There’s been an ongoing struggle to define Bradley Wright-Phillips’ role in the Red Bulls’ attack. He scores a lot of goals, but isn’t big enough to be a target striker, scores too much to be a deep-lying forward, and doesn’t drift wide enough to be consider an inside forward or winger.
Despite the “what is he anyway?” nature of his game, one extremely reductive designation of his abilities should not be tolerated. Please stop referring to Wright-Phillips as a “poacher”.
Does he illegally hunt animals? No. (In fact, his positional “type” is more akin to an endangered species than someone who hunts them, but we’ll get to that later.)
Does he cook his eggs by swirling them in a pot of boiling water? Maybe, but he doesn’t do it on the field! So unless you are in the Wright-Phillips’ kitchen at breakfast time (if you are - Bradley, call the cops because there is someone hiding in your kitchen), please do not refer to the man as a poacher.
Poachers rarely get involved on defense and tend to be a speed bump in possession, neither of which applies to Wright-Phillips. If he didn’t get involved on defense, he would no longer be a rostered member of Jesse Marsch’s High Pressing Birds. If he was unable to contribute to the build-up, then he would not have already racked up four assists in all competitions this season.
The term “poacher” evokes a lumbering or lucky striker who stumbles into scoring opportunities, a player who happens to be standing in the box as teammates rebound balls off of him and into the net. To the casual observer, perhaps that is what Wright-Phillips does. Throughout his MLS tenure, his goal scoring prowess has been downplayed and instead credited to a rotating cast of characters such as Thierry Henry, Sacha Kljestan, and anyone who has ever passed him anything, be it a soccer ball or a toll ticket on the New Jersey Turnpike.
However, it’s the well-worn subtleties of his game that one can miss or take for granted. Take for example his second goal in the Red Bulls’ 3-0 win over Minnesota United:
Many who watch this goal will rave about Alex Muyl’s pass and the pinpoint finish, but that ignores the move Wright-Phillips makes to create just enough space. A move that Brit Byrd noticed and described on Episode 085 of the View from 202 podcast:
“Even from [the stands] we were faked out because Bradley just does the subtlest body fake. He’s positioned in a way that looks like he’s going to take a touch around the keeper and then before you even noticed what’s happened, he just toe pokes it and it’s like a line drive that just goes softly into the corner. And it just looked so effortless and in one smooth motion… [He] is able to control his body and instinctually read his periphery. And you can just tell that he is seeing in his peripheral vision how [the keeper] is positioned and that he’s not ready. [Wright-Phillips] just had the idea and went with it.”
To refer to Wright-Phillips as a poacher is to implicitly distance oneself from truly appreciating and lauding his abilities. To an extremely militant pessimist, it’s a hands off way of saying, “This guy played in League One, therefore any goals he scores in Major League Soccer are a result of other people because his success invalidates the growth of the American game.” This sentiment completely ignores the fact that people thrive in different circumstances – all of us, from athletes to you, one of six people reading halfway through this post before closing it [cheap attempt at good-natured self-depreciation so you’ll like me more despite this hectoring blog post].
Wright-Phillips has experienced incredible success in MLS with the New York Red Bulls, but that’s not to say he would succeed with another MLS team or not make an impact at various clubs in Europe’s top leagues. One size does not fit all when it comes to roster building, but I digress and return to the pedantic point at hand.
If one cannot refer to Wright-Phillips as a poacher, then what term can you pull from the mental rolodex to both accurately describe his abilities and sound cultured?
Please henceforth refer to BWP as a “fox in the box”. As with most Briticisms, it sounds silly and like more of a nursery rhyme warning against some deadly plague than a description of the deadliest striker in MLS history, but rest assured that it fits.
As described by Amy Lawrence for The Guardian, the “fox in the box” is a striker who is “not robust enough to play alone up front, yet denied the chance to be half of a front-two partnership.” The role is considered an endangered species because teams are building around three man fronts, with the man in the center being “an imposing specimen” like Robert Lewandowski or Karim Benzema or a “smaller, stockier player who mix supreme skill with fiery toughness and physical resilience” such as Diego Costa or Luis Suárez.
This isn’t to say that Wright-Phillips is some one-use tool; he can hold his own in back-to-the-goal possession against defenders (watch how many times he gets battered by overly physical center backs during any match) and win balls in the final third (watch any highlight reel of his), but it’s his movement and ability to find the back of the net that must be appreciated.
A player doesn’t score 88 goals in five years because he’s a lucky poacher or because of the quality of his teammates. There’s a constant hunt for space, even if it’s just an inch inside of a crowded box, and an elusive nature that makes him a nightmare for center backs to track for 90 minutes. A lot of his goals may come mere yards from the goal, but do you see anyone else in MLS scoring at a similar rate? Clearly he’s doing something differently than his competitors.
According to Luis Robles, “Jesse should go to sleep every night thanking God for Bradley Wright-Phillips.”
This post-match declaration is not just true for Jesse, but the entire club, its fans, and even casual MLS viewers. All of us are watching an all-time goal scorer do his job with an inspired consistency and lack of fanfare.
Perhaps you, the reader, can also thank God for this blog post because you now have the words to properly classify what role Wright-Phillips plays on the field and never have to use the belittling “poacher” designation ever again.
No, I’m kidding, you don’t have to do that. Just donate to my Patreon.