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Bradley Wright-Phillips deserved far better from Red Bulls

There is truly no low the Red Bulls won’t stoop to in their attempt to stay ahead of the curve.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at New York Red Bulls
The organization that honored Wright-Phillips last summer casted him away this winter.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

In this high-press, low-spend era, the flashiest thing the New York Red Bulls do is discard club legends.

In a time when Connor Lade and Luis Robles were allowed to walk away so gracefully, it’s downright appalling that Wright-Phillips was let go so unceremoniously.

Although the narrative has been that Wright-Phillips’ age caught up with him this season, and that his exit last Thursday was a sort of mutual acknowledgment from both parties that he could no longer contribute at a high level, that perception is not reality.

In fact, the only Red Bulls player to have his number retired was rushed out the door, only one year after winning team MVP and finishing the greatest five-year run for a striker in MLS history.

The decision was met by fans with more indifference than vitriol, partly because cutthroat departures have become commonplace for this organization, and partly because Wright-Phillips’ groin injury this season was so difficult to interpret.

But, as OaM reported in October, his injury trouble dated back to early March – explaining not only his limited impact after returning from absence in late June, but the full scope of his regression in 2019.

“[The injury] was something I thought you just get through, you know what I mean?” Wright Phillips said in a sit-down interview, two days before what would be his final match as a Red Bull. “It was a little pain, maybe I’m not stretching well enough. Game by game, it was getting a little worse.

“But then, yeah, when I really thought to myself, I literally can’t sprint in channels, I can’t beat anyone for pace, I can’t shoot hard, I was like, ‘I need to shut this down.’”

Wright-Phillips had miraculously avoided any injury beyond the minor day-to-day variety over five seasons, four of which were played in the Red Bulls’ new, demanding high press. He treated what was tendonitis to his groin as someone would who had played over 10,000 minutes and not faced a legitimate injury, trying to push through the pain and digging a deeper hole.

But, this is not an injury that should end his career; it’s one he should be able to turn the page from with extended time away from the field this winter. And when he is healthy, the 34-year-old knows he is closer to the 20-goal-scorer and all-star of 2018 than he is to the two-goal-scorer and shell of his former self this season.

“It’s annoying that it’s come, because I’m getting older and that’s what it looks like, you know?” Wright-Phillips said. “And it could be, but, in my mind, I’m just like, ‘I can’t wait to get back fit.’ Because I know people probably think, ‘Oh, he’s past it.’ You know, I see shit [that’s said]. So, I’m excited to get over this.”

While it’s not surprising the Red Bulls would, in general, air on the side of youth, choose against paying a veteran with injury risk a TAM-to-DP salary, this is not any veteran. This is Bradley Wright-Phillips, the most important player to the club in the most successful period in its history.

He gave the Red Bulls five virtually flawless seasons, and, in the process, squashed every doubt that could be had about him.

This journeyman in England can’t be a standout striker, some said. He equaled the MLS single-season goal record of 27 in his first full campaign. He can’t do it without Henry, many said. He went on to become the first MLS striker to total at least 15 goals in five consecutive seasons.

But, beyond his own personal belief and past history, there is evidence around sports that he can regain his old form. In the association, LeBron James – same age, 34 – suffered a regression last season while playing through the same type of groin injury. This season, after a spring of rest, he’s back to his previous NBA First-Team level.

Meanwhile, in MLS, Chris Wondolowski, age 36, playing a similar pressing style to the Red Bulls under Matias Almeyda, managed to score 15 goals in 24 starts this season.

So, despite his injury and age, Wright-Phillips can certainly still merit a one-year TAM-to-DP contract.

Would it be a risk? Of course. But the thought that, after all he’s contributed, Wright-Phillips hasn’t earned that benefit of the doubt, that opportunity to end on his own terms, is despicable. There is truly no low the Red Bulls won’t stoop to in their attempt to stay ahead of the curve.

And don’t confuse drastic with cutting-edge. Nothing about this decision, or any other like it, is next-level thinking. The Red Bulls are making a simple bet on age and injury winning out, and are willing to use that as their only guiding principle, shamelessly disregarding loyalty to the most ego-less, team-first superstar striker they may ever have.

If Red Bulls fans were as ruthless and unforgiving with their support as the club they root for is to its players, there would be no one left to fill the increasingly-tarped arena they call home.