All eyes were on Bradley Wright-Phillips. Time was running out. A small band of New York Red Bull fans that travelled for the Open Cup Semifinal looked to him in hope. The rest, nearly 30,000-strong watched him in fear, biting their fingernails in worry over what he might do. FC Cincinnati, the underdogs, were ahead. He was the one man on the field most likely to turn Cinderella’s dream to dust. And that’s just what he did. We don’t call them strikers for nothing; they’re the ones who can lay you out for the count with a blow you never even saw coming. Mention the name, or just his initials – BWP – to a soccer fan down in southern Ohio and watch his head shake and his heart break.
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“I’ve always been a striker. I’m not a deep thinker about the position, but I do know it’s different,” said Wright-Phillips, looking back on his two headers that cut off the oxygen to FC Cincinnati’s soccer wildfire, and sent the Red Bulls to only their second Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final. “You have to be a lot more patient up there. You’re not going to see the ball as much as you’d like. But you have to stay sharp,” he rattled it all off, like a machine gun, what makes a striker a striker. “You always have to be ready. Concentration is the key, especially when you’re on your own up there.”
(Wright-Phillips during his time with Southampton in his native England)
No. 99 – NYRB’s Lone-Ranger
Wright-Phillips is the quintessential lone-ranger. He likes it just fine all alone in hostile territory, where all the attention’s on him. The defenders want him to know they’re there. They leave a boot in, just to remind him of their presence. And their intent. Every sniff he gets of the ball could mean doom for their team. The defenders know it better than anyone. Someone else’s shot from 20 yards might sneak in, but BWP, alone in the six-yard box, will put it in. He’s a threat, a constant danger. The tip of the spear. Out there all alone in the wilderness, where there’s nothing to rely on but your wits and your guts.
“When you’re in midfield, you can go hunt the ball and get some touches,” he said, a few days from the Open Cup Final, away in Kansas City against three-time winners Sporting. “But up front, you’ve always got your back to goal. You’re always under pressure. And when I get a chance at the ball, I like to try to make up for all of it, for getting bullied and kicked for 80 minutes by those big defenders. It’s a whole different game up there.”
He grew up in England. Expectations were high. They were higher for him than most, being the son of England and Arsenal scoring legend Ian Wright. The eyes were on him in expectation. Journalists had their pens at the ready to announce him as successor to his famous dad and line him up against his older brother, England international and one-time Man City winger Shaun. Or they were ready to bury him as an imposter – an unworthy heir.
(Wright-Phillips in action early with Manchester City of the English Premier League)
“I didn’t always put my football first back then,” said Wright-Phillips, who made a handful of appearances early on with Manchester City but spent most of his time in the lower tiers of the English game. There were some scrapes with the law and moments, as a young man, he might wish he could take back. “I did the things I had to do, but I still had a lot of growing up to do. I wasn’t really focused and life always seemed to get in front of my football.”
The pressure was heavy in England, but it never came from his dad. The man who scored 128 goals for Arsenal, and helped them win a league and FA Cup title, had the best kind advice for his son who chose to live a life like he did: behind the lines, all alone and on the hunt for goals. “His advice took the pressure off,” said Wright-Phillips. “As a young striker you’re desperate to score with every shot. It’s how you measure yourself and it can weigh on you when it’s not going right. But he told me, all the time, ‘don’t worry about scoring. Don’t worry about hitting the net, just hit the target.’ And it works. When I don’t think about the ball hitting the back of the net, and just focus on hitting the target, it tends to go in.”
New Start in Metro New York
BWP bounced around the English game, never finding a real home. It was all expectation. Sometimes, a player just needs a change. “I felt right at home when I got to New York,” he said of his arrival, in the middle of 2013, at the age of 27 (he’s 32 now). “It was a chance to start over, to grow up, in a new place. I started fresh. I knew I wanted to be consistent and not just score goals here and there. I set markers for myself. I challenged myself to work harder and get that little bit fitter. It was about me getting my mind right and I didn’t have to worry so much about good reviews or bad reviews.”
(Red Bulls' boss Jesse Marsch has called Wright-Phillips the club's best-ever player)
In 134 games as a Red Bull so far, BWP has scored 84 goals. That’s a lot. The kind of percentage that terrifies defenders and opposing fans but delights the supporters who line up at Red Bull Arena to chant his name. When he scored the winner in extra-time in Cincinnati, he ran and launched himself into the visiting supporters section. He was suspended off the ground and squeezed in a mass embrace. “I told myself I would do that if I scored a big goal; those fans have been amazing to me even when things haven’t been perfect.”
He knows the romance of a Cup run from his old FA Cup days in England, and he was as impressed with FC Cincinnati as the rest of us. After the final whistle, he went to each member of the second-division side to offer his condolences and congratulations. “I don’t remember exactly what I said to their coach [Alan Koch], but it was something like ‘you deserved more…you should be very, very proud.’ And I meant it.”
For a man who makes his living breaking hearts, he’s not hard-hearted. He’s only mean on the field. “We talked about how much their crowd would be a factor in the build-up to that game,” he said, the phone line breaking up as he shook his head remembering the night. “But talking about it’s one thing and I couldn’t believe just how loud they were when we got on the pitch. It was seriously intense.”
His first goal, a sharp header with eyes for the corner, tied the game after substitute Gonzalo Veron clawed one back. It was at that moment that the crowd went a little quiet, It was then that the fear took over. Wright-Phillips, the predator, smelled blood in the water. “They went a little quiet then – just imagine you’re a fan of the underdog and you’re 2-0 up and the other team scores one. You’re gonna’ be scared and worried, praying ‘please don’t let them come back from this.’” His winner was a similar header, in the 101st minute, a bullet that no one would have stopped with a head start. And that was that. For the second Open Cup game running, BWP had killed off a game at the death. He’s in the kind of form that’s hard to argue with. His coach Jesse Marsch calls him the best Red Bulls player ever. But nothing’s done yet. There’s unfinished business.
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“The fans have always been there for us, even when things don’t go right,” he said, almost apologetically. He didn’t score for four or five games when he arrived at the club, but no fans turned on him. They never asked why he didn’t make it look easy like his dad did. They had his back. That matters to him. “We’ve never won a big trophy and getting here, to the Final, it feels like we have one hand on the Cup and we can’t let it slip away.”
(Pile on BWP: Everyone loves a scorer save for the scored-upon)
Back in the Wilderness Again
He’ll be on his own once more next week. Away from home in a big Final. His New York Red Bulls, in 21 years as a club (first as the MetroStars), have never won an MLS Cup or an Open Cup. He knows it. All his teammates know it. He talks about it without defensiveness. There’s sincerity in his voice. “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 said, admitting he might have a “few butterflies” on Wednesday. “Trophies tell the whole story. Until we get one, we can’t say we’re any better than any team from years before.”
On the other side of the field will be a team that’s remade itself into a modern-day American dynasty. Sporting Kansas City have gone from unremarkable to a top team in the last five years, winning two Open Cups and an MLS crown. But their fearsome defenders (among the best in Major League Soccer) and their fans will still be watching Wright-Phillips like a hawk, knowing his threat. That No. 99 wants a trophy to bring back home to the fans who took him to their hearts. Mostly, they’ll watch him because he’s the man with goals in his boots. “When you get a sniff, you have to be ready to make something of it,” he said. “You have to make the most of it.”