Bradley Wright-Phillips has reached the peak of MLS, rising from depths of English game
When Jesse Marsch became the New York Red Bulls coach in 2015, Bradley Wright-Phillips had just completed one of the most impressive goal-scoring seasons in Major League Soccer history: 27 goals in 32 games. But Marsch wanted more from his talented striker.
Marsch was shifting the Red Bulls toward a more high-tempo, high-intensity brand of soccer that pressed and squeezed their opponents. To do this, he needed his best player to buy in and become a leader.
“It wasn’t going to be possible for the best player and best goal scorer to just do that alone,” Marsch told ESPN FC prior to leaving the club for RB Leipzig. “We needed him to do more. We needed him to have real input into the personality of the team.”
Wright-Phillips response was simply, “OK, I’ll try.”
There was no braggadocio to the answer. Wright-Phillips had come from the depths of soccer and risen to a place of extraordinary heights in a few seasons, and he knew he couldn’t guarantee he’d succeed at what Marsch was asking of him.
There are few guarantees in soccer. It’s an unforgiving profession that can leave players behind in an instant. But, as Wright-Phillips has learned, trying is the hardest part. He could always score, but everything else needed work.
Wright-Phillips took the challenge, and has proven to be one of the most dynamic players MLS has ever seen. He’s become the first player to ever lead the league in goal scoring twice. He’s scored 98 goals and 21 assists in 157 games for the New York Red Bulls.
He may have turned 33 this year, but Wright-Phillips is having another career season. And he’s done it while the Red Bulls have been in constant turnover, losing club captains Thierry Henry, Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan since 2014.
Wright-Phillips has gone from the top of the world, scoring in the Premier League at the age of 20, to playing in the lower divisions of English soccer a few years later, to not having a contract at the close of the 2013 season. He was adrift and searching for something.
He found it with the Red Bulls. In Marsch, he also found a manager who pushed him to expand his game while also finding new ways to exploit his natural ability to find the net. He’s been the constant the Red Bulls have revolved around.
So why did it take so long to realize the potential that clubs like Manchester City and Southampton saw when he was a teenager? It takes a special player to be able to endure those kinds of changes and losses, but Wright-Phillips has, and it’s because he’s seen the bottom and never wants to go back there.
Turnham Road in Brockley, southeast London, is a tight-knit community of homes, and it’s where Wright-Phillips’ family lived. It’s where he grew up, where his cousins, aunt and grandmother lived and where his parents — the famous Arsenal striker Ian Wright and Sharon Phillips — met. After adopting Wright-Phillips’s older brother Shaun, Ian and Sharon split. Bradley was still a toddler.
The neighborhood had a tough reputation, but the Wright-Phillips boys ventured out with the other kids in the neighborhood from a young age. And their favorite thing to do was play soccer.
“Wherever we went, we took a football with us,” Shaun tells ESPN FC by phone. “There was a lot of grass everywhere. Wherever and whenever we could get a chance, we were always kicking a ball with each other and challenging each other.”
When he was six, Wright-Phillips started playing in Sunday league, a birthright in England where scouts look for the next superstar. It wasn’t hard to spot Shaun and Bradley, and eventually, Nottingham Forest did. Their mother would have to drive them 130 miles north of London to practice.
When Shaun was 17, Forest let him go. Because the brothers were a package, Bradley left the club too. The scout who had brought them to Forest had moved to Manchester City by then and gave the pair an invite to join City’s academy. Now their mother would have to drive them four hours north to play and train.
Bradley found himself at an old-school club run more like a family than a global business — the money from the United Arab Emirates and aspirations of global domination were years away. Shaun got a contract and rose through the team’s youth ranks and made his debut as an 18-year-old. For Bradley, he got his first contract when he was 16.
The “best day” of Wright-Phillips’ life happened on Dec. 6, 2004: he scored his first Premier League goal. City was playing Middlesbrough and Wright-Phillips came on in the second half as a substitute in the hopes he could help find a goal or two and bring City back from a 3-1 deficit. Four minutes after he stepped onto the field, he scored.
“In that moment, when I scored, I was like, ‘I’m done, cool. You can take me off the pitch. I’ve made it,'” Wright-Phillips says. City lost, 3-2, but Bradley was in heaven. He’d made it to the Prem. Nothing could take that away from him.
