Bradley Wright-Phillips has next to no interest in being celebrated or scrutinized. He does, however, wish to be remembered.
Ask the New York Red Bulls striker about his recent assault on the record book and you’ll quickly understand the difference. Hype is nothing new to the 29-year-old Londoner. His name alone guarantees attention. His father, Ian Wright, is an Arsenal legend who once was the Gunners’ all-time leading scorer. His older brother, Shaun Wright-Phillips, won major trophies with Chelsea and Manchester City and played for England at the 2010 World Cup.
That glare has left Bradley Wright-Phillips with scant need for the spotlight. He grew up under it.
“Sometimes, you can feel a bit of pressure,” he admitted.
After joining the Red Bulls in July 2013, Wright-Phillips steered clear of the Manhattan glitz that attracts other foreign talent and bought a house near the club’s Hanover, N.J., training facility. It’s nearly 30 miles west of the city.
“I’ve got the little driveway in front. I love it. It looks like a movie,” he told SI.com. “When I knew I was going to sign here, that was the house I thought of in my head. I was going to live somewhere like that. It’s perfect.”
It’s perfect, in part, because it represents Wright-Phillips’ intrinsic modesty. He’s the leading scorer in Major League Soccer by a considerable distance. He’s on course to break the all-time record for goals in a single season. He’s emerged as an MVP front-runner. But that won’t come through in conversation unless he’s pressed. He avoids self-celebration and even worries he might jinx himself if he dwells on his accomplishments. Wright-Phillips is affable and engaging, for sure, as long as the subject is something other than Bradley Wright-Phillips.
“I’m not really a big fan of doing interviews,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like you can toot your own trumpet too much. I don’t really like that. I like to just be humble. The more interviews, the more embarrassed I kind of get.”
He’s even reluctant to revel in the praise from his team’s biggest star, the man who won a World Cup and broke his father’s Arsenal record, New York captain Thierry Henry.
“[Wright-Phillips] is the type of guy, he’s almost, like, embarrassed when he scores goals or when you tell him, ‘Oh, man, you’re the man’,” Henry told MLSSoccer.com. “[He says] ‘No, you know, Ti …’ That’s what makes him what he is right now.”
What Wright-Phillips is right now is the league’s most lethal finisher. He opted for MLS after spending nine seasons with mostly second-tier English clubs. Wright-Phillips scored 80 goals for Manchester City, Southampton, Plymouth Argyle, Charlton Athletic and Brentford, but only two came in Premier League play.
There was feast and famine. In 2011-12 he netted 22 for Charlton. The following season, he scored six. He arrived at Red Bull Arena ready to work and learn, hungry to play in an environment where he might make a name for himself -- given name included.
“I couldn’t imagine the pressure at times, when he was over trying to make it in those clubs. The pressure he must have felt, the things that I’m guessing, at times, the fans over there were saying to him,” New York coach Mike Petke said. “Bradley is someone that, even if he gets 27, 30 goals, it’s never going to change him. He’s not going to show up in practice the next day acting like a big-time player or like he’s better than everybody. That’s the character we need in this league.”
Wright-Phillips now has 24 league goals thanks to the hat trick he tallied in last weekend’s 4-1 thumping of the Seattle Sounders. It’s already tied for the fifth-best season in MLS history. He also scored a spectacular long-range goal in the All-Star Game triumph over Bayern Munich. His success wasn’t immediate. He netted twice in seven MLS appearances last year and opened the 2014 campaign with one goal in his first six matches.
Petke and Henry, especially, worked closely with Wright-Phillips on his movement and positioning. They remind him frequently of the chances he misses and the areas he must improve. The Englishman embraced his role and adapted.
“My game is very simple. I’m not a technical player like Thierry is. I just try to keep my game simple and just get chances,” Wright-Phillips said. “I try to stay on the defender’s shoulder, run behind because they don’t like it and when I get an opportunity, I shoot. If it goes in one day, it goes in. If it doesn’t another day, it doesn’t. Then you’re not talking to me.”
