Yesterday, the New York Red Bulls announced that they signed 2014 MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips to a Designated Player deal, a move that came two days after Thierry Henry announced his departure from the club.
Wright-Phillips joined New York halfway through the 2013 season, scoring two goals in nine appearances in his debut for the club. This season, his numbers exploded, with the Englishman finishing the season with 31 goals in 36 league and playoff appearances. That absurdly productive season was enough for the Red Bulls to feel the need to tie up his services as a Designated Player, but is one productive season out of a career mostly devoid of prolific production a track record that justifies a Designated Player slot?
If you’re out of the MLS loop, here’s a quick primer before we proceed: MLS has salary caps. Players are signed to the league and not to particular clubs, but clubs have to be mindful that their player salaries don’t exceed the budget allocated by the league. The MLS Designated Player Rule, however, allows clubs to sign up to three players who can exceed their league-mandated budget. The clubs are responsible for the player salaries above the MLS budget allocations. Sexy stuff, I know.
In 2007, the Red Bulls signed former U.S. men’s national team captain Claudio Reyna as its first Designated Player. Their second Designated Player, Juan Pablo Angel, signed later that the same year and went on to score 58 goals in four seasons. In 2010, Thierry Henry became the third Designated Player in Red Bulls history. He was followed later that year Mexico’s infamous Rafa Márquez, and in 2011, 38-year-old German goalkeeper Frank Rost (don’t ask) became the Red Bulls’ fifth-ever Designated Player. The next year, Australian superhero Tim Cahill rounded out the list.
So to recap, the Red Bulls Designated Player history: Reyna, Angel, Henry, Marquez, the German guy, Cahill, and now Bradley Wright-Phillips. Judging on career reputation alone, one of these things is not like the others, and it’s not the dude that spent 16 seasons in the Bundesliga. It’s the guy who was toiling in the underbelly of England’s game before popping up in New York.
But there’s a case for Wright-Phillips being an exceptionally worthwhile recipient of that DP money.
If someone was terrible with numbers and statistics, they might say that Wright-Phillips scored two goals for the Red Bulls in 2013, and tallied 31 goals in 2014, which represents a 1,450% increase in scoring production. That means that, if Wright-Phillips maintains that rate of improvement, the Red Bulls can expect roughly 480 goals from their new Designated Player in 2015. That’s a hell of a return, and would smash every record on the planet and completely ruin the credibility of MLS. That’s an exciting but dangerous prospect.
But we’re all smarter than that. You can’t score 480 goals in a season without getting injured. So, fine, that’s not the case.
The case for Wright-Phillips is clear when you block out the extraneous noise, but MLS has a comparison problem. Wright-Phillips never scored this many goals, in one season, in his life, over the course of nine seasons in England. Not even close. It’s arguable as to whether he’s even seen a goal this many times in his career. So is he a risky bet? Possibly if you fixate on his career in England, but that would mean ignoring the facts right in front of your eyes: He just scored 31 goals in a season. Do you think that’s a riskier bet than a player with an exceptional résumé — including World Cups and trophy collections from top leagues — who’s never dipped their toe into MLS? Do you remember Rafa Márquez?
There have been enough Designated Players in MLS, with obvious marketing potential and past pedigrees to match, to make a not-insane-sounding argument about whether a player is worth a DP slot or not. But if the measure of success is winning, and you’ve found someone who’s put 31 shots into the back of the net in one season, it’s hard to question anything about the decision. In fact, it raises interesting questions about future uses of Designated Player slots. Should the road forward for certain teams involve shying away from the big name, big money foreign acquisition? It certainly sounds as if that’s a direction the Red Bulls are moving toward.
Perhaps success abroad has little to do with success in MLS, just as it’s widely accepted that success in Spain might not translate to success in England, or that success in Germany may not lead to success in Italy. At the end of the day, maybe we fixate too much on an objective good, when the quality shown in any given league, at any given time, is the only quality worth measuring.
Now that Thierry Henry and his 15 assists in 2014 have left the building, it’ll be fascinating to see what New York’s newest Designated Player can put together for his second act.