After the goal, though, Wright-Phillips struggled to find his role in Manchester. He scored one more time for the club, more than a year later, and made a few substitute appearance across two seasons. Then, in the summer of 2006, he got a phone call while on vacation in Ibiza.
He was a bit tipsy after a night out at the clubs when he got the bad news: he was being sold to Southampton in the Championship. The shock took hold of him.
“I thought I was going to be [at City] forever,” Wright-Phillips says. “When I got that call I was so confused. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t happy, I was confused.”
Southampton is a club known for valuing young players, and when Wright-Phillips arrived he found an academy and first team full of players around his age ready to break out. Future Premier League stalwarts Nathan Dyer and Kenwyne Jones were there, not to mention Adam Lallana and a young Gareth Bale.
Again, Wright-Phillips got in his own way.
“When I got there, I loved it,” he says. “I think it was too much of a good time. I didn’t really get my head down like I should have.”
The turning point in his career came on Feb. 28, 2008 in Portsmouth. Wright-Phillips and Dyer went to a club to see a friend’s concert. When the show ended, bouncers ushered the pair backstage to head out the back door with the artists so they could avoid the crowd and any trouble. On the way, Wright-Phillips entered the staff coat room and saw people making a mess.
As it turned out, people were in there stealing from the nightclub staff. The pair were brought up on burglary charges. Eventually the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence, although Dyer pleaded guilty. After serving a suspension, Wright-Phillips felt like he didn’t belong at Southampton. He’d see the fans and felt like they thought he was a thief.
When Southampton was relegated from the Championship in 2009, Wright-Phillips was released from his contract. He ended up at Plymouth Argyle.
If Southampton was the fall, then Plymouth was the bottom. The club was in turmoil when he joined, struggling to stay alive in the Championship. Straight away, he tore his meniscus. Six months on the sidelines, watching Plymouth descend into the depths of relegation. He came back at the end of the year, but it was too little too late.
Wright-Phillips stuck around for the League One battle. He felt he owed the club.
“I loved Plymouth and my time there because it helped me get my life back on track and I started scoring goals,” Wright-Phillips says. “But when I went there, it’s not a place you dream of playing. It’s not the team you dream of playing for. And you know when you’re there, if you don’t score goals or play well you’re going down there and down from Plymouth is not pretty.”
But again, he found life hard in the Championship, even though he scored 31 goals in a season and a half with the club. He was loaned out to Brentford and helped the club reach League One’s promotion playoffs. He played his final game in England at Wembley, a 2-1 loss in the final to Yeovil Town.
Wright-Phillips was out of a contract. He’d seen the depths of English soccer and how quickly your stock can dry up. He was once a touted prospect, now he had become a has-been. He wasn’t even 30 yet.
Then a call came to go train with the New York Red Bulls.
He flew over the Atlantic and stayed in a hotel in Hoboken, New Jersey for two weeks, getting picked up every day and taken to the Red Bulls’ brand-new training facility in East Hanover. He had no idea what to expect from MLS, but he was surprised.
“When I first came over here it shocked me, the standard,” Wright-Phillips says. “It was good. I was ignorant. When you come from England, you think everywhere is rubbish.
“In England, we’re arrogant to everything else. Even guys, if you have to play in the Championship, if you start at the Premiership, you look down on it. … When you grow up in the Premier League and grown up watching it, nothing else compares.
“Me coming over here, I didn’t think guys would be, I didn’t think they would have the knowledge of what I had or what I had grown up with, but they did. It was surprising.”
Wright-Phillips was offered a contract with the Red Bulls, and after some visa issues, he joined the club midway through the 2013 season. With him on the team, they’ve won the Supporter’s Shield twice, made the MLS Cup playoffs each season, and reached the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.
“I think that [Bradley] had so much belief from the whole staff and the fan base, especially, I just think he is showing what he has been capable of for the last 15 years and he’s just been given the chance to show it on the big stage,” Shaun says.
Shaun and Bradley had a lot of expectations thrusted on them. Their father played in the Premier League and for England. He was a public figure and they were, in essence, following in his footsteps. They were thrust into the spotlight. Shaun became an English international and made a few high-profile transfers, first to Chelsea and then back to Man City.
For Bradley, he had to live with the weight of not only his father, but also his older brother. He’ll never say anything about it, but hearing him speak about his career, it’s easy to see the through line of maturity. He was a young kid with otherworldly expectations because of his last name.