At the conclusion of last year’s calamitous playoff loss to Philadelphia, still in my days as a civilian Twitter user, I posted the following message in sincere confusion about what would happen next with the New York Red Bulls:
The eyes of history are watching what you do next, Mr Whoever It Actually Is That Hires And Fires The Manager At Red Bull New York— Cork, Ben (@corkinho) October 20, 2019
While nominally the club was being run by general manager Marc DeGrandpre and sporting director Denis Hamlett, by this time last year it had become unclear if either had any actual authority or desire to fix what was clearly a broken team. Years of individual ambition in New York and growing bureaucracy in Red Bull’s global soccer operation had left one completely in the dark on who would be the person to actually decide when first team performances became poor enough to dismiss Chris Armas as head coach.
Given the global portfolio of Red Bull’s soccer executives, the decline in New York was especially concerning because it was exactly the kind of situation that from afar could seem like a non-emergency. The record-setting Red Bulls squad of 2018 didn’t tumble to relegation in the first full season under Armas, but simply slipped to sixth place in the conference and even made the playoffs. It was a dire but superficially-defensible situation that my podcast View From 202 coined as the Klinsmann Zone after the former United States national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann, whose ineptitude was often concealed by narrow victories, unfocused media coverage, and relatively forgiving CONCACAF opposition.
But with the New York technical operation ostensibly being led by Armas’ longtime Chicago Fire colleague Denis Hamlett (who, like Armas, assumed his own position as a makeshift fill-in for a Jesse Marsch power play after the departure of Ali Curtis) it was unclear whether there would be any internal accountability for the situation in New York, which by the end of 2019 featured not only poor results but a collapse of communication with several key players. Not only was Hamlett’s ostensible loyalty to Armas a problem, but in his stewardship of the club with DeGrandpre (broadly acknowledged to have responsibility only over the team’s commercial operations) difficulties in signing first team players from outside the MLS draft system as well as key scouting and academy roles lying vacant for extended periods of time raised concerns that the Red Bulls front office operation had almost ceased to exist following the departures of Curtis and Marsch.
For much of last year, concerned Red Bulls fans had little to chew on besides paparazzi shots of Red Bull Global Soccer guru Ralf Rangnick and his assistant Paul Mitchell attending a stray match and vaguely-sourced foreign press reports about the duo taking on closer oversight role of both New York and the newly-overhauled RB Bragantino club in the Brazilian first division. But as the 2020 season rolled around and few new bodies were being brought in to catch up with an accelerating personnel exodus, it once again appeared no one was at the wheel in Harrison - or, at least, no one capable or willing to make the decisions necessary to fix a rapidly unraveling team.
Then one morning in February into the vacuum stepped Kevin Thelwell, a longtime recruitment and development executive at Wolverhampton Wanderers of the English Premier League. In a microcosm of the dysfunctional leadership structure in New York, Thelwell was announced as the club’s new head of sport, a role both newly-created and awkwardly-named considering Hamlett remained with the club as the sporting director. A bespectacled, mild-mannered Welshman, one could be forgiven for mistaking Thelwell as a put-upon schoolmaster rather than a cutthroat Premier League executive. Indeed for much of this year the man everyone hoped was the new boss in town kept a decidedly low profile, focusing on learning the in-and-outs of Major League Soccer’s player acquisition format as well as re-engineering aspects of the club’s academy.
But listening to Thelwell’s press conference following the decision, it is clear that he has tough standards and is not afraid to make tough decisions in pursuit of them. Making an evaluation of Armas’ suitability to direct the first team was among Thelwell’s chief tasks in the beginning of his New York role - and he apparently didn’t need a large sample of work to make that evaluation, implying that he may have even made the decision earlier if not for the complications of the covid-19 pandemic. Thelwell’s retaining of Hamlett as sporting director (a role one would think has been made largely redundant by Thelwell’s installation) implies not only a discerning office cull rather than a reckless corporate massacre, but also a shrewd belief that consolidating the team’s strategy under a single head once again is ill-advised.
As discussed even before Armas’ firing, a strange amount of the defense of his tenure as head coach has rested on the idea that the team is hopeless anyway because of problems outside the control of any leadership cell in New York. It is supposedly unreasonable to have expectations of Armas or any head coach long as the red-shirted American stepchild is neglected by ownership supposedly more doting on its (non-salary capped) teams in Germany and Austria. This logic follows that the discarding of Armas is a desperate move by an organization out of ideas rather than the beginning of a deliberate reset.
The time it took for the Red Bull nervous system to react to the stark decline in New York’s performances after Armas’ first preseason is perhaps longer than fans would have liked, and certainly the state the New York technical operation was left in over the last two-and-a-half years is a type of austerity. But at the same time the ownership should be commended for recognizing a problem and attempting to remedy it through the hiring of an ambitious young executive like Thelwell, one who has clearly not been sent to be a joy-strangling bean counter. The recruitment of a Premier League executive is one that would have required not only substantial financial resources on the part of Red Bull, but also a promise of extraordinary power and purview that Thelwell perhaps no longer had access to at Wolves. Especially given the exit of both Ralf Rangnick and Paul Mitchell in the months since Thelwell’s arrival in New York, there is all the more reason to think there is a big new plan being laid out in New York, one that may not look like as much like previous Red Bull soccer schemes as some fear.
Kevin Thelwell did not make the call to fire Chris Armas now because he thinks it will give him a better chance at winning the 2020 MLS Cup with a team he’s otherwise satisfied with. This is a move, along with new signings such as Dru Yearwood and Samuel Tetteh that Armas wasn’t allowed to touch, meant to set the team up for a long-term plan again rather than trying to go 1-0-0 week to week. In outlining the massive interest he’s received in the now-empty coaching role, Thelwell described New York Red Bulls as a “big job” and that the club belongs at the top of Major League Soccer. Now that the club finally has a clear ladder of leadership again, it’s time to see what his vision of that big job is.