The New York Red Bulls honored Bradley Wright-Phillips on Sunday night, following their 2-1 victory against Los Angeles FC. While they were there to honor his recent achievement of scoring his 100th career MLS goal — doing so faster than anyone in league history — it was perhaps fitting that the win was not clinched by a Wright-Phillips goal, but rather by an unselfish moment that captured perfectly what has made him so special for the Red Bulls.
In the 80th minute of a tie game, Wright-Phillips ran onto a perfectly weighted long pass from Marc Rzatkowski, collecting it with a clean touch that put the ball in his stride as he raced behind the LAFC defense. Faced with a clear look at goal, and the option to score, Wright-Phillips instead took another touch and laid off a perfect pass into the path of a streaking Daniel Royer.
Nobody in the building would have blamed Wright-Phillips for taking the shot himself. After all, he is a 100-goal scorer in MLS, with the best goals-per-90-minute rate of anyone in the all-time top 20. Royer wouldn't have blamed him either, but the Austrian also knows what a selfless teammate Wright-Phillips is, which is why he raced down the field to give him a passing option even though the striker was in on goal.
"That play says everything," Royer said after the match. "He had a decent angle to shoot and to score a goal. But after the game he told me he heard me yelling and he saw me and he thought I had a better position, so he passed the ball and that’s just great.
"Not every striker passes that ball."
"To see it end that way, it's great," Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. "The game-winning play he makes, I think it's really fitting that he puts it in a really good way for Danny.
"Again, in our world here in professional sports, you don't always see that; the superstar, the guy, the goal scorer, to work and work so much and run so much for the team," Armas said. "It's a thing of beauty, really."
The Red Bulls held a ceremony after the match to celebrate Wright-Phillips' achievement of reaching the 100-goal mark, but the moment felt more like a chance to appreciate a player who has quietly established himself as the best player in the club's star-filled history.
International stars like Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Angel and Tim Cahill have played for the Red Bulls, as have U.S. national team stars like Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard, but no Red Bulls player — or MetroStars player before that — has ever enjoyed the level of sustained excellence that Wright-Phillips has put together. With his next goal, he will become the first MLS player to score at least 15 goals in five straight seasons.
During the ceremony, the Red Bulls revealed that no player will ever wear BWP's No. 99 again after the striker leaves the club.
Despite his success Wright-Phillips has remained the unassuming star, not carrying the big ego you'd expect a goal-scoring machine to possess. His unease with being honored after Sunday's match was obvious, a nervousness that many in the Red Bulls family fully expected.
"Just seeing him have to sit back and accept the recognition for once, because he never wants it, and we forced it on him," Armas said. "I told him before the game, it's not our fault. You scored the hundred, not me, you know what I mean? So you've got to take the recognition."
Whether that lack of ego was down to his upbringing, or a product of having grown up in the shadow of his famous father, Arsenal legend Ian Wright, and famous brother, former England international Shaun Wright-Phillips, BWP has continued to carry himself as a humble figure, even as he achieved the stardom he came to MLS to find.
"Yeah, it was kind of the plan. I wouldn't say the full plan. Like I came here to kind of get away from England and yeah, make my own name for myself," Wright-Phillips said. "I didn't realize I was in the shadows until I came here and it was good, because not a lot of people knew who my dad was, I don't know if they followed Arsenal in those days. So it was nice to just be Bradley Wright-Phillips and not Ian's son or Shaun's brother."
Wright-Phillips has succeeded in making a name for himself, and then some. He has played himself into the discussion of best players in league history, and the scary part is we might be witnessing his best season to date at the age of 33.
If he can help lead the Red Bulls to the elusive MLS Cup title the team has been chasing for the past 22 seasons, his standing as the best player in Red Bulls history will be undeniable, and there is a good chance he would have to sit through at least one more ceremony honoring him.