HANOVER, N.J. – Bradley Wright-Phillips may be the most reluctant star in the history of MLS.
A season ago, Wright-Phillips did the incredible, breaking the New York Red Bulls' all-time goal scoring mark and tying the league's record for most goals in a season. Now, in 2015, he doesn't expect an encore although those around him think he can do it.
It was hard to ignore Wright-Phillips a season ago as he became the first Englishman to ever win the league's Golden Boot. But despite his goal scoring prowess, including a goal in the All-Star Game against Bayern Munich, he wasn't even a finalist for MVP. Talk about no respect for a man who tied the league's record for the most tallies in a season.
He wasn't a star, at least not until he arrived in the league as he came to MLS a bit of an unknown. The season before he came on trial with the Red Bulls he shuffled between the Championship and League One, England's equivalent to the second and third division. He played 22 games and had just six goals. This isn't David Beckham or David Villa we're talking about.
And in seven games with the Red Bulls in 2013, after signing late in the summer, he scored just once. Now after his tremendous 2014 campaign, he has found success and was rewarded with a long-term contract this offseason.
“I'm going to go in the same way I [did] last season, just trying to get into the first 11, and I tried to stay there. That's all I've done,” Wright-Phillips told Metro.“It depends what you expect from me. For me personally, I want to secure that spot up top and start trying to score goals. I don't think about topping last season. I think if you try to do that, it's almost guaranteed failure. It's a game by game thing.”
But in a league where there has never been a back-to-back top scorer in its first 19 years, Wright-Phillips is less concerned about goals and more concerned about wins. This was a Red Bulls team, after all ,that was just a game short of the MLS Cup last year.
He quietly says that this team can do some good things again, even after an offseason where they lost star players Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, as well as their popular head coach, Mike Petke. It was Petke who signed Wright-Phillips two years ago, seeing something in the spry Englishman and believing that his style could do well in the league.
Wright-Phillips hates attention. After practice, he rolledhis eyes when asked to do a media request, the idea of an ice bath or a massage much more appealing. But he does it, a well-spoken, if soft-spoken Brit who loves nothing more than to turn a personal question into an answer about his teammates.
He lives near the training facility, choosing suburbia in North Jersey over the bright lights of New York City. He likes the peace and quiet of the area and is the type of father who drops his children off for playdates. The mothers in the area all know him and smile and wave when he drives by. He waves back.
He's happy being husband and father and uncomfortable with the attention that 27 goals garners you in a league obsessed by goals.
“I wouldn't choose it. If I'd be the face of any club, it's Red Bull. It's a family oriented club, there's a lot of children involved that look up to you so it's nice to be a part of it,” Wright-Phillips said. “I don't want too much interviews and I'm not Thierry, I'm not Tim. Just me.”
Winning the golden boot hasn't been kind to most goal scorers. In 1996, Roy Lassiter scored 27 goals, a mark that stood until 2012; but one year after his record tally he scored just 10 goals, a trend that has played out consistently through this league. There was Stern John, who dropped from 26 goals in 1998 to 18 goals the next year and Mamadou Diallo, who went from 26 goals as well in 2000 to just nine goals the next season. He spent part of that season with the MetroStars, the team that eventually became the Red Bulls.
It was Chris Wondowlowski who finally tied Lassiter's mark in 2012 but over the next two seasons, he has combined for just 25 goals. But he's more than goals he says. There's the little things to his game even when he isn't scoring.
“I don't think I could...it's so arrogant to think that I could come here and not work and just chill out. Especially with Jesse, I feel that if I don't do what he told me, I'd be on the bench,” Wright-Phillips said. “I definitely came here wanting to work and run hard.”
Wright-Phillips may be hesitant to promote another epic scoring run, but for new Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, the skillset is fully there.
The Red Bulls have gone through a transition this year, losing Henry and Cahill and bringing in a new head coach. With this inevitable style change comes new responsibilities for Wright-Phillips.
But even as he's the team's biggest star, Marsch doesn't sound like he's describing an egomaniac when he's asked about Wright-Phillips.
“I think Bradley is motivated by team success. I think he can still score 27 goals, I really do. The way he's playing, I think he's going to have chances. If you look, he's scored in almost every preseason match he's played,” Marsch said.“I expect him to continue to continue to find chances. I said that we've equipped him with a midfield that will be able to get him the ball in spots that he likes to find. It hasn't required too many altering of messages from me other than providing clarity of role as a leader. As a first line of defense, as a goal scorer. He gets what we're trying to do, what we're trying to achieve, how we're trying to play. He's a smart player. More than anything, he's motivated by team success.”