Bradley Wright-Phillips had a season for the ages in 2014 for the New York Red Bulls.
The striker set a franchise record and tied Major League Soccer’s single-season record by scoring 27 goals last season and helped New York reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
He’s already off to a flying start in 2015. Even without the likes of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill besides him, Wright-Phillips has scored twice in three games. Certainly, the English striker is going to be central to most of the Red Bulls’ attacks.
But there’s a difference this year. Wright-Phillips has always had the ability to put the ball in the back of the net, but under new coach Jesse Marsch, the forward has a slightly different role. In Marsch’s 4-2-3-1 formation, he is not just a poacher whose sole job is to score goals; he’s more involved in the play and has been a better-rounded player in the first three contests. In the March 28 win over the Columbus Crew, Wright-Phillips acted as the first line of defense, causing the turnover in midfield that led to Mike Grella’s game-winning goal.
“[Marsch] has given me more options for the way we’re playing,” Wright-Phillips explained after the Red Bulls’ opener. “He’s just giving me ideas on how I can make runs and just little things that can help my game and this team. It seems to be working.”
The results have been encouraging so far. With the opposing teams all having a keen eye on Wright-Phillips, it means it will open up other opportunities for the likes of Lloyd Sam, Sasha Kljestan and Sal Zizzo. A perfect example of how others are benefiting from Wright-Phillips is Sam’s opening-night goal against Sporting Kansas City.
It’s a spectacular individual effort from Sam to equalize for the Red Bulls, but the winger wouldn’t have gotten the space to shoot if Wright-Phillips doesn’t take the opposing center back away from Sam with his run out wide.
The two combined again in Columbus. Playing the role of playmaker Wright-Phillips finds an on-rushing Sam which led to the penalty kick for the Red Bulls.
“Anytime you have really good players going forward, you want to let them be able to do their thing,” Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said after the match against the Crew. “That means that you get [Wright-Phillips and Sam] in good positions, you try to win the ball high up the field where they are able to go at the defenders one-on-one or two-on-two, get them in advantageous situations where they are going to be able to create advantages.”
The downside to Wright-Phillips being used this way is that he might get fewer goals if he’s left isolated up front. But the early returns so far have seen the Red Bulls having a much more dynamic attack.
A Look Ahead: at DC United Saturday on MSG2
The Red Bulls will renew hostilities with long-time rivals DC United Saturday in a top-of-the-table clash.
New York battered the red-and-blacks in its home opener on March 22 and will be looking for a repeat performance in the nation’s capital. The Red Bulls are the only unbeaten side left in MLS and a win over DC United will vault them into first place in the Eastern Conference.
“This early in the season, it’s a great game to have,” Marsch said to the media Tuesday. “ … A game for first place, a team with revenge on their mind. There’s a lot to this game and we’ve got to make sure that we’re ready to go down there and have a real battle. I think our guys get that and I think they’ll be ready.”
Marsch will hope to replicate the performance in the home opener and have his midfield win the battle in the center of the park again. The trio of McCarty, Felipe and Kljestan outworked DC United’s midfield pair of Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen in the first match and Marsch is looking for more of the same.
“I think the key for them is that they continue to be hard to play without the ball and put the game on their terms,” he said. “That also means the three guys in front of them do a good job so that they know where to go and when. I have confidence that this team will always find a way with the ball to command the game.”