The leading goal scorer in MLS this past season, Bradley Wright-Phillips, might be the most anonymous star not just in the league but perhaps in all of American sports.
And it will be this quiet, low-key personality who will be called on this Sunday when the Red Bulls host the Montreal Impact at Red Bull Arena in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (4 p.m., ESPN).
The Red Bulls' star striker, whose 24 goals this season sees him pace the league for the second time in three years, is not a typical star in American sports leagues. He hates, actually despises, talking about himself in public and even a mention of being an MVP candidate is quickly talked down. Wright-Phillips would much rather win MLS Cup, he says, then be named league MVP.
Two years ago, he scored 27 goals - tying the most in MLS history and this year he became the first player in MLS history to score at least 20 goals twice in his career. Yet he wasn’t even an MLS All-Star this season and his own MVP candidacy – he is a finalist alongside teammate Sacha Kljestan and New York City FC’s David Villa – is somewhat overlooked.
“More than just the goals, he’s not your typical diva forward who is a crybaby when he doesn’t get the ball. He works his butt off and when he gets his chances, he typically buries them,” Kljestan said on Thursday. “For us, not just the goals but the way he works on and off the ball. And in the way he is in the locker room, being a pretty good leader for some of the young guys and being a great guy to have on your team.”
Ironically in the 2014 preseason, Wright-Phillips was almost cut by the team’s management at the time. Now he might be the best player on a team that has won the Supporters' Shield twice in the last three seasons.
Part of Wright-Phillips' under-the-radar status is because he came into MLS four seasons ago a bit of an unknown and grew into his role as a star on the Red Bulls. Unlike the current crop of superstars in the league, such as the aforementioned Villa and players like Giovinco and Giovani dos Santos, Wright-Phillips didn’t already achieve international stardom before coming to MLS. He was a journeyman of sorts in his native England, but wound up finding a perfect fit in New York.
This season’s output, plus his relentless work rate in the Red Bull high-press speak volumes about the lack of ego to his game. For Kljestan, a member of the United States national team who played in the Champions League with Anderlecht, it is rare to find a prolific goal scorer who is as humble and team-oriented as No. 99.
“Never been around anybody like that and if I have they’ve probably only get five goals a season. Kind of those things that go hand-in-hand that sometimes those selfish, egotistical forwards are often the best ones because they take everything personally. They want to be the best, they want to score the most goals and like I said they are selfish sometimes,” Kljestan said. “Brad is so unselfish it’s almost wild to think that he still got 24 goals and the nature of the person that he is.”