“It’s very difficult for me to sit here because the results currently aren’t there, and I know this is a results business. Anything I say, people will say ‘well, great - but we’re in 11th.’”
Kevin Thelwell will tell you himself he is realistic. Realistic about his professional choices, realistic about the high-stakes and often unsentimental world of global soccer, and realistic about the current perception of his job performance.
Though his team has since moved from 11th to 9th after Saturday’s win over Cincinnati, the New York Red Bulls head of sport does not expect rave reviews for his first full season directing the club as the team remains stuck outside the playoff picture. But nonetheless, the 47-year-old Englishman (he grinned while confirming that “fortunately or unfortunately” he is English and not Welsh despite a long stint working for the latter nation’s FA) cut a confident air in a discussion I held with him last week over video chat from the offices at Red Bull Arena in Harrison. The man who has seen his first full season at the helm crumble seemed not bashful but rather eager to recount the progress he’s sensed throughout the club’s operations that he insists will lead to a healthier first team in the near future.
“I understand that in this situation, fans aren’t going to go ‘yeah Kev, great, well done.’ I am realistic and certainly disappointed with where we are, but the season’s not over yet and we’re hoping to carry on this good form. We’ve been competitive in just about every game and I think you take even half of the points we’ve dropped from leads - something that sometimes happens with a younger team - and you’re having a very different conversation and instead people are probably saying ‘look at how well the Red Bulls have done this year: they’ve reduced the age of the squad, they’ve brought in a hungry new set of players and still stayed competitive.”
Certainly for those familiar with the recent history of the New York Red Bulls, the comments about age will stand out. When Thelwell arrived in New York last year after a long career eventually heading the front office of storied English club Wolverhampton Wanderers, he says it was a chance not only for an exciting professional experience in a new culture and city but an even rarer opportunity to rebuild a major club based on his footballing values. Though the much-vaunted youth movement in New York is the subject of ridicule in many circles of the fanbase, Thelwell - who as sporting director led Wolves from their rock bottom of League One back to the Premier League in under a decade - unequivocally vouches for a club-building strategy that he feels is the foundation for long-term success at any level.
“Young players are the foundation of any platform of any club and league. All the strongest teams are built around players who understand the DNA and the fabric of that particular club. They understand the value of playing for New York Red Bulls or Wolverhampton Wanderers or whichever club it may be, and they’re clear on the identity and it means more to them.”
“So for me, young players are very, very important and it’s no different from what we did at Wolves really. We identified players from the academy at different stages of the club’s development starting at League One. Then once we were at Championship level, the main signings that got us to the Premier League were players of young age - Rúben Neves became the captain at 20 years of age, and then you have Helder Costa, Leander Dendoncker, Diogo Jota, some young players who became the face of Wolverhampton Wanderers.”
While the mild-mannered Thelwell has started to earn attention for his outsized transfer market activity in New York, having made over a dozen first team signings since the end of last season, his focus for the early part of his tenure was building up the club’s academy structure. Alongside his achievements in leading Wolves back to Premier League status, Thelwell also built the West Midlands club’s academy up to the English FA’s Category 1 level as one of the nation’s elite, producing first teamers at top flight level including Morgan Gibbs-White and Max Kilman.
“What we did at Wolves and what we’re doing in New York is building what we sometimes call golden threads throughout the entire program and support services that make sure the pathways throughout the system are very simple for talented players. We’ve worked on connecting the teams more, bringing the age groups down, bringing the age groups much closer together to hopefully give players the opportunity to succeed and I think we’ve already seen some of that. Even in bringing the age of the USL team down we’ve had players get promoted like Omar Sowe, AJ Marcucci. Daniel Edelman is training with the first team on a regular basis.”
Thelwell says he is “very pleased” with the USL Championship as a place for young players to earn their first pro minutes and that Red Bulls II will be committed to the league for another season “and then we’ll see where we’re at with MLS Next, or whatever name it is they come up with” following 2022. But wherever the senior reserve team ends up, Thelwell hopes that the pressure of dropping the age levels down at all stages of the club’s development path will increase the competition for places at such levels and produce more talent such as Edelman always waiting in the wings to take the next step.
“Long may that continue in my opinion because when you do that, you bring some sustainability to ensure that when players do move on - hopefully to bigger and better things - you have a progression plan where young players can come in immediately and pick up the torch.”
Thelwell is attempting to build a club in New York that is more agile and able to contend with a myriad of potential setbacks (including a season ruined by injury and a loss of form) in a league that is becoming more enmeshed with the high-paced and high-stakes commerce of global soccer than ever before. His attention to detail and focus on contingencies and preparation for a variety of different challenges is perhaps the most distinctive change of his tenure.
