Bradley Wright-Phillips wasn't your typical European player making the move to Major League Soccer when he left his native England for New York five years ago. He was 28 at the time and just one year removed from a high-scoring season that helped Charlton earn promotion to the League Championship.
The former Manchester City academy product and son of Arsenal legend Ian Wright moved to the United States hoping to regain the focus on his career that he had lost. He wound up finding so much more.
What he discovered was a league that exceeded his expectations, a team that helped him re-discover his best form and a city and country that have become the kind of home that has made it easy for him to plant roots and avoid the desire to go back to England.
"I wasn’t happy with how I left England. I didn’t like where my mind was football wise," Wright-Phillips told Goal. "I felt like football was coming second. And the only thing I wanted to do was come here and put football first and give it a real shot, and I did that.
"I’ve always loved football, it wasn’t like losing the love, but I wasn’t putting it first. I was more interested in hanging out with friends or just doing other things. When I got here that was my main focus, to get my head down and get in the team and try and do what I could to put a good case forward, play well and be rated in this league."
Five years and more than 100 goals later, Wright-Phillips is rated as one of the best players in MLS history, He has set several records during his six seasons with the New York Red Bulls, from scoring 100 goals in fewer matches than any player before him, to becoming the first MLS player to score at least 15 goals in five straight seasons.
Those gaudy numbers are made more impressive by the fact his first season didn't exactly go according to plan.
He arrived in the summer of 2013, in the middle of a season that would see the Red Bulls win their first Supporters' Shield as the MLS team with the best regular-season record. Injuries and poor form kept Wright-Phillips from making much of an impact and he managed just one goal and seven total appearances.
"The most surprising thing was the level," Wright-Phillips recalled when remembering his debut MLS season. "I remember being at Red Bull Arena, Real Salt Lake were really good at the time and I hadn’t really seen them play or knew any of their players, but the way they were passing the ball around I was taken aback.
"When you come from England, everyone’s ignorant, you think that’s the best place on earth and there’s no good players anywhere. That was my thinking anyway, like the idiot that I was. Just the standard of the league was impressive, and also I remember when I was coming Thierry (Henry) told me ‘Don’t think it’s easy. It’s not easy. A lot of people come here and don’t succeed'.”
Wright-Phillips had no interest in being one of those people, even after his rough debut campaign.
"I never tried to leave," he said. "They would have had to get rid of me, because by that time I came in the summer and it was amazing. I’d been to the city a lot. I was getting to know everyone on the team. So by that time I was fully enjoying myself, apart from on the field. I was really enjoying myself and my family was happy.
"I just remember thinking I had a couple of injuries, I didn’t score many goals, and I just wanted the next season to be better. I wanted to show that I had something to offer to this team. I just wanted to have a good preseason. I didn’t have a preseason the year before, so I wanted to get a good preseason in and break into the team. That was the plan."Don Emmert
The next season wound up going better than anybody could have envisioned. Wright-Phillips scored a whopping 27 goals, tying the then-MLS record for goals in a season, as his partnership with Henry in the Red Bulls attack became one of the best in the league.
Wright-Phillips has continued to dominate in MLS ever since, with the 2018 season being no exception. He scored 20 goals during the regular season, third behind Atlanta United's Josef Martinez and the LA Galaxy's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, helping the Red Bulls set a new MLS record for points in a season on their way to a third Supporters' Shield during Wright-Phillips six seasons in the league.
As prolific as Wright-Phillips' time has been in MLS, it is easy to forget that he did manage to fashion a solid career in England before making the move. He looks back on his playing career in England fondly and never found himself feeling like he had any unfinished business, even as he reached superstar status in MLS.
"There were several good memories (in England). Making my debut at Man City, playing with my brother, that was a high point and was amazing," Wright-Phillips said. "Going to Charlton and winning the League One championship. Even when I was at Southampton, my first year there I really enjoyed it. We had a good playoff run. There’s been a few great moments, I don’t hate my career in England.
"People forget, but that’s what I was saying before. There’s certain people who are going to see things how they want to see them, but that brings me back to not having to prove anything. I know if I look back there’s a lot of things I look back on and feel proud of in England. My time in MLS has just been better."
Now 33, Wright-Phillips has successfully forged a legacy with the Red Bulls, shattering Henry's career goals mark and making his own name after spending his early years being known more as Ian Wright's son and Shaun Wright-Phillips' brother.Getty Images
"I’d get questions like that in England. Do you feel pressure, feel like you’re in a shadow?" Wright-Phillips said. "Walking around every day I didn’t feel like that. Now I’m creating my own story here and it being me, I realize how much that was maybe affecting me, or maybe that was how people viewed me. Coming over here, it was a nice breathe of fresh air to play football and just be Bradley."
For all his accomplishments in MLS, Wright-Phillips is still chasing one that has eluded him, helping the Red Bulls win their first MLS Cup title. The team formerly known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars has yet to lift the trophy handed out at the end of the playoffs, and 23 years of playoff disappointments have left Red Bulls fans desperate. Even in the midst of a record-breaking season.
Last week's conference semifinal first-leg loss to the Columbus Crew has the Red Bulls needing a win in Sunday's second leg at Red Bull Arena, and Wright-Phillips knows full well how important it is to finally lift the team's MLS Cup curse.
"(Winning MLS Cup) is everything," Wright-Phillips said. "We’ve won the shield, I’ve broken records. It doesn’t feel complete. I still don’t think we’ve had the big thing to celebrate together as a club with the fans.
"Even when I’ve been on the MLS Instagram and then other fans will say to our fans ‘you’ve never won a cup’, I just want our fans to have a reply. When we win it, it’ll be amazing."
Wright-Phillips understands the nerves being felt by Red Bulls fans after last week's first-leg loss to the Crew,
But the forward says if he could tell supporters anything, he would remind them that winning MLS Cup was never going to come easy.
"That’s not how it goes," he said. "That said, I’m confident we can do it at home."
If the Red Bulls do go on to beat the Crew and do lift that elusive MLS Cup title, it will very likely be behind goals from Wright-Phillips. And a win would cement his already-legendary status with a club that has helped him write a successful second act and establish a new home he has no interest in leaving.
"Since I’ve got here I’ve never wanted to go back (to England)," Wright-Phillips said. "A lot of people ask me from back home do I miss home? Do I miss England? I don’t yet. Not yet."