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Wright-Phillips turns “last chance” into career-defining period

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Wright-Phillips arrived in New York yearning to make a name for himself. Now, club and MLS history cannot be written without him.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON – There was no bidding war, nor was there even a measly transfer fee, for perhaps the greatest goal-scorer in Major League Soccer history. Instead, in the summer of 2013, interest in Bradley Wright-Phillips was as desolate as D.C. United’s new Audi Field at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night: the original kick-off time for the 75th Atlantic Cup.

A merciless downpour delayed the start of the match, between the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United, one hour and 27 minutes. In short order, a moat-like pool formed between the arena’s main gate and concourse, with biblical rain testing the limits of the newly-implemented drainage system.

One hour, 28 minutes and 20 seconds later, Wright-Phillips scored his 100th MLS regular season goal, making a setting that seemed so unfamiliar and circumstances that seemed so strange suddenly recognizable and routine.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When asked about his ideal way to score number 100 after last week’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution, Wright-Phillips joked about the possibility.

“Bicycle kick from the halfway line,” he said.

But after scoring the century mark goal on Wednesday, he admitted that, aside from a perfectly-weighted pass from Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, the goal was born from a bad touch.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“I don’t think I’d normally shoot, but, I swear I took a bad touch,” Wright-Phillips said after the match on Wednesday. “I then thought I could shoot through, like, legs, you know? Normally when you take a bad touch, the keeper’s not really set. So, I thought if I just get a shot off, and I got a chance.”

Wright-Phillips’ opportunistic mindset was one part of the goal – which proved to be the match-winner in a 1-0 result – but there was also a strong itch to score, both literally and figuratively.

In one sense, he wanted to overcome the milestone, and everything that came with it. Entering the match, if Wright-Phillips scored anytime in his next 14 matches, he was going to become the fastest player in league history to reach 100 regular season goals.

The day before the match: July 24, was the five-year anniversary of his signing with the Red Bulls, a chance to reminisce and put his achievements into perspective.

New York Red Bulls

On that same day in 2013, there was precious little fanfare. Many fans cynically viewed the move as the completion of a hat-trick of lesser-known brother signings, following the club’s 2012 signing of Digão, brother of Kaká, who never played for the club, as well as the 2011 second-round drafting of John Rooney, brother of Wayne Rooney, who exited with one goal to his name.

Wright-Phillips went on to play against Kaká on several occasions in MLS, and squared up against the more heralded Rooney for the first time on Wednesday night, just another fascinating aspect to the perfect MLS screenplay.

He even welcomed his older brother, Shaun, who was once thought of as a better potential signing than him for the Red Bulls. Ultimately, of all the names just mentioned, none had or will have a better career in the United States than the younger Wright-Phillips.

Wright-Phillips downplays his personal accolades, though, which made the last few weeks – one of inevitable conversation about his chase for 100 – an unwanted exercise. And for a player that has been prolific for five seasons in a position that often demands a certain level of selfishness, the Red Bulls number 99 could not be more averse to the limelight.

“As soon as I scored I was like, ‘Thank God, I don’t have to talk about this anymore’, you know,” Wright-Phillips said of his 100th goal. “I don’t have to read anything on social media.”

Wright-Phillips was also relieved to see his shot get past D.C. United goalkeeper David Ousted because it meant that he was able to shed the customized jersey he had snuck under his scarlet red kit.

The celebration was inspired by his father, Ian Wright, who broke the scoring record at Premier League juggernaut Arsenal on Sep. 13, 1997. Wright’s record-eclipsing goal was his 179th for the club, and he celebrated by lifting Arsenal’s similarly-bright red kit over his head, revealing a white tank top that read, “179, just done it.”

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Wright’s Arsenal record for goals lasted only eight years, due to a certain elegant yet powerful French forward named Thierry Henry, who passed his 185-goal total on Oct. 18, 2005. Eight years following that, Wright-Phillips emerged from a one-month trial with the Red Bulls and signed to attack alongside Henry, the very man that broke his father’s scoring record.

