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The New York Red Bulls’ talent identification is...really good

How the players Kevin Thelwell hasn’t been able to sign bode well for the group the Red Bulls have recruited

Bolton Wanderers v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship
New York Red Bulls head of sport Kevin Thelwell (left) during his time with Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers
Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

By now, the beats of the story should be familiar. In his recent weekly transfer rumors column for Expressen, writer Daniel “Disco” Kristoffersson revealed that AIK fullback Eric Kahl is being pursued by a host of Belgian and Italian clubs. The Swedish youth international is set to be sold this summer for a fee that will be in the “millions.”

New York Red Bulls fans remember Kahl. In February, New York reportedly attempted to sign the 19-year-old, causing a minor maelstrom of bad press in the Swedish media. The club’s alleged $600,000 transfer offer was deemed “shameful,” as AIK valued the player at roughly $2,400,000. With a contract running through December of 2022, the Swedish outfit was in no hurry to sell, a patience that appears to have paid off handsomely.

The unconfirmed failed pursuit of Kahl – a clear fit for the gegenpress filling a need at the formation’s most important position – continued a troubling pattern for the Red Bulls front office, immediately coming on the heels of the boondoggle involving another Swedish Allsvenskan talent, Sead Hakšabanović. A frenzied series of rumors and fees would ultimately lead nowhere, due to simply not offering enough money. These highly publicized setbacks provide fodder for the sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always entertaining narratives surrounding the club and its perceived ineptitude. Where they actually fall is somewhere in the middle: a definite disappointment but also a tempest in a teapot considering the overwhelming majority of stalled transfer dealings never broach the mediasphere.

A more optimistic view of the recent update on Kahl’s journey is that the Red Bulls are not only identifying good players but attempting to make moves in advance of other clubs. Any scouting department can find talented transfer targets in the Europa League or the various youth continental competitions and elite showcases. New York continues to chase the right players before they reach the greater gaze, even if the most publicized have fallen short. Perhaps the proper criticism is not missing out on the stars of the immediate future, but instead failing to pursue them early enough relative to the current budget, which appears slightly more suited to mid- and long-term projects.

Consider last summer’s transfer saga involving striker Ivan Toney. The Red Bulls were unable to beat Brentford for his signature, with Peterborough accepting a sizable bid for the prolific attacker. Since moving to the Championship, he has scored 29 goals in 40 matches and is now on the radar of several Premier League clubs. While failing to complete the transfer is a setback, New York deserves some measure of credit for scouting and making a concerted effort to sign him before his true breakout season. The club was mocked in some corners for attempting to overspend on a lower league player, as the American soccer community is forever locked in a cycle of worship-and-mockery of the English game.

Toney is not the only former unheralded transfer target to justify the initial interest. In July, Bild reported that the Red Bulls were attempting to sign free agent attacker Daniel-Kofi Kyereh. The then-24-year-old was adequate but unspectacular at spiraling Wehen Wiesbaden, the former employer of New York’s head of scouting, Paul Fernie. Due to travel issues involving the COVID-19 pandemic, he was not permitted to visit the United States and check out the club, instead opting to sign with 2. Bundesliga side FC. St. Pauli.

Preston North End v Brentford - Sky Bet Championship
Ivan Toney is one of several recent obscure transfer targets that have turned out to be clever-if-unsuccessful bids for the Red Bulls
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Since his move, Kyereh has set the league on fire, scoring nine goals and assisting on nine more. His success should come as no surprise because this is not the gold-panning Red Bulls of years past. The front office, particularly the scouting department, has been built out to support a global hunt for young talent, discovered at or just before the precipice of a breakthrough. While shockingly little has been written of the former Premier League executive who made the unprecedented move to run an MLS club, much can be gleaned by diving into his past media appearances.

In an interview last year on the Molineux View podcast, head of sport Kevin Thelwell provided a general flowchart of his team building process while at Wolverhampton Wanderers. A manager with an established tactical style featuring well-defined roles in the formation would ask for specific upgrades to the squad. His job was then to find players fitting these specifications and narrowing the list down to one or two before presenting them as options. After receiving approval, the transfer targets would be pursued. This back-and-forth communicative working relationship has likely been replicated in New York, with Gerhard Struber having a thoroughly unambiguous system.

What more could be expected from an executive whose intense manager vetting process rivals those designed to select political candidates? “From a recruiting perspective, that makes things much simpler when you have a head coach who’s very clear about the profiles and positional attributes for each space because it means that you’re able to direct the data and you’re able to direct the recruitment search into specific areas,” said Thelwell on the podcast episode that really everyone should listen to at some point. “For example, we would be offered players, and we would be able to go, ‘yeah, he’s a good player, but he’s not a good player for us.’ Because we’ve been very specific about the types of players and the types of profiles that we’re looking for… I can’t think of a time when we signed a player that any head coach wouldn’t have wanted.”

The Red Bulls have made 12 signings in the current transfer window and business appears to be far from over for Thelwell in the short and long-term. Even the ensuing success of and greater interest in the failed additions point to an improvement in dealings, within reason when acknowledging that they are, in fact, failed additions. The current mix of scouting and coaching proves that it’s a lot easier for a club to get what it wants when there is a meticulously defined system in place and the organizational focus to identify the best-fitting players. However, sometimes desired targets may be a little outside of the price range, whether due to a rigid structure of resources or a principled refusal to overspend. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you can’t sign a Swede… or something like that.