HARRISON, N.J. – A hat trick of hat tricks.
Bradley Wright-Phillips made his way back into the New York Red Bulls’ lineup on Saturday night for the first time since sustaining a hamstring injury on Sept. 10, and all he did was turn in his third three-goal performance of the season to inspire his side to a superb 4-1 victory over the league-leading Seattle Sounders.
Seattle did field a starting lineup comprised of mostly reserves, but even their starters would have had their hands full with the way Wright-Phillips worked tirelessly in his 58 minutes. Truth be told, the veteran striker did not seem to miss a beat after being sidelined for more than a week and the conversation after the match was geared not only towards his chances of setting the MLS single-season scoring record, but also the season’s Most Valuable Player award.
“First, the goals and second, I challenge anybody who votes to go back and look at Bradley, the games when he got here last year until [now] and I guarantee you’ll see an improvement in little things and big things as well,” said Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke when asked how he’d make Wright-Phillips’ case for MVP. “It’s about the goals and it should be. He’s a striker and he broke our record and he’s going for the [MLS] record, so the main focus is the goals.
“But if you look at the whole of Bradley Wright-Phillips, you’ll see huge improvements in his play, doing this and that help us out tremendously. I think he’s definitely worth of being in the conversation, for sure.”
Wright-Phillips – who left to a standing ovation seconds after netting his third tally – is such an important figure for the Red Bulls that Petke decided to forego his customary routine of naming his starters the day before a game. Instead, Petke waited until Saturday to see how the Englishman was feeling. Wright-Phillips had not trained until late in the week, and Petke wanted to make sure the forward woke up feeling fine before deciding on which lineup to go with.
Petke ultimately was convinced that Wright-Phillips was healthy enough to get the nod, and the decision paid off 30 seconds into the match against Seattle. After Ambroise Oyongo unleashed a shot that Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei parried, Wright-Phillips moved into a position for the rebound and slotted the ball into the back of the net.
It was a dream start for he and the Red Bulls, and set the tone for the lopsided victory in which he also scored on a penalty kick and a one-timed effort in the second half to raise his season total to 24 goals.
“You know Bradley’s always going to get chances,” said midfielder Dax McCarty. “You can go back and look at every single game we’ve played this year, and he’s scored most of them but he’s always got chances. You knew he would get chances tonight. … You couldn’t have got off to a better start for a striker: score within a minute, your confidence is buzzing.
“No one really knew how Bradley’s hamstring would hold up. He said he was good to go, but obviously until he gets going you’re not sure, so tremendous performance by him. He’s putting on a clinic, and the guy’s going to break the record. I have no doubt in my mind. As long as he stays healthy, knock on wood, we’re always going to be dangerous.”
Wright-Phillips did not want to talk postgame about the MLS scoring record, which stands at 27 goals and is co-owned by Roy Lassiter and Chris Wondolowski. He said it would be selfish to do so when New York have yet to clinch a playoff berth.
Grabbing that record is, however, a real possibility for him thanks to his latest hat trick. His latest memorable performance has him four goals away from making that mark his with five regular season matches left.
Accomplish that lofty feat, and his argument for MVP will be that much stronger.
“I think his case speaks for itself,” said McCarty. “Chris Wondolowski won MVP [in 2012] and I think he tied the goal record. If Bradley gets it, it’s kind of hard for me to believe he wouldn’t win it. … He’s a guy that should win MVP. He’s been tremendous.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.