After a difficult MLS is Back Tournament in which not a single New York Red Bulls forward found his way onto the scoresheet, it’s been especially torturous for the team’s fans to see what their most recent ex-striker has been up to on the same Adidas logo-emblazoned youth pitch.
Bradley Wright-Phillips has been one of the highlight stories of this month’s tournament in Orlando with three goals and an assist in three matches, a sharp return to form for the legendary striker whose number was retired in New York before he even left. While the discourse that brewed in Harrison last season seemed to imply the aging Wright-Phillips seen in limited minutes following an early season injury layoff was a shadow of his former talismanic self, he’s been vintage BWP in Orlando - running the channels, finding inches of space in the attacking third, and of course...scoring.
For a player deemed unsuitable for starting minutes in the home stretch for the 2019 Red Bulls and cut in the offseason with surprisingly little fanfare, the 35-year old certainly appears to be a player who would have contributed to the 2020 Red Bulls - a team whose management keeps insisting it is designed to win now yet crashed out of the Orlando tournament without scoring in their final 266 minutes of play. Some commentary has pointed to the lack of a fully fit Brian White, who suitably replaced at least some of Wright-Phillips’ output, scoring nine goals in 18 MLS appearances and an impressive .63 per 90 minutes, before having his season derailed by an ankle injury in August. However, current transfer rumors imply that the Red Bulls brass do consider the striker position to be a hole in the squad following BWP’s exit. Letting a record-setting club legend leave for free is an issue, failing to sign a replacement further compounds the problem, especially when the departure might not have been necessary. When the dusts settles the club will likely end up satisfied with a new signing added to the group of Brian White, Daniel Royer and Tom Barlow, but an examination of Wright-Phillips’ departure and its broader context within the Red Bull sporting ethos is timely.
Over the course of RBNY’s turbulent 2019 season, there was discussion of Bradley Wright-Phillips dealing with a long-term groin injury and a seeming failure to fully recover. After a challenging start to the 2019 campaign in which both he and the team struggled to score as in years past, Wright-Phillips disappeared from the squad after playing the full 90 minutes in an April match against New England in Foxborough. The injury was initially disclosed by the club as a groin injury week-by-week without a major announcement. But eventually over two key midseason months went past before Wright-Phillips returned to full fitness with a team that appeared to have already moved on from him. He revealed his perspective on the behind-the-scenes discussions in an episode of the Footy Talks podcast.
“I wish we could have just figured out what my injury was and how we could have solved it earlier,” he told interviewer and former player Steven Caldwell. “That’s how New York was, ‘He’s injured, he’s old.’ Almost, ‘We can’t work with you.’ But [LAFC], they weren’t too fazed by it… The groin, it’s been good for a couple months now. Coming [to LA] saved my groin, because the things we’ve done, I’m not sure if I’d have done it anywhere else.”
As New York fans have come to learn, the Red Bull way is to move on from players after they hit a certain point in their careers and Wright-Phillips was coming off an injury at an advanced age for a soccer player. But could the Red Bulls have done more to facilitate his return? Based on that interview, it seems like that is what he believes.
Certainly Wright-Phillips’ usage following his return to match fitness implied a team that did not prioritize getting a club legend back to what has been proven in the last month to be still-attainable top form. While Wright-Phillips returned to the field for Red Bulls in a substitute appearance versus Chicago on June 29 , it would be almost two months before he was given a start by Chris Armas, even as the team continued to suffer through turbulent form. The BWP who for years had been a quiet but forceful leader at the center of team marketing and club-produced locker room videos was practically a forgotten man in a stadium where his number had been pre-retired less than a year before, paralleling the quiet sidelining of other key contributors from the squad last season. The emergence of Brian White has helped fill some of the production void, but this isn’t likely to make Red Bulls fans feel much better especially seeing what Wright-Phillips is still capable of in Orlando this month.
