Bradley Wright-Phillips was honored recently for scoring his 100th MLS regular season goal for the New York Red Bulls. Tim Hall explores his legacy.
Revolution 99: Bradley Wright-Phillips
Tim Hall’s View From 101
It should have been an occasion to bring a tear to a glass eye. A player, a very good player, arguably the greatest player in a club’s history, having his statistics read out in front of a throng of the people who were there to witness most, if not all, of them.
The player’s lovely family there and getting their share of the compliments and the applause: the spouse for being the true foundation of the family, and the kids for being cute and precocious and adorably shy. Some mementos are brought forth, and then it’s the man of the hour, here to give the standard speech: I am but one man, I could not have done it without my family, the coaches, the organization, my teammates, and of course, the fans, the best fans anywhere ever on god’s green earth.
Yes, it’s all horribly cliché, and when you watch it happen for players on other teams, it’s easy to roll your eyes and be derisive about it. But when it’s one of your guys, your heroes, you can’t help but get caught up in the moment and be proud of your man. The guy you always believed in, even though that was you questioning the signing on message boards and debating his market value in conversation. You’ve watched all those statistics pile up, but of course for you, they are memories. It’s not THAT he scored but HOW he scored and WHEN he scored and AGAINST WHO.
This was the situation that faced New York Red Bulls fans when, after an exciting and enjoyable 2-1 victory over the visiting Los Angeles Football Club, the team’s star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips was honored for recently scoring his 100th Major League Soccer regular season goal for the club. The team wheeled a stage out to midfield, executives said kind words, Bradley was given a signed ball and a personalized hat and a gold watch, and then Bradley gave the expected standard speech. And then, the Red Bulls announce that no other player, as long as the franchise exists, will wear BWP’s 99 ever again. They even put a plaque up above the luxury boxes.
We all know what the natural response to this stimulus is, having seen it in all the other sports. We are supposed to fall prostrate on the ground, our faces a contorted blubbering mess as if we’d just watch Marseille fall. But that wasn’t the mood around Red Bull Arena at all. This isn’t to say that Bradley Wright-Phillips isn’t great or deserving of the honors bestowed upon him, he most certainly is, probably even more than he has received. It’s just… well…
For starters, it’s the number 99. In soccer. Not exactly the most popular number going. This isn’t the 10 or the 1 or the 9 where we’ve seen something and experienced a player so revolutionary nobody can dare sully that number ever again. It’s 99. It was probably safe for a while anyway.
Come In Number 99
Of course, retiring numbers is only a recent invention in the world of football, and it’s usually reserved for a player who has died young, or while on the field. Frequently, when clubs say they’ve retired a number, it’s negotiable whether it will return, and often, due to the rules of certain competitions regarding what numbers can be worn, it necessitates that the low numbers make a return.
And, while no one can argue that Bradley Wright-Phillips is not deserving of such an honor for the New York Red Bulls – being at least for now the fastest player to ever reach 100 goals in MLS history – does he necessarily deserve to be the first?
It’s an argument one could make, when you consider the Thierry Henry’s and Juan Pablo Angel’s and others who have come before him, because you have to consider that “fastest to 100” mark. It’s a very nice record to have, for as long as BWP has it. As is being the franchise leader in goals all-time. Wright-Phillips has earned those marks, and he’s done it with style and humility and hard work. But records are meant to fall, and they will. All of these are possible explanations as to why the ceremony to honor the greatest striker in team history failed to bring forth the sort of emotion it could. But the real reasons are easier.
First, it is hard to create emotion, because it is hard to create history. The New York Red Bulls franchise – including the Metrostars that were – is only in its twenties. It’s one thing to look at a statue being built for Thierry Henry and to understand where he sits in Arsenal lore, or to expand the metaphor slightly, to see Derek Jeter’s #2 retired by the New York Yankees and recognize his place in the century-plus history there. This isn’t that, and so this desire by the club to create a grandiose moment out of thin air feels like they tried to skip ahead to the back half of the book.
Also, this was being done in front of an incredibly cynical fan base, one who considers helmets a wise investment for when other shoes start to drop from great heights. We see BWP being given a gold watch and assume he’s being forced into retirement.
And that’s the final reason the ceremony at Red Bull Arena didn’t elicit the proper response: he’s not retired. He’s not even done with the season. Bradley Wright-Phillips still takes the field week in and week out, adds to his legacy and adds his name to more lines of the record book, both for the team and the league. There are still goals to be scored, and goals to be reached.
There is a time and a place for everything. Also, there is a certain way things are normally done, and a reason they are done that way. For a 100th goal, a quick ceremony before kickoff, hand off a jersey with the number 100 on the back, a photo, a handshake, a healthy and appreciative cheer from the crowd, and then let’s get on with the game. For a number retirement, let’s wait until the player himself is retired at the very least.
There are plenty of occasions to wipe tears from our eyes when it comes to our favorite players, but this was a miscalculation and a misstep in some ways from the Red Bulls organization. We can’t fully appreciate everything that Bradley Wright-Phillips has done because he hasn’t stopped doing them yet. Everyone who has been here from the first goal through the century mark can say without reservation that no player should wear 99 here again, but maybe we should have waited until the jersey was cold until we retired it.