Voices: Bradley Wright-Phillips

Why Emil Forsberg is New York Red Bulls’ biggest signing since Thierry Henry


That’s a bold headline, I know. And it’s not to suggest Emil Forsberg and Thierry Henry are the same level of player. Thierry’s almost in a class of his own, an absolute legend who joined New York Red Bulls nearly 15 years ago, in a very different MLS than we see today.

But Emil brings world-class qualities and is a huge addition to the club.

He’s been at World Cups. He’s spent nearly a decade in the German Bundesliga. He’s experienced those special Champions League nights. He’s a legend back home in Sweden. He’s come here with a lot of energy in his legs. And he’s basically played in the Red Bull system all of his career.

That last part is key. Let me explain further.

Natural fit

The biggest reason why a lot of players come to New York Red Bulls and fail is because they can't get up to speed. I've seen some quality players sign – technically they’re top-class and they don't get on the field because they don't understand the pressing triggers. They're not fit enough physically, so they can't do the work that's demanded from a Red Bulls philosophy and they're already behind the eight ball. Then they can't get into the team. Then they’re unhappy because they're not in the team. And then you end up seeing a good player not see the field or if they are seeing the field, they're not playing well. 

But Emil, after joining from RB Leipzig in December, knows this system better than all the players. He's played it at a higher level for many years. He's already got a head start tactically and when you combine that with his technical ability, his burst of speed, his dribbling ability, his shooting ability – you’re looking at someone who could do a lot of special things with New York Red Bulls. He’s completely bought in. It’s no surprise to see him with the No. 10 shirt and captain’s armband already.

Purpose & drive

We already saw it last weekend at Nashville; Emil was the heartbeat of that team, 100%. He's that link between the midfield and the attack, between the defense or sitting midfielders and the attack. Once you get him on the ball, automatically there's a rise in tempo. The game gets quicker, he has ideas, there's chance creation. 

See, the Red Bulls have missed that quality for a long time. Last year you could sense it – the team’s defense was unbelievable. It was a Supporters’ Shield-challenging defense, up there with the best in the league. But they had nobody to connect it all, to go beyond runners. It was a lot of players who would play against the ball. So at times the approach just seemed like defend, get half a chance and then almost freestyle. Emil changes that. Once you get him on the ball, there's a clear picture of what he's trying to do. He's trying to receive, turn and either drive at the back line or get his head up and find a runner, combine with one of the forwards, or combine with one of the midfielders. That was the missing piece. He is that guy.

If I had to boil it down to one word, it would be purposeful. Emil’s not receiving the ball just to get touches. Some players, they just like to be involved. No, he’s getting the ball to make something happen. We used to see that with Red Bulls player like Sacha Kljestan, Mike Grella, even Lloyd Sam. Yes, they would do the work the system required. But they were more interested in making something special happen. And I know Emil is that profile. He can do the work, but he's going to give you a lot more on the ball than we've seen in recent years.

End product

The big question now is who gets on the end of Emil’s work.

Do they use that on a striker, another No. 9? The good news is they have a Designated Player spot and the ability to go sign someone if needed. But Elias Manoel showed last year he has goals in him and can finish. He’s got quality.

Also: DP strikers tend to cost good money and you want to spend wisely. You can’t just sign anybody. If Red Bulls get that done, they’re challenging for Shields, they're challenging for MLS Cups, not only making the playoffs. It's just that one piece is missing. Emil can find the final pass – he needs someone in the box, someone making the runs to finish it all off. Take last weekend’s 0-0 draw against Nashville. If they had an out-and-out goal scorer, they’d be taking three points, not one.

It’s not all on Emil, of course. I think Frankie Amaya is very underrated in midfield. He understands the game well, isn’t afraid to break lines and can link up with Emil. I think a fully fit Lewis Morgan isn't just bringing goals or running in straight lines. He has a good feel for the game. I'm excited to see those two on the pitch for longer because I think they both have ideas, they both can score and they both have an eye for a pass. It could be a dangerous combination with Emil.

Humble captain

One part I must stress: It’s not just about the football with Emil. I remember his first day at the Red Bulls training ground, and this is a story you hear about a lot of people. He took his time to shake everyone's hand, sit down for a second, have a conversation, speak to the ladies in the cafeteria. He was just brilliant. No one said a bad thing about him. Everyone was talking about his personality like, ‘Oh, he's so humble.’ I think I heard that 100 times that day.

Even the preseason media tour for MLS. It was a few weeks after he formally signed and he was just leaving Leipzig. They were telling him, ‘You don't have to fly from overseas to Miami and then to New York and back to Florida for preseason. No, you can relax if you need to. You’re coming from the middle of the season in Germany.’ Nope, he’s going: ‘I'll do it if this is what the league requires and I have to be there. I'm okay.’ He does everything, no questions. I know people say this all the time, but he's just really down to Earth.

Also, I know Emil wanted something different. I came to MLS and Red Bulls for the same reason. I was in England, it was getting stale, I wasn't having a good time at the clubs I was at and I wanted something different. So I would almost prefer that perspective from someone like Emil because I've heard people say, ‘I want to come, I want to win this, I want to win that.’ And then they come and they jog around. When Emil says "I want something different," that tells me he wants to play at a high level. He just wants to do it in a different place with another challenge.

Take all these pieces and you’ve got a real Newcomer of the Year candidate, arguably the early front-runner. The goals and assists are going to come, maybe as soon as Saturday’s trip to Houston (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). Personally, I can’t wait to see what the Forsberg era has in store.