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Wright-Phillips basks in the surreal nature of a night dedicated to him

On a night dedicated to his scoring, number 99 could not avoid the limelight, even if his winning contribution was a selfless pass.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at New York Red Bulls
Bradley Wright-Phillips smiles while addressing the crowd during his ceremony on Sunday night. The 100-goal-scorer had his number retired, received a match ball from July 25, the day he scored his 100th goal, and also received a Rolex watch, a personal gift from General Manager Marc de Grandpre.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley Wright-Phillips knew what was coming on Sunday night at Red Bull Arena. The thought of a post-match 100-goal commemoration was present in his mind since the early afternoon, and the closer it got to kick-off, the more he began to worry. This was not his idea.

“I won’t lie to you, in the car – because I knew something was happening today – I was thinking, imagine if we lose and they are doing all, you know what I mean?,” Wright-Phillips said afterward. “And you’re asking fans to stay behind and clap for a player, and you don’t know how you’re going to play that day.”

New York huddles moments before kick-off, with the South Ward displaying its tifo in honor of Bradley Wright-Phillips.
James Justice

The match began in a flurry, with Wright-Phillips twirling inside Los Angeles Football Club’s 18-yard-box within 20 seconds, lining up a lethal injection to Tyler Miller’s goal. It was exactly one minute earlier than when he scored his 100th in D.C. on July 25, and it would have made for his fastest goal as a member of the Red Bulls.

But, the 100-goal-scorer watched as his effort flew wide of the post, glaring after the miss at Referee Alan Chapman, dumbfounded by the lack of a corner kick. In the blink of an eye, the dream start was taken off course, as Wright-Phillips insists his shot was.

“That’s a corner by the way, that was blocked,” Wright-Phillips stated after the match, more confidently than anything else he uttered throughout the long night.

Without that early goal, the Red Bulls had to sweat out dangerous moments generated by the visitors in in the first half, from a free header in the 17th minute that was squandered to an opportunistic 36th minute shot that skipped off the post.

On another night, Wright-Phillips may have been a substitution casualty, taken out before his game-changing contribution late. Sunday was not any night, though, and the 33-year-old played the full match, allowing him to make a trademark run off the shoulders of the LAFC backline in the 80th minute, with the match tied at 1-1.

Taking down a pass that was dropped on his foot, in stride, from Marc Rzatkowski, Wright-Phillips had two options: pass or shoot. To his left and a few steps behind him was Daniel Royer, who had scored the match’s first goal in the 39th minute.

Two seasons into his tenure, Royer was quietly one goal shy of cracking the top-10 in Red Bulls history, in terms of league goals. If Wright-Phillips is scoring option one, Royer is certainly option two, and the two have a history of connecting with each other for decisive goals.

Wright-Phillips delivered a cross to Royer on April 28 to open the scoring in a 3-2 win against the L.A. Galaxy, and did so again on May 12, in a 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Los Angeles Galaxy
Daniel Royer leaps into Bradley Wright-Phillips’ arms, following Wright-Phillips’ cross and Royer’s goal, on April 28 at StubHub Center.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Also done without much fanfare, Wright-Phillips was one assist away from breaking into the top-10 in terms of assists in club history. And yet, very few imagined the hesitation and set-up pass from number 99, which positioned number 77 for his own signature moment, on a night that was advertised as a celebration of the teammate who passed up the chance.

“He’s in a better position than me,” Wright-Phillips said after the win. “I think, maybe I can score. But, I think he has a better chance to score, so, I think it’s the obvious decision.”

The final whistle gave way to the extracurricular portion of the night, the unwanted attention that Wright-Phillips has been unable to avoid in recent times.

“I told him before the game, it’s not our fault,” head coach Chris Armas joked after the match. “You scored the 100, not me, you know what I mean? So, you’ve got to take the recognition.”

As Wright-Phillips gazed toward the north end of Red Bull Arena and absorbed a video message from family, friends and former companions on the field, he looked like someone who had sat out too long in the sun, appearing both mentally and physically expended.

Flanked on stage by his head coach, general manager, sporting director – none of whom were at the club when he arrived – and most importantly, his family, Wright-Phillips absorbed the moment. The once overshadowed son of an Arsenal icon and brother to an England national team regular – the very brother that held one of his three children on stage – had become an indelible part of New York’s history.

Bradley Wright-Phillips stands alongside family, Sporting Director Denis Hamlett (second from left), GM Marc de Grandpre (third from left) and head coach Chris Armas (far right).

The former journeyman in England, formerly of Manchester City, Southampton, Plymouth Argyle, Charlton Athletic and Brentford, is even more grateful when he thinks back to his first half season with New York.

After signing on July 24, 2013, Wright-Phillips was brought back for the 2014 season, despite hamstring injuries that limited him to nine games, five starts and two goals. One season earlier, the Red Bulls had parted ways with Kenny Cooper, who scored 18 goals in his first season with the club.

“It’s not often someone comes in and straight away just, you know, explodes,” Wright-Phillips said. “I had a hamstring injury, I wasn’t in the team all the time. So, I didn’t think I’d be gone, I didn’t know how things worked here.”

“Maybe when I look back, it’s kind of lucky that they kept me,” Wright-Phillips went on to say. “But, yeah, at the time I just thought that I’m just working my way in. So, I definitely thought I would have another year. But, who knows?”

The heel click of the proceeding – that is to say, the icing on the cake – was performed by GM Marc de Grandpre, who announced that the number 99 was Wright-Phillips’, “now and forever.” The ceremony put a bow on the greatest five-year run an MLS trialist has ever given an organization, but the Wright-Phillips story may be far from over.

“If it’s up to me, football is very, you can never say – but if it’s up to me, I would stay here, yeah, forever,” Wright-Phillips said, seated at the podium instead of his usual locker room station.

The centurion goal-scorer then swiveled his head to Sporting Director Denis Hamlett, who was seated in the back of the interview room, and blurted, “Dennis!”.

Wright-Phillips looked away to prepare for the next question, but could not resist turning back to his sporting director and bursting into laughter. The whole room laughed with him, including Hamlett. He had earned the moment.