Henry pulls the strings, and Wright-Phillips is asked to stay high and central and feast on the space and service that result. On April 23, the shots started going in. Wright-Phillips erupted with three goals against the Houston Dynamo. The third was a penalty kick that Henry insisted his younger teammate take so he could complete his first MLS hat trick.
Wright-Phillips has been a perfect 6-for-6 from the penalty spot this year and Henry has continued to contribute, assisting on nine more goals -- half Wright-Phillips’ non-PK total. That figure is testament to the understanding between the two players and to Wright-Phillips’ ability to connect with the rest of the team. He does, indeed, try to keep it simple. He holds the flair to a minimum and shoots quickly, with accuracy and increasing confidence.
“He knows that Thierry will find him. And if it’s not Thierry, it’s Lloyd [Sam] or Eric [Alexander] or whoever, because people are paying attention to Thierry. He’s definitely realized that and adapted his game along those lines, conserving his energy and being between the center backs,” Petke said.
Despite roots so deeply planted in the English game, Wright-Phillips may be more suited to the MLS style. He’s quick but slight -- not the sort of prototypical target that might flourish outside the top half of the Premier League.
“The tactics here surprised me the most,” Wright-Phillips said. “Every team, they try to get up and down and pass it. You look at the [English] Championship, they say that’s the third or fourth most exciting league in the world. And half the teams will not try and play football, build it straight from the goalkeeper to the striker and score a goal. They don’t try that. Over here, every team is at least trying to play football the right way.”
It’s all a fit -- the house, the club and the style. There may be more interview obligations, but facing a reporter in a locker room is a far different than facing one who followed you home or out to eat.
“You guys don’t tear people down,” he said. “I don’t know why you’d want all that attention … I definitely rather it be just how it is here. You can go and do what you want to do. You train in the morning and you get to go home. I like it more. There’s nothing superficial about it.”
Perhaps it was meant to be. Wright-Phillips said he’s always loved U.S. culture and when he was 13, he even bought a red-and-black MetroStars jersey while on a family vacation in New York City. There’s something quintessentially American about his path. Wright-Phillips left the confines of the old world hoping to establish his own identity in the new. And at Wright-Phillips’ current pace, the league’s single-season scoring record looks destined to fall.
Neither Roy Lassiter, who tallied 27 in 1996, nor Chris Wondolowski, who equaled that number two years ago, averaged at least one goal every 90 minutes of action. Wright-Phillips has one per 89, and he and the Red Bulls (10-8-11) are in the thick of a playoff race and have five games remaining. If he reaches or surpasses 27 and New York survives the cut, the MVP votes likely will follow.
Then his name will matter, first and last. Wright-Phillips has no interest in the tabloids. Tell him that he’ll be as much of an attraction at Sunday’s game between New York and the LA Galaxy as Henry, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, and Wright-Phillips will wince. But he does want to factor in the history books. There, it’s about the soccer. It’s about what you achieved through your own commitment and sweat. He’s already broken the Red Bulls’ club mark. Juan Pablo Ángel’s 19-goal effort in 2007 was eclipsed in late August. Now so much more is within reach.
“I played it down. I didn’t want to talk about [Ángel’s record] too much because I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself. But when I knew it was close, I wanted to do it,” Wright-Phillips said.
“That’s how history is made. Somebody had to do it first then somebody else will do it again. Maybe in 10 years, somebody will be talking about me when I’m not playing. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. It doesn’t matter how old the club is or how many goals it was for the record. It’s done, and that’s what people remember. It doesn’t matter if it was a record for Liverpool or New York Red Bulls. You’ve done it and now people remember your name for doing that.”
Said Petke, a Long Island native and former Red Bull defender who's more entwined with the club’s identity than anyone, “That shows right there what type of person he is, why he wants to break the record. To continue the history. To have his name linked with this team. He’s a phenomenal person. He’s a role model for young American players who want to look for the right way to do things and the right attitude to have.”