Whoever replaces the incomparable Bradley Wright-Phillips will have a tough act to follow. (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
The man may be irreplaceable, but that the Red Bulls must find someone to replace striker Bradley Wright-Phillips in arguably the team’s most important game of the regular season Sunday.
So, who do they start against Atlanta United in a game that will go a long way in deciding the Supporters Shield race in Major League Soccer.
The player from Column A, Column B, Column C or perhaps a surprise choice?
Head coach Chris Armas’ options include Derrick Etienne, Jr., rookie Brian White, Anatole Abang and midfielder Daniel Royer, among others.
“I mean, it’s not easy to find another guy like Brad, you know?” midfielder Marc Rzatkowski said. “He’s a special one, we notice, but for sure in one game we can find something different.”
If Armas has made up his mind, he is not telling the media on who his choice will be to replace the incomparable forward.
“It’s unfortunate that in this game of this magnitude that he’ll have to miss that,” he told reporters about Wright-Phillips at the Red Bulls Training Facility earlier this week. “It hurts for us and for Brad, because he lives for those games. We see whether it is a derby match, or big games, how he shows up and what he means to our team in every way so, we’ll honor him on the day and push for him, too.
“But look we like our roster. We have said it. We think Derrick is dangerous, we have Brian White, we have Abang, we have plenty of guys that can fill in, that we have a lot of confidence in.”
The Red Bulls (18-7-5, 59 points), who trail Atlanta by four points in the Eastern Conference, need to defeat their rivals (Atlanta is 19-5-6, 63) at Red Bull Arena Sunday at 1 p.m. to have any chance of securing the Shield and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Wright-Phillips is serving a yellow-card suspension for incurring one in the Red Bulls’ 2-0 home win over Toronto FC last Saturday.
Needless to say, outside of Atlanta’s Josef Martinez and New York City FC’s David Villa, it would be a difficult position for any player to fill BWP’s soccer boots anytime, given what he has accomplished for the Red Bulls during his tenure over five-plus years.
He has scored 105 goals in 168 appearances, an impressive strike rate. He won the MLS Golden Boot in 2014 with a then record-tying 27 goals, is the only player in league history who has tallied 15 or more goals in five consecutive seasons and is poised to break the 20-goal barrier for the third time.
To appreciate BWP’s impact on the Red Bulls this season, at least statistically, it must be noted that he has played a direct part in 49.1 percent of the team’s 55 goals this season. Behind his 19 goals and eight assists, there is little doubt that the Englishman is enjoying his best all-around season for the club at the age of 33.
Wright-Phillips’ movement off the ball is invaluable and whoever is who replace him will be hard pressed to duplicate.
Can the Red Bulls beat Atlanta without Wright-Phillips?
Of course they can. For one game, especially in the regular season, teams can overcome the loss of one key player, even one who has a history of making opposing goalkeepers take the ball out of the net on a regular basis.
Earlier this season, a knee injury forced Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles to end his MLS ironman streak at 183 games. He had a more than able backup in Ryan Meara — he could be starting for many MLS squads — backstopped a 3-1 victory in Atlanta.
“You can certainly compare missing one of your leaders,” Armas said. “Last time it’s our captain, and Ryan steps in and did amazing, we saw that. Now it’s Brad, one of our other leaders that we all look to for leadership and the goals that he produces – what he actually gives on the field. As we get closer to the game that might even be something that we feel, but we believe in the guys that can come in and help and the guys on the roster. We don’t focus on who’s not in. We’re already past that and we’re thinking hard about how we can challenge Atlanta.”
Midfielder Sean Davis saw as one door closing, at least for one game, and another one opening for another player.
“I mean obviously Brad is a big loss for us – he’s an icon at our club, and he’s done so much for us not only this year but in his career,” he said. “But it’s a great opportunity for other guys to step up and like you saw in the Atlanta game at their place when we were missing a leader, Ryan came in and more than held his own. I think the team’s ready to fight without Brad, I think, you know we want to win this game for him, we know it’s not easy for him to be on the sideline but it’s a good opportunity for a lot of guys.”
But which one? Guess we’ll have to wait until around noon Sunday when the Starting XI is expected to be released by the Red Bulls.