On Sunday at CenturyLink Field against the Red Bulls, Evans and the rest of the Sounders back line will measure their progress since a 3-2 loss to San Jose in mid-March.
New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips has been called a goal poacher, a pest. He’s been called overrated, the beneficiary of more-talented teammates, a player whose production would shrivel without Thierry Henry’s helping hand.
Since-retired Sounders defender Djimi Traore called Wright-Phillips lucky after the 30-year-old forward dropped a hat trick on them last September in a 4-1 New York win.
“It’s not like he did something special,” Traore said. “He was just in the right place to finish.”
New York Red Bulls @ Sounders, 2 p.m., ESPN2
Much of the same, though, has been said about Chris Wondolowski. And the San Jose forward abused the Seattle defense so thoroughly in its only home loss so far this season that the Brad Evans Experiment was called into near-immediate question.
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On Sunday at CenturyLink Field against the Red Bulls, Evans and the rest of the Sounders’ back line will measure their progress since that 3-2 loss in mid-March.
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid praised his converted center back following practice on Friday at Starfire Sports Complex – but he wouldn’t go as far as to say that Evans’ trial period is over.
“I’ve always thought that he could play there,” Schmid said. “That’s why I made the switch. Sometimes you’re right with those things and sometimes you’re wrong. But I think he’s adjusted fairly well and I think he’s more and more comfortable all the time.”
Wright-Phillips’ game is predicated on making defenders uncomfortable. He toes the edge of the offside line, constantly moving, muscles twitching, waiting for a sliver of space to open up.
Take his third goal against Seattle last year at Red Bull Arena. The smoke from the celebratory flares was still hanging over the stadium from Wright-Phillips’ converted penalty kick when the forward burst up the seam between Seattle’s center back, finishing off his hat trick with a first-time shot. Switch off for a second, and he makes you pay.
Wright-Phillips scored 27 goals in 29 starts last year, tying both Wondolowski and former Tampa Bay striker Roy Lassiter for the league’s season record.
“(Wright-Phillips) is very similar,” Seattle defender Chad Marshall said of the Wondolowski comparison. “He’s very good in space, floating away from you and making a good run. It’s just about keeping your head on a swivel and knowing where they are at all times, trying to get two guys around him to limit his chances to get a shot off.”
Wright-Phillips is one of the few big-name holdovers from the team that reached the Eastern Conference finals last season. Henry and Tim Cahill are gone – as is, surprisingly, popular coach Mike Petke, who was let go before the season.
Yet the Red Bulls (4-2-5) have played well under new coach Jesse Marsch. Though it has won just one of its past four matches, New York enters the weekend third in the Eastern Conference with 17 points from 11 matches.
“Jesse has been able to change the style of the team,” Schmid said. “They’re a much more aggressive defensive team, and that’s allowed them to change their approach.”
The Red Bulls put on a full-field press, hounding opponents from the moment they receive the ball. They lead the league in tackles per game and rank fourth in interceptions.
The Red Bulls reflect the style of Wright-Phillips, their newly minted designated player, too. Like him, New York wants to force you out of your comfort zone. It tests your limits, hammers on the door until it glimpses an opening, forces you to beat yourself with a mistake.
And then it pounces.