Leadership, goals, dirty work: Wright-Phillips remains pivotal to Red Bulls

HARRISON, N.J. – Bradley Wright-Phillips began 2018 not unlike how he ended last year: scoring goals and making a difference for the New York Red Bulls.

It was his goal in the 54th minute that helped lift his team to a 2-0 CONCACAF Champions League win on Thursday night over Honduran side Olimpia.

But beyond the goal, and perhaps more importantly for this Red Bulls team, Wright-Phillips provided his usual high work rate and effort during his 82 minutes on the field, helping beyond what’s seen in the boxscore. With the win, the Red Bulls advance to the CCL quarterfinals, where they will face Mexico’s Club Tijuana.

In the first half, Wright-Phillips found space and time difficult to come by. Despite carving out several half-chances, the majority of his work was hold-up play and providing an outlet for his teammates. It was dirty, gritty work that was overshadowed by his second-half goal.

But it was pivotal, especially as Olimpia sought to spring the counterattack. And it made him a reliable outlet, particularly in the second half, when he would drift out wide to find space.

“I’m not sure, I was just playing the game. I think first half I wasn’t really holding it up too well, I wasn’t aware of what was around me,” Wright-Phillips said postgame. “I kind of lost a few balls I should have kept. Second half, my plan was to keep the ball a little more. Maybe I went out there to get a little room.”

RBNY’s all-time leading goal scorer, Wright-Phillips scored the game’s opening goal, calming nerves and putting his team in the driver’s seat after last week’s draw in the away leg. The English striker took advantage of wet conditions to clip a sliding ball past goalkeeper Donis Escobar from 20 yards out.

Still the only player in MLS history to have twice broken the 20-goal plateau in a single season, Wright-Phillips bagged 17 goals during the 2017 regular season as well as two goals in the playoffs. At 32 years old, on a team that has grown steadily younger, there is a huge role for the veteran Wright-Phillips to play.

“This team relies heavily on Brad. When you look at what he’s done for the last five seasons, it’s pretty remarkable that he continues to, in a way, live above his hype,” captain and goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “For him in a big moment, in a big situation, to give us that goal not only took a lot of pressure off our back, but allowed us to come into the game and really believe that we could see ourselves through this.

“Brad is the type of guy that is always going to deflect praise, but every ounce of every compliment that comes his way, every ounce of honor, everything that highlights just how remarkable he is as a player, is deserved. The way he continues to work for us when we don’t have the ball to try to get the ball back, is something that is very difficult to find and very difficult to teach. Yet he is willing to commit himself and the energy required to do that so that we can be a successful team.”

Now the Red Bulls, who are idle for the opening week of the MLS season, move on to face Tijuana, playing the first leg in Mexico on Tuesday (10 pm ET | UDN, go90.com). It’s a daunting matchup; Liga MX teams have won all nine championships in the CCL’s modern era.

“Yeah, it’s very important. We have to be our very best. Those teams have been dominating the competition for a while now. We’re going to have to be our very best, that’s why we want to be in this competition,” Wright-Phillips said. “[We] want to play against the best. The rivalry out of the situation, we just want to play the best teams and try to win those games.”