindula - were gone by the start of the 2015 season. So too was the coach, Mike Petke, who installed the tactical plan that played so well to BWP's strengths.
In 2015, RBNY turned a page. A new coach, Jesse Marsch, brought in new players - like Sacha Kljestan from Anderlecht, and Glen Cove Long Island native, Mike Grella. There would be a new playing style, one that tasked every player with doing work on both sides of the ball. BWP's magnificent 2014 had been achieved with him single-mindedly chasing passes into the 18-yard box. He didn't get many assists because there was almost never anyone around him to pass to: he was the tip of the spear, not the handle.
With new teammates and a new system, and BWP now 30, if you accepted the "Henry effect" hypothesis, then you were surely convinced Wright-Phillips' days at RBNY were numbered. It was a predictable story: a player shows his very best, the club changes everything, the player struggles, and seeks out a new place to play where he can better make use of his talent. Or for those stubbornly unconvinced by his ability: he'd get found out as a one-note, chase-and-shoot player who wouldn't fit into a tactical plan that wanted every attacking player to work all sides of the ball.
Didn't happen. BWP finished 2015 as the team's top-scorer, and proved to be an essential part of the senior core that took almost immediately to the new system and made it work from the start. RBNY claimed another Shield, and BWP claimed another share of a scoring record: the MLS record for regular-season goals in back-to-back seasons.
In 2016, the horrible 1-6 start coincided with a scoring drought for Wright-Phillips. Those still troubled by where he came from had fresh hope: perhaps this would be the year his limitations would be exposed.
Nope. He scored twice in RBNY's 3-2 win over Orlando on April 24. Since then, he's added another 18. He has torched the club and league record books. He passed Juan Pablo Angel's RBNY scoring record, and has a sign with his name on it at Red Bull Arena tasked with keeping up with the club's new top scorer's achievements.
And he has two league scoring record all to himself: most regular-season goals in a three-year span, and that third year isn't over yet; the first player to reach 20 goals in a regular season in MLS on two occasions.
Did he foresee this sort of success?
I never think that far ahead. I didn't think I would break some of the records I did, if I'm being honest. I felt playing with Thierry, I'd get chances to score and that's as far as it went. Sometimes you see some players go to England or go to Spain and it doesn't work out completely, but this league has been good to me.
Jesse Marsch has seen BWP up close during that difficult transition from the tactics of 2014 to those of the present day. In training before RBNY's 1-0 win over Montreal Impact, he shared his thoughts:
"I think that one of the most unique things about Brad is that he is the complete package. Sometimes I talk to the staff and I ask them - how do I play against Brad, what are you going to do?
Are you going to stop service from the flank? Because he is good in the box and he's good in the air. So are you going to need to have a deep line, because he's really good in moving behind. But if you do that you are going to give him space to operate underneath and he's a great player, and he can find combinations to set up plays that way.
Are you going to try and play a high line and catch him offside? But his movement is so good. Are you trying to be physical against him? That's been part of the book to play against him, but as time moves on here he's gotten more focused and he doesn't get frustrated anymore. He only needs one chance to bury it and he does it."
Perhaps his greatest personal achievement is yet to come. The past that seems to have been held against him might yet be eclipsed by his achievements in MLS. BWP scored a combined 80 goals in all competitions for his various English clubs. He has 71 in all competitions for RBNY. He's just nine goals short of making nearly a decade in English soccer a mere prelude to his best work: his time in MLS.
The MetroStars and Red Bulls have had many great scorers on their books over the year: Giovanni Savarese, Clint Mathis, Adolfo Valencia, Juan Pablo Angel and, of course, Thierry Henry. Bradley Wright-Phillips has surpassed them all, and he has answered every question thrown at his ability since he arrived in MLS.
Yes, other clubs have superstar players, but what is perhaps unique about Bradley Wright-Phillips is his honest, unpretentious hard work. Lothar Mattaus recently told Empire of Soccer that he wasn't treated like a superstar by MetroStars management. Ali Curtis recently complained to Metro (no relation) that BWP and Sacha Kljestan aren't treated like stars by MLS referees. You won't hear that complaint from Wright-Phillips. His career in MLS is just what you see on the field: he got a chance, and he buried it.
And all that remains for him to cap his career is to secure that elusive MLS Cup for RBNY. If he's on the field when that happens, it will be hard to challenge Jesse Marsch's suggestion that BWP is the club's greatest ever player.