Wright-Phillips Rising Again in Phoenix, and He Sees a Bright and Bold Future

Maura Gladys@@mgladysFeatured Columnist IJune 5, 2017

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 10:  Substitue Shaun Wright-Phillips of QPR applauds the fans as he warms up during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad Stadium on May 10, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Stumbling upon Phoenix Rising FC's training session, in the heart of Arizona, is like finding a football oasis in the desert.

Hidden behind fences and some flimsy mesh branding are three instantly recognisable faces: Didier Drogba, Omar Bravo and Shaun Wright-Phillips. The trio, situated near tumbleweeds and some way from any major roads, are collectively responsible for 86 international goals, five Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League trophy, 14 World Cup appearances and more than 400 domestic club goals.

It's here that Wright-Phillips is starting a new chapter in his illustrious career.

The 35-year-old drew headlines when he signed with Phoenix earlier this year. But since then, the team have staked their claim as an ambitious, aspirational club, which helps to explain what drew the former England international to the desert.

"In the beginning, I wasn't sure," said Shaun's brother, Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls. "I'm sure he had a few other options. But, they took him around, told him about their vision, and by the time he got back, I knew it was what he wanted to do."

After the elder Wright-Phillips signed on, Bravo and Drogba joined as well, and the club have made a strong push to join Major League Soccer as an expansion team.

Leveraging their star power, both on the field and off (some of the team's co-owners include rapper Diplo, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy), Phoenix has put forward a confident, strong persona that has caught on with fans and players alike.

Pete Wentz is playing a part in putting Phoenix Rising on the map.
Pete Wentz is playing a part in putting Phoenix Rising on the map.Steve Cohn/Associated Press

Despite the ambitious vision, choosing Phoenix was risky for Wright-Phillips.

European star power in the United States is a tricky topic. Led by David Beckham in 2007, the American football landscape has been long considered a retirement home for stellar names past their prime, whether it be in Major League Soccer or the lower divisions such as the NASL or in Phoenix’s case USL.

Huge names from Drogba and Bastian Schweinsteiger to Robbie Keane and Joe Cole have made the jump across the pond on the wrong side of 30.

On paper, Wright-Phillips fits that description. But the former Manchester City and Chelsea man couldn't be happier, because he's doing what he's always wanted to do—play football.

The game was in him from the start. The adopted son of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, he played Sunday League football before joining Nottingham Forest. He was released by the club when he was 17 and joined Manchester City.

At the time, City were not the cash-soaked, title-challenging, Pep Guardiola-managed behemoth they are now, but rather a side whose aim was to keep their heads above water in the Premier League.

Wright-Phillips was a bright light in that quest to survive and maybe one day thrive. Barely grazing 5'6" but with a cannon for a right foot and a heart that beats for the game, his play crackled with every touch, earning the adoration of City fans.

He leveraged his low centre of gravity, quick feet and unpredictability to speed down the wing, scoring goal after goal with hard strikes across the goalkeeper, such as the one he scored in March 2004 against Manchester United—what he calls his favourite goal. He collected the ball in midfield, drove into the box, bamboozled Wes Brown and fired over Tim Howard to put the gloss on a memorable 4-1 win for City.

Wright-Phillips was a hero long before that goal, but to net a stunner in a Manchester derby cemented his status in the blue half of the city.

It wasn't just his skill that earned him such admiration at City. It was here that he started to lay the foundation for the values that would carry him throughout his entire life in the game: work hard, find joy and stay positive.

"From a kid, it was always, 'Just do what you want to do to enjoy the game'," he said. "That enjoyment has helped me still love the game to this day. I just play it because I enjoy it so much. I love being around the dressing room and I love being around my team-mates."

That positivity would be tested when financial difficulties forced City to sell him to Chelsea in 2005. He had already made seven appearances for England by then, and expectations were high, but Chelsea didn't suit him the way City did.

Wright-Phillips spent four seasons at Stamford Bridge, never finding the groove he found on the wing at City, and he returned to Manchester in August 2008.

Back in a familiar environment, he thrived, equalling his entire Chelsea goal tally in his first four months back in the north-west of England. But the revival would be short-lived, and he soon moved south to Queens Park Rangers.

In 2015, he left the European game for good. But in giving up Premier League competition, he gained an opportunity to reconnect with his brother, Bradley, a star at the New York Red Bulls.

Although the two spent several years together at Manchester City, New York felt different. They could savour each other's company, knowing that their time together was rare along the unpredictable path that football often lay before them.

"When we were at Man City, I took it for granted," Bradley said. "I thought this was normal, I play here, my brother plays here. So, when we got back here, I was so thankful, I could cherish the moments of driving to training together, travelling to away games, being on the same field. This time I really got to grasp and enjoy it."

As much joy as the game has brought, Shaun can't play forever, and he knows his twilight is coming. It could come in Phoenix, and while he doesn't reflect that deeply on his career, there are a few key traits that he hopes are remembered.

"I just want to be known as a person that enjoyed the game, played 100 percent all the time," he said. "It didn't always go my way, but I still gave 110 percent and played the game with a smile on my face. When you're a kid, you smile when you play football, and for me that never really changed."

As for the Wright-Phillips legacy, that looks set to continue with Shaun's son, D'Margio, a Manchester City academy player who made his debut for the England under-16s in April.

"I've done the same thing with him as my mom and dad have done with me," Shaun said. "I've tried to keep him in Sunday League football as long as possible, so he has his natural raw abilities."

D'Margio hasn't just received his father's name, though, he also appears to have gained his work ethic. "I always check on him, and people tell me he's the first in, last out, and if you want to get better, that's what you have to do."

Not much older than 16, D'Margio's rise not only made an entire generation of England fans feel incredibly old, but it also put the Wright-Phillips family in a unique conversation.

If the teenager makes his senior debut in the next few years, the family will become the first English family to have three generations wear an England shirt—a footballing dynasty.

"I'd like to think so," Shaun said with a smile. "Because I'm going to need someone to look after me when I get old."

"He's got pace and footwork from his dad, for sure," said Bradley. "Shaun reckons he'll be better."

It’s a beautiful, warm spring night in Phoenix. The sun is setting and the soft purple night blends into the top of Camelback Mountain, making a lavender smokey effect on the dark sky, and the stadium is buzzing. It's the same fizz you can find at any game and at any level—the same pulsing heartbeatand it's easy to see why Wright-Phillips is seduced into staying in the game this long.

Phoenix goes up early in the second half but then blows the lead just as time is about to expire. But, with the last kick of the game, Wright-Phillips receives the ball just outside the box; he takes a cheeky, ambitious touch and fires low and hard across the goal, freezing the goalkeeper and winning the game for Phoenix.

Bradley later admitted it was as typical an SWP goal as you could get.

Shaun takes off running toward the fans in the corner, leaping and fist pumping along the way.

And in that moment, the struggles and frustrations that have plagued his career fade away, and he's the same kid who stunned Howard all those years ago in Manchester; the one who puts immeasurable joy and effort into each touch, no matter where he is, and who can share that love and joy with his father, his brother and his son.


*All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated


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