“When I came here, it was almost my last chance to really give this thing a go,” Wright-Phillips said. “And, I put my head down, I listened to guys like Thierry, and, right now it’s paying off.”

Wright-Phillips scored 27 goals in his first full season in 2014, tying the single-season MLS record. In spite of that, following the retirement of Henry after the season, few expected him to carry on his goal-scoring prowess.

In that off-season, the Red Bulls turned over their front office and coaching staff, in a tumultuous three-month period that reinvented the club. No longer aiming to build around world superstars in the twilight of their careers, the team preached a system, with a whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

The new identity, which demanded a relentless work rate, was by no means tailored to Wright-Phillips, who would turn 30 before the Red Bulls’ second match of the 2015 season. On top of that, few imagined the former trailist was capable of thriving without his superstar ace alongside him.

AP

But Wright-Phillips shattered expectations in the new system, proving durable and consistently dependable in front of goal. Following a career highlight on Wednesday, the once overlooked striker is a mere goal away from becoming the first player in league history to score 15 times in five consecutive seasons.

Somewhere along the last three-and-a-half seasons, the narrative of a star absent team changed, as observers began to recognize Wright-Phillips as more than a finisher fully dependent on his service. Over time, with his egoless demeanor and insatiable hunger, he proved to be the perfect role model for a team that asks for tireless commitment, built with mainly young players.

“When you have guys like him in the locker room, it raises the standard of everything,” head coach Chris Armas said after the match on Wednesday. “When he speaks – and he doesn’t, he’s not a guy of many words – but he does command the locker room, video room, and people listen. And, he’s so well respected, because of how he shows up every day, and the work that he puts in.”

When asked after the match when he felt the perception of himself changed, Wright-Phillips at first gave a light-hearted answer.

“Couple of weeks ago, maybe, a few weeks ago,” he said.

But when pressed on how the perspective, even a couple of years ago, was different, Wright-Phillips showed a level of awareness and thoughtfulness that is unique to him.

“It was always about that system,” he added. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s, I’m not sure. I don’t know how much respect I get now. To be totally honest, I’m not too bothered.”

For his historic goal, Wright-Phillips’ initial aim was to wear a shirt that read, “100 for 99,” which would have, in a way, recreated his father’s celebration. But, upon arriving in D.C., the 33-year-old striker discovered that the team’s kit man, Sean Ruiz, had thought up a new idea.

His proposal was more authentic, while still iconic and connecting back to Wright’s celebration nearly 21 years ago. Instead of a shirt, Ruiz had a number 100 jersey for number 99.

“When he showed me the actual shirt, I said, ‘Yeah, this could work’,” Wright-Phillips said. “Kind of clever, and then, I was just thinking, please let me be lucky enough to score, because, I wanted to show the traveling fans the jersey.”

Rendered the slightest bit heavier with the extra layer, if Wright-Phillips’ second minute shot had been saved by Ousted, the number 100 jersey may never have had its moment.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The soft-spoken star did not take over the match, he rarely does. But, in a way that epitomized his illustrious stay in New York, he used graceful off-the-ball movement to arrive in a dangerous space in the second minute, and from there, called on the goalkeeper to make a save. On that lone occasion on Wednesday, Ousted was incapable of doing so.

Fittingly, in an arena that many never imagined would come to fruition, Wright-Phillips achieved something that no one thought was possible. And, on a night when the heavens opened up, the English striker, whose burning desire since arriving in the United States was to make a name for himself, achieved MLS immortality.

“In that moment, I almost didn’t – the soccer game didn’t matter, for that second,” Armas said of the 100th goal after the match. “I was just so happy for Brad, just so happy for him in that moment.”

“And he doesn’t really like the attention, obviously he planned a little something there,” Armas went on to say. “But, he’s so much about giving the credit for his teammates and all. But, in that moment, it was so much about Brad and just having a moment, just to enjoy watching him.”