Wright-Phillips won’t be missed - by Atlanta United with so much on line

New York Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips battles for a ball with Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst.

New York Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips battles for a ball with Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst.

Atlanta United’s players say they want to beat the best at their best.

But they also said they won’t mind facing New York Red Bulls without Bradley Wright-Phillips on Sunday in a key MLS game.

Should Atlanta United win, it would all but lock up the Supporters’ Shield. Atlanta United leads Red Bulls 63-59 in points with four games remaining.

“There’s a lot of talented guys on their team,” Atlanta United fullback Chris McCann said. “They are not next to us in the league for no reason. He scores a lot of goals and is a really important player for them. You can look at it as a bonus because he’s such a goal threat.”

Wright-Phillips, who has scored 19 goals this season, will miss the Eastern Conference showdown because of a yellow card he received late in last week’s 2-0 win against Toronto. The yellow card resulted in a one-game suspension because of accumulation. Wright-Phillips told MLSSoccer.com that he is gutted to miss the game and didn’t agree that he should have received the yellow card.

“It’s unfortunate that in this game of this magnitude that he’ll have to miss that,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas told MLSSoccer.com Tuesday. “It hurts for us and for Brad, because he lives for those games.”

Among the Englishman’s goals this season, two were scored in the Red Bulls’ 3-1 win against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on May 20. The goals came on headers, and it was his move that resulted in a penalty that led to New York’s first goal.

“You watch his movement and how difficult he was to handle,” McCann said.

Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said he watched Wright-Phillips score an improbable hat trick in a 3-3 tie with D.C. United on Sept. 16.

“It was the quietest hat trick I’ve ever seen,” Parkhurst said. “He had three touches of the ball and all three were in the back of the net. It’s really impressive what he’s able to do.”

An interesting part of Wright-Phillips’ suspension is the fact that Atlanta United knows who he is. They know what he can do. They don’t know what his replacement may do. And there aren’t too many players or coaches who enjoy and appreciate unknowns.

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said figuring out what the Red Bulls may do starts with understanding their system, how they want to play, how they approach games and how they’ve been successful with Wright-Phillips. But now that Wright-Phillips is out of the equation:  “That becomes a bit tricky in terms of what you are going up against and what you are going into,” Guzan said.

Derrick Etienne Jr. is the likely replacement. He has four goals in 26 appearances. Armas could also tab Brian White or Anatole Abang. He could try and play a false-nine formation, which means no true striker who plays consistently at the head of the formation, but instead uses a lot of midfielders flitting in and out of spaces that may open up in the defense. The Red Bulls, like Atlanta United, are loaded with talented, offensive-minded midfielders.

“We’ll always try to do play to our advantage and make sure that we go out there and put the best 11 [players] on the field that day,” Armas told MLSSoccer.com. “But not having Bradley Wright-Phillips in our team, it is not usually a good thing, so listen we feel for us, but more so for Brad because of, in big games, what he means to this team, pure football-wise and then just his leadership as well.”