“Succession plans are a huge part of the job because people move on - for a lot of different reasons. Players, coaches, staff all move on, so you’re constantly identifying and trying to understand what people are doing on the marketplace and how they may best fit you if something changes.”
“In my opinion, it’s the what-ifs that usually trip you up. What if we lose our star striker, what do we do next? What if we lose our sports science chief, what do we do next? So it’s almost crystal ball of doom stuff really - you think ‘what’s the worst that could happen’ and then work your way back from there.”
“A big part of the sporting director or head of sport job is checking the marketplace for what fits your context but also looking at yourselves. We’re continually reviewing and evaluating performances throughout the age groups and obviously that’s part of always being prepared to make a new signing, but it’s also important to find out whether there’s a person already in the building who can help us first.”
“One of the worst things that could happen from the sporting director’s point of view is if you end up in situations you don’t need to and maybe find yourself where, for example say you might need a new backup fullback, you might already have a top fullback ready within the club pipeline but you go out and sign somebody else and you’ve not only spent valuable resources but blocked a capable player’s growth. So thinking about change is a vital part of the job, and in this age every sporting director is doing that on a daily basis.”
Even Thelwell’s reasoning for coming to New York from a prized position in the ascendancy of European football last year is through the prism of constant growth and evolution, saying that “having been at Wolves so long, I was worried about becoming institutionalized, not learning or growing my mind.”
But one succession plan that Thelwell doesn’t envision putting into action anytime soon (and perhaps to the surprise of some outside the club’s orbit) is replacing the manager whose hiring has defined the early part of his tenure, Gerhard Struber. Though, as he mentioned earlier, the first team’s results prevent him from making a more assertive case about the team’s future, Thelwell nonetheless believes he has a perfect fit for his project in the Austrian who embodies everything about the Red Bull footballing identity.
“He was obviously someone who was known in the organization and knew the identity and it was important that he had worked with young players before. We regard Gerhard as someone who is young at heart, someone who wants to see young players prevail and get better. At senior level he’s already had success at (Austrian first division side) Wolfsberger and then went to the very challenging league that is the English Championship at Barnsley under very difficult circumstances and kept them up. All of those things were a factor in bringing him in.”
“Having now worked some time with him, I feel we are very like-minded and he is very committed to the project. He’s very hard-working - he eats, sleeps, and breathes the process, really. So it was important to bring in someone who was not only willing to give young players opportunities but someone who would be committed to a long-term plan.”
“As you would know, building a roster in MLS is very different from building a roster in Europe. In Europe you can turn over a squad very quickly, whereas in MLS it’s a bit more complicated and takes a little bit longer. So we needed somebody who was committed to a long-term plan and while we all understand results need to improve and there are plenty of things to work on with our playing style, we’re very pleased with the commitment he’s shown to the project.”
Struber himself mentioned earlier this summer that another transfer window or two is needed to turn winning trophies “from a dream into a goal” for his side. Thelwell mentions that the club had been relatively quiet in the summer transfer period despite the team’s injury crisis and dip in form - bringing in only inexperienced and still-unused defenders Lucas Monzón and Issiar Dramé - because of both commitment to the club’s long-term project (avoiding the aforementioned overcollecting of players) as well as the logistical limits of the still pandemic-choked transfer market.
“It’s at a point in the season for all MLS teams where, yes maybe you can recruit a player, but when you can actually get that player into the country is proving very difficult with the pandemic and visas and things like that. Issiar Dramé is a very good example, he’s a player we’ve had lined up for a very long time and now he’s only just gotten into the country and has gone through a long period where he hasn’t been training with a team and with a month left in the season it’s almost over before it’s begun in some respects.”
“So we’ve always focused on the January window as the window where we’re always going to be able to make the most change. This past January we went out about ten first team players and then brought in a few more than that, and there’s always the challenge of getting players acclimatized to not only a new team but a new league and new country and doing that in the middle of the season only increases the degree of difficulty right now.”
As we neared the end of our conversation, I asked Thelwell whether his attention to potential change and succession means that he has already identified the players he and Struber will attempt to sign this winter. He defers that he can’t really go into details about which players or even which areas of the field he’s looking to transition over the coming winter, but he reiterates in character that “we’re constantly reviewing and evaluating the roster with one thing in mind - to make us better on the pitch.”
“We turned over almost a third of the roster while, if I recall correctly, not many other teams were able to do a lot of business for the same reasons that we’ve had some struggles. So without question, we’re hoping the next winter will be as strong as the last one we had.”
“Without question there’s things for us to work on, everybody can see that - but despite all this there’s also some signs that suggest we’re not as far off as people might think.”