Wright-Phillips further believes he was given the runaround off the field as well in his final year with the club, not “getting straight answers” from sporting director Denis Hamlett. “I wish I knew in the beginning [of the year]. I wish we could have just figured out what my injury was and how we could have solved it earlier… Even at the end of the season where we’re having end of season meetings, they’re still not fully saying [whether the contract is being renewed]… For me spending so many years there and doing what I’ve done there, I just think it could have went a bit smoother.”
Wright-Phillips echoes the sentiments of several former players who believe they were let go from the club too soon. “I think the turnover is way too quick, you know, not just because I’ve gone now,” began the familiar refrain. “I think they’re just a little bit too quick to let players go when it’s more about the age than what they can do on the pitch. I think the way they play, the system is unbelievable… But I think it will be tough for them to win a MLS Cup against what other teams are doing… I think it puts way too much pressure on the young guys to come in and win a trophy, win a cup.”
While the system has worked, the Red Bulls have, at times, arguably been less-than-accommodating with finding a good landing spot and “doing right” by departing players. Dax McCarty stated he was blindsided by his shock transfer to the Chicago Fire and would have preferred having an influence in his potential destination. “What?” Lloyd Sam described his trade to D.C. United in an interview with the Counter Attack podcast. “You couldn’t even come to me and let me try and choose where I’m trying to go?”
The Red Bull ethos isn’t solely focused on high-energy pressing, but also a comprehensive team building strategy. There is a clear priority on signing young players on the rise and then selling before their value drops later in their career. This strategy thrives in the single table Bundesliga in Austria and Germany, where consistency is valued and teams bring in a host of youth internationals in a single transfer window.
It’s possible this strategy is not as well-suited to the competition format and roster restrictions of Major League Soccer. It’s generally accepted that Ralfball principles breed the cohesiveness and consistency that reaps long-term rewards. New York Red Bulls have been one of the most successful American clubs of the last decade and won three Supporters’ Shields, the most accurate metric for consistency and overall club strength. That’s not how team success is judged in America and its unique soccer culture - it’s about not only the postseason and the cup title that has long eluded New York, but also a sense of whether your club has the ambition and pride worthy of a discerning fanbase’s attention. Not only does the abrupt jettisoning of beloved veterans (as well as young talents like Tyler Adams and Michael Amir Murillo) discourage talented teammates from staying and potential new signings from joining, it tells the fans year that any joy they build up in successful players and teams is liable to be cancelled at the most expedient opportunity.
Would keeping veteran players on the roster for a longer period of time result in postseason success and a stronger morale among an increasingly embittered fan culture? Believe it or not, New York already practices a far less cutthroat roster strategy than its counterparts in Salzburg and Leipzig, due to MLS roster rules complicating large influxes of transfers in and out of the club. Attempts to bring in top youth internationals relative to salary cap-induced spending power have been uneven, but transfer success will always be hit or miss in any context. With a smaller volume of annual transfers than their European counterparts, naturally there will be a smaller amount of hits.
Could this be overcome with a longer retention of the veteran core? Unlike Salzburg and Leipzig, there has been a failure in New York to capitalize on selling players at or before their peak, letting valuable players leave for free or in salary cutting moves with minimal return. The internal MLS transfer market isn’t the best place to maximize transfer values, but the paltry return both within the league and in selling New York players abroad brings questions of whether it would instead be better to hold on to key building blocks. But it’s worth remembering that if that the team’s most recent veteran-laden core (Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Lloyd Sam, Mike Grella, etc.) did not deliver at the height of their power, then perhaps it was not as prudent as it may seem to carry dead weight contracts into retirement.
It should be noted that the same methodical, unfeeling system that so cruelly and abruptly casts these veterans aside is also responsible for building these acquired-at-a-premium players into stars. Live by the system and die by the system, even one which only seems to bring detractors at the end of the cycle. As Wright-Phillips said in his interview on Footy Talks, “The system is Red Bull’s best player; I’ve said that for years, even when I was there.”