Did Bradley Wright-Philips' success show MLS's weakness or its strength?

Graham Ruthven
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Nick Wass/AP</span>
Photograph: Nick Wass/AP

Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robbie Keane, Wayne Rooney, David Villa … they all left their mark on Major League Soccer, but none quite as profound (at least statistically) as Bradley Wright-Phillips. That’s right, the same Wright-Phillips who failed to make the grade at Manchester City before becoming a lower-league journeyman at Southampton, Plymouth Argyle, Charlton Athletic and Brentford. The same Wright-Phillips who was best known in England for being the brother of Shaun.

They see Bradley in a rather different light in the United States. They see him as a two-time MLS Golden Boot winner, a legend who scored 126 goals in 240 appearances over six years, the league’s all-time leading European goalscorer and in the words of the New York Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett, “one of the best forwards in MLS history.”

His New York Red Bulls departure, confirmed on Thursday, marks the end of an era for the club and for the league. MLS has lost Ibrahimovic and Rooney since the end of the 2019 season, but Wright-Phillips’ exit leaves a different sort of hole. His connection with the league was deeper than that of any fading European star.

“NY fans would like to see a statue of him outside Red Bull Arena,” says Mark Fishkin of the Seeing Red podcast. “BWP is the greatest striker to wear the shirt.” That is quite the statement given that Henry was also a RBNY player for four seasons, but by almost every metric Wright-Phillips (or ‘BWP’ as he was known) outperformed the Frenchman in New York, outscoring him by 31 goals to 10 in the one season (2014) they played together.

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All this must, somewhat understandably, be seen as one big joke to English fans. Indeed, Wright-Phillips’ success on the other side of the Atlantic has been widely used as a stick with which to beat MLS. If an unremarkable lower league striker could make it in MLS, anyone can, they say. But to make such a claim would be to display an ignorance of what Wright-Phillips achieved in the States.

While some outsiders may look at Wright-Phillips as an embodiment of everything that is bad about MLS, he actually became a reflection of the league’s best qualities. MLS’s structure means players of a lesser pedigree are frequently given a platform they otherwise wouldn’t be afforded. Of course, that often results in wildly unbalanced rosters, with Designated Players sometimes paid the same as many of their teammates combined, but Wright-Phillips took the opportunity this granted him.

Painfully cliched as it might be, there is an essence of the American Dream to Wright-Phillips’ MLS story. In the United States, he managed to achieve something he would have been denied back home and in doing so he set a precedent that has subsequently seen a number of players chewed up and spat out by the European game seek a fresh start in MLS. In that sense, Wright-Phillips did more to establish a route across the Atlantic than many more illustrious stars to have played in the league through the years.

Back in the summer of 2013, Wright-Phillips’ signing was met with skepticism. Until then, the New York Red Bulls, along with the LA Galaxy, had been MLS’s marquee franchise, but Wright-Phillips, the son of former Arsenal striker Ian Wright, represented the continuation of a flawed recruitment strategy which also resulted in the signing of lesser-known relatives of soccer superstars. Digao (Kaka’s brother) and John Rooney (Wayne’s brother) both played for RBNY, with very little success, around this time.

“He was relatively unknown prior to his trial,” says Fishkin. “Fans were hoping he’d just be serviceable and were blown away by what he provided.” He was certainly more than serviceable and now that he’s gone a rather sizeable void will have to be plugged. The Red Bulls, whose wage bill is currently one of the smallest in MLS, more than got their money out of Wright-Phillips. For context, the Englishman received a base salary of $1.2m for 2019, making him RBNY’s top earner, but that still didn’t rank him in the league’s 35 highest-paid players. How will they possibly find another striker with that sort of goals-to-dollar ratio?

Of course, 2019 wasn’t the best of years for Wright-Phillips, who scored just two goals in 25 (16 of them off the bench) league appearances. RBNY’s decision not to renew the striker’s contract wasn’t without justification. “Our main goal is how do we construct something that can help us win championships and I understand [fan frustration], but I can’t make emotional decisions,” explained Hamlett.

It’s possible that Wright-Phillips could stay in MLS. As a free agent, he can now sign sign for another team, although a return to England might appeal. At 34, however, his options are limited. Retirement has been mooted. If Wright-Phillips does indeed decide to call it a day he can reflect on a career mischaracterised by some, but hailed by more. To the ill-informed, Wright-Phillips’ shimmering MLS career is something of a joke, but it is anything but. Maybe one day he’ll get that statue outside Red Bull Arena. That won’t stop the punchlines, but it will symbolise their ignorance.

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