HARRISON, N.J. — Bradley Wright-Phillips is one of the greatest strikers in Major League Soccer history — the first two-time Golden Boot winner, the fastest to 100 regular-season goals, the first to score 20 or more goals in three different seasons.
For years he has been invaluable for the New York Red Bulls. And yet they’ve won four of their last five games, including a 1-0 victory over Atlanta United Sunday at Red Bull Arena, without him.
The 34-year-old has been sidelined with a groin injury and because of the nature of the injury, it is unclear when he’ll be back on the field.
Remarkably, the Red Bulls haven’t missed a beat in his absence. First it was Brian White, who Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said has a lot of the same characteristics as BWP, scoring a pair of goals, in a draw at Sporting Kansas City and last week’s win at FC Dallas.
And when White walked off the field in the 55th minute Sunday, Tom Barlow entered – and just 11 days after signing with the first team, scored his first MLS goal, against the defending MLS Cup champions, on national television.
“Dream come true,” Barlow said. “I couldn’t picture a better day. A perfect moment. Happy we got the win and happy I scored my first goal. So, it was awesome.”
At 6-foot-2 and a solid 185 pounds, Barlow is more of a target forward than the other two, but he also has similar characteristics to White and Wright-Phillips.
“Brad is really important and we're all looking forward to having him back in the team. He’s really important, a big-time player,” Daniel Royer said. “But I think you also have to mention that all the USL guys stepped up. Brian White came in for Brad, scored a goal at [Kansas City], scored a goal in Dallas. Now Tom Barlow gets into the game for Brian White and he gets a goal. They're doing a really good job and the most important thing is they're hard workers.”
While all clubs search globally for talent, the Red Bulls have also cultivated it at home. In this case, Red Bulls II, where both White and Barlow had success before their promotions to the first team. This year, Barlow had eight goals in eight USL Championship appearances before his call-up to the first team.
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“In the end, it says a lot about, again, our club and the structure, the players, the USL, the job they are doing. And I said it with John and those guys, how they prepare,” Armas said. “John Wolyniec is a legend at this club and he mentors the strikers, he talks about the little things, the video. There's a lot of that going on, so he prepares those guys in a real way to be ready for what's out there.”
Barlow said the confidence he built in the USL Championship carried over to the first team, where he made his debut in a start against FCD last week.
“When I came up here, I just tried to keep doing the same thing and not change too much,” Barlow said. “The guys have helped me a ton and I'm just happy I was able help the team.”
Although he’s not on the field, or even fully training with the Red Bulls yet, Wright-Phillips also picks up an assist in getting White and Barlow prepared for MLS success, both as a mentor and as an example.
“It doesn't show up on a day like today for him, but even for Brad, to see his mentoring skill with those guys, everyone looks up to him and the strikers look up to him,” Armas said. “There’s a lot of information being exchanged.”
Goalkeeper and captain Luis Robles made a point to congratulate Barlow for his first goal, acknowledging the work the 23-year-old has put in from the time he was drafted in the second round of the 2018 MLS SuperDraft out of Wisconsin.
“I said to him afterwards, this is the first of many, just keep grinding, keep working and you're the type of guy that everyone believes in,” Robles said. “So keep going.”
With the timeline for Wright-Phillips’ return hazy, Barlow and White will have to do just that.
“There’s just so much belief in the younger guys, and the guys that are coming up, because we know that it can be tough at times, it can be sink or swim,” Robles said. “But if they really buy into our philosophy and the tactics that we want to play, it's going to set them up in their career, and their moments on the field to be successful.”