Quiet Leader Bradley Wright-Phillips Pushing Red Bulls to the Top of MLS East

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistOctober 7, 2016

Jun 29, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) controls the ball past Philadelphia Union defender Richie Marquez (16) during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley Wright-Phillips isn't your typical striker. 

The New York Red Bulls forward is stellar in front of the net, but he doesn't possess the flash and flair of many of the big personalities who play his position across the globe. 

That's why the praise of his leadership abilities from his manager and captain can catch outside observers off guard at first. 

The scorer of 21 goals in 2016, and 66 in 105 matches over his three seasons in Major League Soccer, has moved into a greater leadership position in 2016 after a challenge from second-year Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch. 

“When Jesse first came here, he demanded that he didn’t just want goals out of me—he wanted me to be a voice in the changing room," Wright-Phillips said after his side's recent 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union. "I tried to be a leader on the field. I'm trying every week to do those things.

"It’s not really in my character. But that’s not good enough for Jesse. I try to do what I can to help the team." 

August 7, 2016; Carson, CA, USA; New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) controls the ball against Los Angeles Galaxy during the first half at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Marsch said: "He’s stepped up his leadership in such a big way. The times he chooses to speak, the things he says, the commitment he has to this group has led us in so many ways. And it’s obviously led to him having clarity and confidence on the field." 

Wright-Phillips isn't required to speak on every occasion, but when he does, the rest of the squad listens intently.

"He’s one of the best players this club has ever seen, and when you have a guy with the pedigree and the ability he has, people will listen to him," Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said. 

Wright-Phillips makes plenty of noise with his high level of production in the final third for the Red Bulls, but you won't see any flashy celebrations out of the only player ever to score 20 or more goals in an MLS season twice.

Sep 24, 2016; Harrison, NJ, USA;  New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) controls the ball in his game against the Montreal Impact during the first half at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Just a simple few hops and a fist pump come from Wright-Phillips after most of his goals before he rejoins his team behind the halfway line.

With flashy superstars such as David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco stealing the headlines every week with spectacular goals, sometimes Wright-Phillips gets lost in the conversation for Most Valuable Player, but he's made his presence known over the last few months. 

The 2014 Golden Boot winner, who tallied 27 goals that season to capture the trophy, has scored 12 of his 21 strikes since the July 24 New York derby, in which he bagged a brace in a 4-1 victory over New York City FC.

Jul 24, 2016; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) celebrates scoring a goal during the first half against the New York City FC at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

During the same span, the Red Bulls have extended their unbeaten run to 14 games and moved to the top of the table in the Eastern Conference.

However, they are nowhere close to securing the top seed in the postseason just yet, as they're level on points with NYCFC. The drama each week in the playoff race is something Wright-Phillips and his teammates don't like to get caught up in.

"It’s fun," Wright-Phillips said. "It must be great for the neutral to watch. I think it’s been very exciting. While you’re in it, it’s hard to get the emotion of it, and you just have to think about what you have to do, but it’s good. It’s nice and competitive."

"It’s been a great, very MLS-type season," McCarty said. "Teams jockeying for positions, teams going on big winning streaks and some going on some losing streaks.

"We started the season 1-6, and if you told us we’d be fighting for first at this point, people would’ve probably called you 'crazy.' But this team has a lot of fight and character, and we’re a veteran group." 

The competition at the top of the table between the pair of New York sides has helped push the Red Bulls deeper into their unbeaten run. 

"I see a New York [City] team that’s very good, committed and organized," Marsch said. "I think that team doing well has driven us in so many different ways. It has made us hungry and driven us to get better and do better to be the best."

Jul 3, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) controls the ball against New York City FC midfielder Andrea Pirlo (21) during the second half at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Marsch continued: "That’s where we’re at right now, and we’re going to stay focused on that, focused on ourselves. I think we’re being pushed by a lot of different things right now, and our group is responding." 

Many have tried to water down the streak put together by the best team in the East because the Red Bulls have dropped a few two-goal leads, with the most recent slip-up coming on the road in Toronto on Sept. 18. But that is something they don't expect to happen again. 

"After the Toronto game, we drew a line in the sand and said 'this has to stop,'" McCarty added. "We challenged every single guy in the locker room. If you’re on the field at the end of the game, it’s unacceptable to concede leads anymore.

"We need everyone to do that. It’s been a team effort. Just because we’ve conceded a couple leads at the end of games, we’re not going to let that define our season." 

The Red Bulls went down by one and then gave up a one-goal lead in their match against Philadelphia, but they responded with a game-winner from McCarty to take all three points from the critical Eastern Conference contest. 

Oct 1, 2016; Harrison, NJ, USA;   New York Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty (11) reacts after scoring a goal against Philadelphia Union during second half at Red Bull Arena. The New York Red Bulls defeated the Philadelphia Union 3-2.
Mandatory Credit: Noa
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

"After the game, when it’s all said and done, I’m glad we went down because it’s good to see the character of the team," Wright-Phillips said. "As soon as they scored, we played better. It almost like we needed that. You don’t want to depend on those things, obviously, but we reacted well." 

One race Wright-Phillips has kept a distant eye on is the one for the Golden Boot. Just like their clubs at the top of the East, the 31-year-old Englishman and Villa are tied at the top, both on 21 goals. 

Villa climbed back into the race with a two-goal performance against Houston Dynamo in Week 30, while Wright-Phillips moved level with the Spaniard with his strike against Philadelphia on Saturday. 

Wright-Phillips admitted he went into the Philadelphia game with his mind on the Golden Boot race but added it usually doesn't creep into his head as he's playing. 

"When Villa scored two [against Houston], I was like 'what the hell, man,'" Wright-Phillips said. "I hate to go into games thinking about goals. Unfortunately, this game I went in thinking about goals." 

The strike the Englishman delivered in the 3-2 victory impressed his manager, who continues to be amazed by the skill Wright-Phillips possesses.

“What a great goal," Marsch said. "Talk about a confident take. He just ran after that, and I had the perfect angle for it, and I’m thinking to myself 'just nice and easy.' And then he absolutely buries it.

"His form, his confidence, so much of it stems from his leadership."

With confidence flowing through the veins of Wright-Phillips, and his team continuously on the upswing, the sky could be the limit for the original MLS franchise still searching for its first championship. But first, a clash with the Columbus Crew awaits on Oct. 16 during the penultimate weekend of the regular season.

“It’s obviously good to be in first, but at the end of the season, that’s when it matters," Wright-Phillips said. "We take it one game at a time." 

          

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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