It’s the most MLS of golden boot (and perhaps MVP) races, this competition between an aristocrat lending his name to the league and a journeyman who left home to make his.
MLS, as much as it focuses on the development and promotion of the American player, also caters to certain kinds of foreigners. It pursues men like David Villa, a world and European champion with club and country. He’s an icon, and even as he enters his mid-30s, his presence elevates the league. And MLS welcomes men like Bradley Wright-Phillips, a player who took a chance and left behind old constraints in order to start a new life and forge a new identity in soccer’s new world.
They play on opposing sides of a river for clubs whose philosophies mirror their stories. New York City FC, owned by English Premier League power Manchester City and coached by French legend Patrick Vieira, is built around big names. Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo were recruited to anchor a team designed to project the glamor of the city it hopes to claim as its own. Across the Hudson, the New York Red Bulls have evolved under the guidance of coach Jesse Marsch and sporting director Ali Curtis into a team of grinders greater than the sum of its parts. You become a star after you arrive and learn to thrive in that system and culture.
On Sunday, the final day of the regular season, either Villa or Wright-Phillips will claim the scoring title. The winner very well may have the inside track on the league MVP award. And most likely, the Red Bulls (15-9-9) and NYCFC (14-10-9) will finish first and second in the Eastern Conference and earn byes in the upcoming playoffs. It’s a race that adds a new layer to a growing rivalry, highlights a lot of what’s fun and peculiar about MLS and reveals plenty about the two players involved.
Villa hasn’t come to New York on holiday. He’s been the ideal Designated Player. The Spaniard was the ever-present glue during NYCFC’s rough inaugural season. He leads by example, comes through in the clutch and embraces an ambassadorial role (he spent Thursday night meeting fans at an Upper East Side sporting goods store). Villa has 22 MLS goals this season, an improvement on the 18 he tallied last year. And he’s been on fire down the stretch, scoring five times across the past three matches. Those goals lifted NYCFC into a one-point lead over third-place Toronto FC.
“I remember when he came to the league, I wasn’t sure what he would be like,” Wright-Phillips said of Villa. “Would he even celebrate when he scored? Does this mean as much to him? When you watch him play, you see you’re getting the best out of him. It’s like he’s still playing for Barcelona. It’s a credit to him. He’s got every right to be arrogant and it’s unbelievable he’s banging in goals and still celebrating. There’s humility—he works hard, running back, tracking back, tackling. He doesn’t have to do all that, but to see how much he cares and how much he does, it’s very nice to see.”
In England, Wright-Phillips always was going to be Ian’s son and Shaun’s younger brother. Bradley, now 31, started at Manchester City, of all places. But he started slow. A move to the Championship and Southampton breathed life into his young career, but relegation forced a switch to Plymouth Argyle in 2009. Wright-Phillips scored at a modest clip for Plymouth, Charlton Athletic and Brentford (about a goal every three games) but needed a change of scenery. He found it in suburban New Jersey, where the lifestyle, the peace, the facilities and Thierry Henry—his father’s heir at Arsenal—helped revive him. Now a DP, Wright-Phillips arrived humble and on a $50,000 base salary—ready to work, happy to run hard off the ball and willing to keep his game simple. It paid almost immediate dividends.
Wright-Phillips has been clinical. He tied the MLS single-season record with 27 goals in 2014, his first full season, and added four more in the playoffs. He struck 18 times last year and has 23 in 2016 (without a single penalty kick goal). He’s the first MLS player with two 20-goal seasons and his 67 regular-season markers are the most in a three-year span. He’s blown past Henry and Juan Pablo Ángel to become NYRB’s all-time leading scorer, and he’s certainly made his own name. There’s a banner hanging at Red Bull Arena celebrating his achievement, and fans change the number of goals scoreboard-style each time he scores.
Villa has taken notice, telling SI.com’s Planet Fútbol podcast that a golden boot is difficult to win when up against “one of the most successful strikers in last years in the league, Wright-Phillips. Not only this year, but all the years he has scored a lot of goals and been important for the club.”
Strikers can be strange creatures operating under competing compulsions. Goals bring personal glory, which can be intoxicating. But to be great requires an awful lot of thankless running, the willingness to absorb punishment and the courage to miss and move on. The best find the right balance and hunt for goals not for acclaim at the expense of teammates, but in order to help them reach their desired destination.
Ask Villa and Wright-Phillips about the golden boot, and you’ll hear two men who’ve found that balance. They play for teams that haven’t won a championship. Villa’s, in only its second season, has lofty expectations and is eager to make its mark in a demanding city and beyond. Wright-Phillips’s has been falling short for two decades, but now appears as poised as ever to end the wait and send a message to fans and rivals on both sides of the Hudson.
“The most important is the trophies of the team. The most important. If the team takes a trophy together, everybody in the team, the people are talking good about each player. If you win a [golden boot] but the team is no good, it’s difficult, the people talking about you. For me, it’s always very important, the quality trophies,” Villa said. “It the [golden boot] can be with the [MLS Cup] it’s important for me. Of course we need to score goals. We need to be better for the team. But I think right now, I score three goals in each game, the team wins each game, and Bradley Wright-Phillips scores one more and wins the trophy, I [congratulate him] right now. Because the most important thing for me is to score goals for the team, not only for David Villa.”
For Wright-Phillips, a second golden boot would be one more smaller milestone on the journey he began in the summer of 2013, that his teammates started under Marsch last year and that Red Bulls fans have been slogging through for two decades.
He was irked by those who wondered whether he’d continue scoring after Henry’s retirement. It was a needlessly negative sentiment. He was challenged when Marsch asked for more off the field, when it was time for Wright-Phillips to be a leader and not just a “soldier.”
“He said we want you to talk more, and I wasn’t into it," Wright-Phillips said. "I told [Marsch] I’m more of a soldier. You tell me instructions and I go. It took me a while. But after a while people start expecting things from you and you have to show up or get lost. I started to grow into it and the responsibility he’s holding me to.”
Wright-Phillips understood the downside of hype and expectation. He’s reluctant to celebrate or draw attention to himself or put his needs over his teammates, and said he sometimes wonders if his success really just depends on superstition or luck. That ensures his work-rate remains high, and it guarantees he keeps his stats in perspective. It’s not about temporary accolades, which are forgotten by most, but about what he can do for the club that helped him finally feel secure as a soccer player. He came to MLS to establish himself. He hopes to be remembered and said "it's crazy–people saying my name in the same sentence as [Villa] makes me more happy than winning [the golden boot]." But to be revered like Villa, you’ve got to help others become champions.
“I feel that way about Red Bull. Everyone I play with, I enjoy their company and it’s such a nice feeling when you become brothers,” he said. “It’s very hard to do. At the end of the season, goals—they don’t matter … It’s a team game and winning the trophy means everything because I could lead this club as top scorer—“He won the golden boot”—but if the Red Bulls don’t have an MLS Cup, what did I really do? Those goals were just for me then. It wasn’t for any cause. It’s just me scoring and nothing came of it.”
He said he remembers learning about past legends at Arsenal as his father became one.
“I didn’t see those guys play, but I knew their names and I automatically respected them,” Wright-Phillips said. “I would love that, when fans grow up here they hear your name even once you’re done playing. That would be an amazing accomplishment. I had this conversation with [goalkeeper] Luis Robles and we’ve talked about it before some of our games. The only thing that matters is MLS Cup. We have a chance to finally bring one to Red Bull and be remembered around this club forever.”
For the legend and the later bloomer, one race ends Sunday, and then a more important one begins.