Winding road leads to wisdom, if not spotlight, for Bradley Wright-Phillips
"If I were in charge of the league, I wouldn't promote me, either."
New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips speaks frankly about his standing in the world.
Major League Soccer is still expanding its global reach, Wright-Phillips explains and understands, and that means keeping its spotlight honed on established international stars such as David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Kaka.
That means that ahead of Friday's Hudson River Derby between the Red Bulls and New York City FC (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), most of the hype will revolve around Villa's hunt for a second consecutive MLS MVP award while ignoring the 32-year-old Englishman who has led the league in goals in two of the past three seasons.
"I don't think I'm the type of player you're going to use to promote it around the world. I get it," Wright-Phillips told ESPNFC by phone earlier this week. "If I were in charge of the league, I wouldn't promote me, either. I don't always like it, but I get it."
His self-assessment seems unduly negative on its face. Wright-Phillips has been one of the league's most productive players for years now. His numbers speak for themselves: 83 goals in 130 league appearances for the Red Bulls, the only player in MLS history to go for at least 20 in two separate seasons.
To hear him tell it, though, a hard-won knowledge of his own limitations is what has allowed Wright-Phillips to make it this far in the first place.
In the beginning, he was Ian Wright's son, the first part of his surname meaning he'd forever be judged against the accomplishments of an Arsenal legend and longtime England international. Then he became Shaun Wright-Phillips' little brother, his own development frustratingly slow when compared to Shaun's lightning-quick rise into the starting squads of first Manchester City and then Chelsea in the English Premier League.
"It was a very proud feeling seeing him on 'Match of the Day,'" Bradley said in an accent that never fully left South London. "It definitely gave me inspiration."
But there was also a flip side. Not unlike many talented ex-players, Wright could be harsh and demanding when his sons failed to live up to his own exacting standards.
"It was a difficult sort of thing," Bradley said. "If I did something good, it wasn't good enough. If I did something average, it was terrible. Sometimes it seemed like it was never good enough, no matter what I did."
His frustrations manifested themselves in a series of off-the-field incidents that take up a not-insignificant section of Wright-Phillips' Wikipedia page, though most of the charges were eventually dropped. He foundered for a time as a player.
Wright-Phillips came up through Man City's youth academy and even made 40 first-team appearances between a pair of Premier League seasons. Most of his time in England, though, was spent in the lower divisions. It wasn't until he found himself at Plymouth Argyle around the turn of the decade that he really started to come into his own.
"It's been about growing up, and realizing what kind of player I am," Wright-Phillips said.
When he was younger, he loved the thrill of taking defenders on -- a mental picture of Shaun's electricity on the wing comes to mind -- trying to dribble past them and pull off the spectacular.
At Argyle, Bradley molded himself into a pure goal scorer, learning how to time his runs in behind opponents, spending most of his time hovering around the penalty box. Having never tallied double-digit goals in a season, Wright-Phillips netted 13 for Plymouth during the 2010-11 League One season and 22 for Charlton Athletic two seasons later.
As important as anything else, Wright-Phillips found contentment playing up to his own standards and nobody else's. He no longer required external validation; he just gave the best he could from week to week and went from there.
That's why he's as flippant about his place (or lack thereof) in the MLS hype machine as he is. Based on the disconnect between production and reputation, Wright-Phillips might be the most underrated player in the league.
"I'm aware of it. I'm not going to lie to you," Wright-Phillips said. "But it doesn't change anything for me. ... I know what's good enough for me. I know what makes me happy."
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.