Through two head coaches, through a number of different systems and iterations, two key pieces have stayed at the same for the New York Red Bulls. For the past handful of years, some of the most successful in the teams history, the Red Bulls have had consistent leadership at the very top and at the very back and, in Saturday’s statement New York Derby win, that leadership was once again quietly on display.
Bradley Wright-Phillps and Luis Robles weren’t the standout performers in Saturday’s 4-0 win over NYCFC. They weren’t the best or most dynamic players on the field. However, their fingerprints were all over a win that notched the team’s seventh victory in 11 tries against their local rivals.
Through those 11 matches and over the past several years, Robles and Wright-Phillips have provided a number of memorable moments for the Red Bulls, and Saturday was another big one for a team that’s had just two consistent pieces throughout what’s felt like an unending period of transition.
“A huge part of it is just setting the right example. I’m not the only one,” Robles said. “No matter how many good performances (Wright-Phillips) has, no matter how many goals he’s scored, we come to training week-in, week-out knowing that we have to give our best to push our guys. They’re the present and our future. Not only will that benefit us but it will benefit U.S. soccer, and if we can be a part of that, if that can be a part our legacy, so be it.
“I also think one of the things that Brad and I have experienced in our careers is that we’re workers. There may be some talent there but what gets us over the hump is that we put our heads down and we work. I hope that rubs off on everyone else.”
It did on Saturday. There was Kaku, contributing to three of the four goals in his first MLS derby match. There was Florian Valot and Derrick Ettiene’s continued development on display alongside several other USL imports. There was Tyler Adams’s unmatched ability to tackle literally anything and anyone on the Red Bull Arena field.
But the performances of Wright-Phillips and Robles cannot be overstated. Robles helped marshal a clean sheet, one that he says was vital in building for games long after Saturday’s demolition. Conceding would have made the game “bitter-sweet” according to Robles, who wanted to make sure the young Red Bulls kept their composure despite it all. He lost his voice in the process, leading from the back as NYCFC turned up the pressure in the second half.
Wright-Phillips’ contributions were more obvious. He set up the first goal, breaking free and firing a shot that rebounded straight to Kaku. He scored the third, all but putting the game out of reach. The goal was his 11th in as many games against NYCFC, who, as a team, have scored just 11 total goals against the Red Bulls.
“I think it’s just growing up in England where derbies are everything,” Wright-Phillips said. “I’m an Arsenal supporter, and Tottenham-Arsenal is a day where my house will be shut down for that game, praying Arsenal wins. I try and take that into the game.
“Every morning when he comes, like when he came to the game today this morning and I saw him, he had a glow about him, like he wanted to play,” added Jesse Marsch. “He wanted to, again, show and compete and do everything it took to now find a way to win. It’s something that he is eager to prove, I think every time. That’s always the joy of being around Brad is there’s no jadedness. There’s no ego. There’s no selfishness. It’s all about the group.”
Wright-Phillips joked that the only “glow” he’d noticed about himself was his bald head, but even he couldn’t brush off the 11-in-11 statistic. Without wins, that stat means nothing but, with them, it’s a special achievement.
Saturday’s match wasn’t as memorable as the infamous 7-0. It’s a match that will be eclipsed by what happens in the next six months and in the final two derby matches of the season. But Robles, Wright-Phillips and the Red Bulls don’t expect a 7-0 each time, and performances like Saturday’s left plenty to feel good about for the Red Bulls’ two leaders.
At the end of the day, Robles and Wright-Phillips remain as important to the Red Bulls as any player on any club throughout the league and, their derby contributions will be big parts of their legacies when all is said and done.
“No. Those are one-offs. I don’t know in the history of the rivalry that will ever happen again,” Robles said. “I hope it happens for us again before them, but you can’t think, ‘let’s make this 7-0 and totally embarrass them’. For us, it was a race to that next goal. We knew the next goal would dictate the result.
“I’ve been on the winning end and I’ve been on the losing end. At the end of the day, this rivalry is great, not just for this organization or theirs but for MLS in general. For the result to turn out the way that it did, I don’t think it really speaks too much about them or us because it’s the beginning of the season. We know that they’re a really good team. They’re one of the top teams in the league. We know that we could be a top team, but we have a lot of work to do.”