“Confident” Wright-Phillips continues PK struggle

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

HARRISON, N.J. – A widely held belief in soccer circles is that you send your very best penalty kick takers to kickstart any match tiebreakers. It is why Lionel Messi will always get the nod to start off spot kicks for Argentina.

But what happens when your best penalty kick taker loses his touch?

The New York Red Bulls put that question to the test on Tuesday night, sending Bradley Wright-Phillips out to start their penalty kick stanza against the Philadelphia Union in their U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal matchup.

The result? A blast that rattled the crossbar.

“I was very confident,” Wright-Phillips recounted after the match. “My record before this, I had 100%, I was very confident. I thought this would’ve been the penalty to help me get back on track by putting my team 1-0 up, but it wasn’t.”

Up until this year, Bradley Wright-Phillips has been the Red Bulls’ Messi. As he stated, New York’s leading scorer was perfect on penalty kicks for his Red Bull career — a league best six for six in 2014.

This year has been a different story. Wright-Phillips has converted just two of five opportunities across all competitions; a stark difference from his norm.

“What frustrates me about that penalty is that I was very confident and I tried to be brave after missing two in one game and I just wasn’t rewarded for it and my team’s out of the Open Cup now,” he said.

One can imagine, then, how surprised fans and media alike were when Wright-Phillips stepped to the circle.

“Bradley stepped up and said ‘I want to take the first one’ so I said ‘great,’ I keep encouraging him to have confidence from the spot,” Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch said.

In a perfect play of gamesmanship, Philadelphia Union keeper John McCarthy measured his opponent perfectly. The Pennsylvania native delayed the start of the penalty kick stanza, speaking to the ref under a shower of boos and hisses from the crowd in an attempt to throw off Wright-Phillips before his attempt.

It worked.

“You start to see a young goalkeeper grow up which is impressive,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the match. “He’s come up big in penalty kicks twice in a row so [I’m] very happy for him.”

For their part, the Red Bulls are not ready to give up on their leading scorer. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if, come a similar situation, it is Wright-Phillips lining up the next crucial penalty kick for the team.

“Obviously now that’s the third one that doesn’t go in for him, but I don’t want for him to waiver in his confidence,” Marsch said. “I want him to know how important he is to our team, and the belief we all have in him, so I know he’s hurting bad, but he’ll recover and he’ll be fine.”