By Peter Schwartz
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When you think about what was going on in his life, you can’t blame Red Bulls star Bradley Wright-Phillips for being a little off his game at the start of this season. After all, he was wrapping up negotiations on a new multiyear contract extension while he and his wife were welcoming a new baby into the world.
The Red Bulls announced Wright-Phillips’ new deal early in the season, on March 29, but he was still a bit off his game.
Much like his team has experienced peaks and valleys during the season, the Red Bulls’ quiet superstar striker has had his own share of ups and downs. After a sluggish start, the Red Bulls have improved to an 8-8-2 record heading into Wednesday night’s home match against San Jose at Red Bull Arena. BWP is also heating up and is now up to nine goals in those 18 league matches.
“It’s weird,” Wright-Phillips told WFAN.com. “I really don’t think I’ve played too well. I’ve had a few good games, but I don’t think I’ve been consistent. I hadn’t felt like myself up until the last few weeks.
I’ve done all right, but there’s a lot of improvement from me to come. I feel like I can do a lot better.”
That’s a scary thought for the rest of Major League Soccer, but more importantly Wright-Phillips’ strong play has coincided with the Red Bulls appearing to get back on track. Combined with three wins that have taken them to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, the Red Bulls have won five of their last six games overall.
Part of what seemed to be distracting Wright-Phillips was this idea that the new contract was going to cause him to take his foot off the pedal in terms of being a consistent scorer.
“Are people going to think that now that I’m signed I’m just going to chill out?” Wright-Phillips wondered, he said. “It was kind of on my mind.”
Well, now the focus is back.
Wright-Phillips’ 87th-minute goal on Thursday gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 win over the New England Revolution in a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal match at Harvard. It was the first time that BWP had ever scored in an Open Cup match, and he has now scored goals in four different competitions during his Red Bulls career (MLS, MLS playoffs, Champions League and U.S. Open Cup).
“It’s been good,” said the 32-year-old striker from England. “I think that’s what the (U.S. Open) Cup can do. You can get good results in the Cup and then carry it on into the season, and I think that’s what has happened to us.”
The Red Bulls will visit the winner of the Aug. 2 quarterfinal match between the NASL’s Miami FC and the USL’s FC Cincinnati in U.S. Open Cup semifinals one week later. But before that, the Red Bulls have plenty of MLS work to take care of. At 8-8-2 and with 26 points, they are actually one win ahead of where they were last season, but there’s a different feeling around this year’s squad.
Last season, the Red Bulls were in fourth place in the East at this time and above the red line, meaning they were in playoff position. But three points ahead of last year’s pace this season, the Red Bulls are in seventh place in the conference, two points behind Columbus for the final Eastern postseason spot. A win over the Earthquakes on Wednesday would vault the Red Bulls past Columbus and above the red line.
The good news is that despite all their struggles, Wright-Phillips and the Red Bulls are right there with plenty of soccer still to be played.
“It felt, only a couple of months ago, a lot more negative than it felt last season,” said Wright-Phillips, who is just two goals shy of 80 for his MLS career. “You can get a little confidence from that to know that it isn’t so bad. It’s right around this time that we get into our groove, so hopefully this is what it proves to be.”
Last season, the Red Bulls went unbeaten the rest of the regular season and finished atop the Eastern Conference table. This year, they’re hoping to get back into that New York (and New Jersey) groove once again, but gaining three points against San Jose won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” BWP said. “I know they have some dangerous players and a great goal scorer in (Chris) Wondolowski, so it’s always going to be a tough game. I’m hoping that we can bring that form from the away games together that we’ve shown and that character. … I hope we can bring that home.”
It’s been a roller-coaster season so far for Wright-Phillips and the Red Bulls, but they have history on their side. This is the time of the season when they took off last year, and it certainly looks like we’re seeing the beginning of something big again in 2017.
Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @TheRealBWP and @NewYorkRedBulls.