Sometimes a player is so consistent, so reliably good, that they can grow to be curiously overlooked, taken for granted until a rare misstep – like an air conditioner that you don’t notice until it shuts off.
That phenomenon was at work in Guadalajara on Wednesday night, in the final minutes of the New York Red Bulls’ Concacaf Champions League semifinal first-leg match against Chivas. The Mexican giants had carved out a 1-0 lead and nearly twice as much possession as their MLS opponents, in a choppy, bruising affair whose tautness reflected the high stakes.
It had been an unspectacular evening for Bradley Wright-Phillips, the kind many strikers hate, full of hard pressing, off-the-ball labor and chasing lost causes rather than open throttles and inviting chances.
Suddenly Chivas’ otherwise organized ranks parted in the 79th minute. Sean Davis created a turnover in midfield and played a line-breaking pass that left center back Jair Pereira exposed and wrong-footed in a 1-on-1 with Wright-Phillips. The Red Bulls’ star striker broke in alone on goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota, and it would have been logical for any RBNY supporter to commence rejoicing at the snatching of a precious equalizer and away goal.
This is BWP after all, perhaps the most relentless, efficient, cold-bloodedly lethal striker in MLS history – two-time Golden Boot winner, scorer of 106 career Red Bulls goals in all competitions, 89 of them in regular-season action since his 2013 arrival, an all-time MLS record over a five-year span, and at a historically brisk clip of 0.71 per 90 minutes. His teammates call him “supernatural.”
But shockingly, it wasn’t to be this time, an imperfect touch allowing Cota to throw his body in the way, deny Wright-Phillips and secure a narrow 1-0 Chivas victory in Leg 1.
It was the first Red Bulls CCL match in which BWP hasn’t notched a goal or assist this year (he’s currently tied with Sebastian Giovinco atop the CCL’s attacking charts with three goals and three helpers). And it’s quite likely that the memory of that chance will haunt him every waking moment until he gets a chance at redemption when Leg 2 kicks off at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday.
Because no matter how many goals he scores, games he wins or accolades and milestones he collects, Wright-Phillips remains his own harshest critic, resolutely team-centric, thoroughly uninterested in talking about himself.
“Jesse's very kind, he's a kind man. I don't know. I'd rather not talk about it. My career isn't done here, you know?”
BWP had just scored two classy goals in an assured 3-0 win over Minnesota United on March 25, prompting RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch to dub him “the most underrated player in league history” and ponder whether he’s “the best player to ever play in this league, and the best goal-scorer to play in this league.” But when a reporter mentioned his coach’s words, Wright-Phillips just batted the idea aside like a troublesome fly, quickly shifting to talk of his team’s performance.
A few minutes later someone else in the media scrum asked him about his teammate Tim Parker. BWP, who’s one of New York’s two Designated Players, managed to shoehorn a dose of self-deprecation into his plaudits, noting that “sometimes defenders fall asleep, and players like me that are not blessed with the most ability, that's what I take advantage of.”
At times this sort of talk from star players is false modesty, a shallow disarming mechanism. Not Wright-Phillips. He makes seven figures, rubs shoulders with music stars – even drops grime bars himself – and allows himself a signature heel-clicking goal celebration. Yet listen to him talk for any length of time and his almost painful levels of humility and self-criticism become clear.
“I don’t really like too much credit,” he told the New York Times last year. “I know nobody’s going to believe this, but I’d rather be able to score goals and nobody saw or even spoke about it. That would be just about the perfect world for me.”
Is it his lineage as the son of Ian Wright, one of the Premier League’s all-time great strikers, and brother of World Cup veteran Shaun Wright-Phillips? Perhaps it’s a worldview instilled at RBNY, where first Mike Petke and now Marsch have maintained a team culture of selflessness and intensity. Or maybe it’s a product of his own hard-bitten journey through the game, a career sidetracked by youthful indiscretions, withering public pressure and the cutthroat realities of England’s top divisions.
“Sometimes in the offseason I'll go through a couple of highlights, when I'll start missing the game,” he said in a media session near the start of the season. “Yeah, I'm proud, but I think it's more [that] when I'm finished I will really look back at what I've done. But I still don't think I've done enough. There's a lot to do. We don't have a trophy. So it's hard to really look back at something you've done and be too happy about it, because the team, we haven't really won anything.”
BWP has been through the fire to reach this point, and he doesn’t care about being underrated. He doesn’t care that some have chalked up his prolific scoring to teammates like Thierry Henry and Sacha Kljestan. He doesn’t care about the speculation that at 33, he looks like a candidate to become the next valuable veteran for RBNY to trade away, like Kljestan and Dax McCarty were the past two winters.
He just wants to score – compulsively, by his nature, but also because it speeds his squad towards the trophies he and everyone around RBNY crave so badly. Sure, he’s led his traditionally star-crossed franchise to two Supporters’ Shields, but as his words above suggest, those aren’t near enough for Wright-Phillips.
“At any level, that’s why you play: to win trophies. And when you take money out of the game, when you’re a pro, you better make sure you’re trying to win trophies,” he told ussoccer.com in the leadup to last year’s US Open Cup final, a painful 2-1 loss to Sporting KC (BWP scored in that one, too).
“Trophies tell the whole story. Until we get one, we can’t say we’re any better than any team from years before.”
So the hunt continues. And the stats keep ticking upward. And that laser-like focus on the ultimate goal smolders on.