Bradley Wright-Phillips’s goal-scoring has been one of the few constants in the last five years of expansion and evolution in MLS. On Oct. 5, with two goals against the San Jose Earthquakes, Wright-Phillips became the first person in league history to compile three separate 20-goal seasons in MLS.
But that was also the last competitive game he has scored in, as Wright-Phillips is currently without a goal in 10 straight league, playoff and Champions League matches, following New York’s second leg collapse against Santos Laguna on Tuesday – which was coincidentally his birthday.
By now, it is well-documented how Wright-Phillips stands out from other prolific goal-scorers around the league and world. He is refreshingly relatable; simply characterizing him as humble does not paint the full picture. Chatting with Wright-Phillips about his six playoff experiences is no different than speaking to a longtime season ticket holder. Their misery is his misery and their agony is his agony.
“I know that we’re close,” a reflective Wright-Phillips said at the end-of-year media session last December. “Even saying this now, it just annoys me because, it seems like it’s every year. But, we are, we’re obviously close, we’ve done too many big things to not [be] close to winning something.”
But, with Wright-Phillips turning 34 on Tuesday, his window for MLS Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League is closing. The last ten games could be chalked up to a statistical anomaly, but it seems to be something more. In large part, this barren stretch for Wright-Phillips highlights exactly what New York was lacking last season: a viable second striker.
“I think, in all those games we just lacked a little quality when we needed it, I think up front,” Wright-Phillips said. “I don’t think we had enough guile and, like, creativity. And I think we suffered from that.”
Following a deep dive into the numbers, one of the more jarring aspects of last season was the drop-off in Wright-Phillips’ consistency in the final months of the season. After scoring in 11 of 17 starts (64.7 percent) from March to July, Wright-Phillips only tallied a goal in four of 15 starts (26.6 percent) from August to November.
In many ways, this drought goes hand in hand with Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra’s, in which the Argentine only contributed one assist in his final 16 league and playoff matches of 2018, following 14 in his opening 18.
Question after question regarding differences between the playing styles of Jesse Marsch and Chris Armas have yielded no reasonable explanations as to how small tweaks – in a philosophy that remains generally intact – could result in such nosedives in production (with team results staying largely the same). So, for both, it has to be something more.
Part of the explanation for Wright-Phillips may be that he was burnt out. The Red Bulls’ front man has shown incredible durability over his five-and-half-years in MLS – appearing in at least 32 of 34 regular season matches and over 2,500 minutes every season since 2014 – but the Red Bulls may have leaned on him too much last season.
On course for a club-record points total while keeping pace with an Atlanta United team that was chewing up and spitting out league records, the Red Bulls front office was content with making no major transfer in the 2018 summer window. That conservative approach is almost entirely justified by a record-setting 71 points and the Supporters’ Shield that came with it, but not addressing a paper-thin forward crop was a gamble that did not pay off in the postseason.
Not only did Wright-Phillips fail to score in the final six games of 2018, but he failed to provide any assists, following a first 30 games in which he had an MLS career-best eight.
And while the widely-held assertion has been that New York’s lack of string-pulling midfielders has cost them in tight knockout games, such a rationale is hard to square when considering the recent list of chance creators for the Red Bulls (Thierry Henry, Sacha Kljestan and Kaku). Digging deeper into the numbers, what may actually have been lacking – more often than not – is a pesty second forward to open up space with his runs.
It’s important to note, Wright-Phillips’ greatest asset may be his off-the-ball movement. The Englishman is at his best when he can drift onto the shoulders of center backs in the open field or sneak into holes in the 18-yard-box. Too often in tight knockout games, though, Wright-Phillips becomes a de facto target forward.
And though Wright-Phillips may be functional as a lone striker making runs into channels, he is by no means optimal as a static target No. 9, waiting in the box on passes or crosses.
Wright-Phillips’ best finishes to a season came in 2016 and 2017, when he scored in 10 of 13 (76.9 percent) and seven of 12 (58.3 percent) of his starts from August to November. The common thread between those two seasons was Gonzalo Veron, who at times relieved Wright-Phillips of starts and at others stretched defenses and caused mistakes with his slashing runs and hyper pressing.
What Omir Fernandez provided in the early stages of Tuesday’s second leg harkened back to that. The 20-year-old homegrown signing was an extra runner into the six-yard-box and first to Daniel Royer’s cross in the fourth minute, converting from point-blank range. Five minutes later, Wright-Phillips managed a pocket of space in the box and teed up Royer for a stunning equalizer – his first assist in 11 matches.
The second half stage was set for an epic turnaround, but after four Santos goals in a calamitous nine-minute stretch, New York found itself in an all-too-familiar position; different script, but same ending. The Red Bulls’ elimination from the CONCACAF Champions League brings the focus back down to one competition (the MLS regular season) until the U.S. Open Cup in June.
Clearly, the Red Bulls do not need to tear up the book on what has gotten them three Supporters’ Shields in six seasons, but the 2,500-minute status quo for their 34-year-old goal-scorer cannot realistically continue. A player like Fernandez – who announced himself to a continental audience on Tuesday – Derrick Etienne Jr. and newly-acquired Mathias Jorgensen need to alleviate Wright-Phillips’ burden.
And in the crucible of a one-game or two-legged knockout, perhaps what New York needs to inject – more than anything – is another workhorse in the final third; if nothing else, to create the type of chaos in and around the box that can disorganize a bunkered backline.