By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jul 27, 2018) US Soccer Players - Everyone loves a good, round, number. There’s something about them that strikes us as significant, a catch in our brains that make them seem special. That's true even if a round number of something is only slightly more meaningful than the previous non-round number. We celebrate them in every possible context, but especially in sports. The bigger the round number, the more fanfare. Round numbers serve as markers for players on the way to establishing greatness.
100 is a pretty big round number, at least as a measure of goals scored in the sport of soccer. Scoring 100 goals for a single team is no easy feat, especially in an era of rampant player movement and ever-changing club philosophies. The achievement requires both club and player to work in concert to provide value to the former and fulfillment for the latter.
On Wednesday night in DC, Bradley Wright-Phillips reached the 100-goal threshold by scoring in the 1-0 Red Bulls win over DC United at Audi Field. The English striker prepared for the moment. After his shot in the second minute sneaked by United goalkeeper David Ousted, Wright-Phillips peeled off his red “99” game jersey to reveal a white Red Bulls shirt emblazoned with “100” and pointed to the traveling New York fans.
With just 159 games in the league, Wright-Phillips reached the century of goals milestone faster than any player in MLS history. He joins a group of nine other players to have reached triple-digits in MLS regular season play. Four other players in the all-time top ten reach 100 goals with one team: Landon Donovan (114 with the LA Galaxy), Chris Wondolowski (137 with the San Jose Earthquakes), Jaime Moreno (131 with DC United), and Taylor Twellman (100 with the New England Revolution).
The goal put Wright-Phillips on a round number, already an all-time great player for a club whose history stretches back to the launch of the league. Wright-Phillips belongs in a group that includes Juan Pablo Angel, Tab Ramos, Mike Petke, and Thierry Henry to name a few.
He’s not Henry, and he’s well behind Petke in terms of games played, but Wright-Phillips is a fairly uncontroversial choice for greatest Red Bull of all time. He might not be the best player in New York history in terms of pure talent, but his contributions on the field and his longevity with the club set him apart.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Wright-Phillips’s success is that it was never a sure thing. The son of Arsenal great Ian Wright and brother of former Premier League talent Shaun Wright-Phillips, he joined the Red Bulls after a trial in July of 2013. At the time of the move, Wright-Phillips was a journeyman who had bounced around a series of lower division clubs in his native country. After starting his career at City with expectations that he could follow in his father’s footsteps, Wright-Phillips struggled to find a good fit for his game and personality.
It was risky thinking that Wright-Phillips was the man to lead the line for one season, much less become the greatest goalscorer in team history. Despite some good returns with Charlton Athletic, his last club before the jump to MLS, Wright-Phillips had to convince people of his talent.
It didn’t take long for opinion to turn. In his first full season in MLS, Wright-Phillips tied the all-time single-season goalscoring record with 27 in 2014. Established as the Red Bulls leading scoring option after the departure of Thierry Henry, Wright-Phillips built on 2014 with 17 goals in 2015 and another Golden Boot in 2016.
The Red Bulls rewarded Wright-Phillips with a Designated Player contract in 2017, locking him down for the future with a wage worthy of his standing as an elite MLS striker. There’s no other example of a player going from trialist - meaning he traveled to a new country with no guarantee of a contract probably on his own dime and with little support - to Designated Player. DP status, even in the age of Targeted Allocation Money, remains a standing reserved for the absolute best on the league’s payrolls.
It's also how club legends are made. There’s always room for players who are on the flamboyant side or who blow through a club in one or two seasons. However, fans connect most to players who do the work, buy into the program, and perform at a high level without ever uttering a grumble. Wright-Phillips is a cliche, but the best type. He's a player who leads by example.
In the modern MLS, where the focus is shifting to younger players and flipping that talent for transfer fees is growing, it’s worth asking if a story like Wright-Phillips can happen again. A middling foreign player moving to the United States, finding the best of his game, and parlaying it into a big contract. It's also only part of the tale. Wright-Phillips found contentment and fully embraced the MLS experience, the extra elements that make his stay in New Jersey truly special.
Wright-Phillips is 33. With 14 games left in the Red Bulls season, he has plenty of time to beat his 2017 total of 17 goals and could crest the 20-goal threshold for the third time in his career. Considering the strengths of his game, the clever movement, an innate understanding of shooting windows, and the knack to put headers on goal from many different angles, Wright-Phillips figures to have few more double-digit goalscoring years in his future.
Despite arriving in MLS at the age of 28, Wright-Phillips has an outside shot at the career goalscoring record of 145. Landon Donovan currently holds that record with Wondolowski five goals behind. Whether he gets close to that record or not, Wright-Phillips will enter the pantheon of great MLS goalscorers when his MLS run comes to an end. We should hope that his MLS end is also his professional soccer end because it would mean he finished his career as a Red Bull.
New Jersey is where he belongs. That much was clear almost from the moment he made the move to MLS. The lesson Wright-Phillips’s greatness here teaches us is that there’s no replacement for a player feeling comfortable. A happy player is a good player. A happy player can realize his potential. That's MLS, where Wright-Phillips has freed himself of the pressure of being his father’s son and his brother’s brother.
More From Jason Davis:
- Bayern Munich's North American plans
- Looking for hope in San Jose, Colorado, Seattle, and Toronto
- Thierry Henry makes a move
- Nothing set midway through the MLS season
Photo by Howard C Smith - ISIPhotos.com