In an offseason in which much of Major League Soccer has been forced by lingering pandemic effects to largely stand pat in the transfer market, the New York Red Bulls have quietly been among the league’s busiest clubs.
Sporting chief Kevin Thelwell and head coach Gerhard Struber have brought in a total of nine first team signings as they overhaul a squad left shapeless from multiple seasons of administrative neglect. But the response from fans and press to their prolific transfer window has been tempered by both the relative low profile and, in several cases, temporary loan status of the players they’ve added to the New York squad. The duo offered their first direct comment on these additions and other matters in a video press conference held Monday afternoon in which they explained some of the circumstances that influenced their strategy.
Thelwell and Struber emphasized that it was no small feat to bring in any players at all in an offseason where continued logistic difficulties posed by COVID-19 prevented much of the due diligence that typically goes into transfer activity. Thelwell stated that the large amount of loan signings (fullback Tom Edwards, forward Fábio Gomes Netto, goalkeeper Carlos Coronel, and midfielder Youba Diarra are all on temporary deals) were due largely to the higher risk in pandemic times of players not settling, especially ones moving to a new continent. The former Wolverhampton Wanderers chief additionally stated that this “try-before-you-buy” approach was one that had served him well during his days in the Premier League, citing his signings of Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota as coming through this provisional approach.
This being the New York Red Bulls, there of course were questions about a theoretical star player waiting in the wings. Struber used his improving English to make an eloquent case for the specific players already brought in being more important than any messianic impact signing often pined for by observers.
“We have been fortunate in these (COVID-19) times to sign players who are hungry and who play how we want to play. I think, in our game idea, (the players we’ve signed) will have a big impact. Our philosophy is teamwork. My philosophy is not one about key players or special players - we need the whole team and that is the most important thing.”
The most specific praise from Struber came for the South American signings Fábio and Andrés Reyes as Struber expanded on his thoughts on the Latin American influence on Major League Soccer that he has noted in interviews since taking over. The Austrian more versed in the mechanical style of play that often finds success in Europe’s smaller leagues stated that he was conscious of the “technical ability” and “magic moments” defying tactical structure that South American players often bring. He stated that he eyed Fábio (who Thelwell confirmed had been signed with the assistance of the scouting network at RB Bragantino) as a striker who was athletic and powerful around the goal but also technically adept enough to attack defenders one-on-one and link with midfielders in the build-up. For the time being, even your best Tom Barlow jokes have been rendered somewhat irrelevant.
Thelwell continued the South American focus by mentioning that New York had attempted to sign Fábio last summer before successfully acquiring the high-scoring Brazilian on loan from domestic second division club Oeste. He additionally confirmed the technical and physical attributes that attracted them to Reyes, with Struber implying that he was the precise type of defender needed for his tactics. Like with Fábio, Thelwell stated that Reyes was a player they had monitored for multiple transfer windows before beating European sides to his signing and also that his experience as a young player in MLS with Miami last year would be crucial to his integration.
But one South American who wasn’t discussed at much length was the recently-ponderous Kaku. After a messy February in which the Paraguay international attacker used a contract technicality to leave the club for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Taawoun as a free agent, Thelwell stated that the club (who have maintained they are seeking an arbitration payment to resolve the disputed transfer) have left the matter to Red Bull and MLS legal handlers as they focus on the future.
Expectations are difficult to set in any season of the salary-capped roller coaster of Major League Soccer, especially so in a season in which many of the league’s teams have seen their technical planning disrupted. While New York appears to be in the epicenter of a rebuild, Thelwell closed the conference with a reminder of the context of his and Struber’s presence at the club. The former Welsh FA executive stated that while he wasn’t prepared to “make wild judgments about what we will and won’t achieve” this year, he reminded the press gallery that the duo left plum positions in Europe to work in MLS because they were “ambitious people” who have a professional process they have faith in.
Arguably no team in MLS history has been overseen by figures closer to the cutting edge of Europe’s management scene as Struber and Thelwell, and both have staked their professional reputations at the peak of their careers on making this team successful. The bar will certainly be high and unforgiving for them at a club so long on the bitter brink of sustained major success, but neither have provided reason to doubt their methods thus far.