When asked about the status of first-choice left back Andrew Gutman ahead of Saturday’s game against Orlando, New York Red Bulls manager Gerhard Struber was eager to discuss the chance for 18-year-old John Tolkin to make his Red Bulls debut in Gutman’s place. According to Struber, the academy product Tolkin has built on recent substitute appearances with impressive form in training and that now may be the “right time” for his debut as a starter.
Normally such a move wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, especially at a club like the Red Bulls where youth development and the promotion of talented academy/reserve players is prioritized. But Tolkin actually happens to have additional senior competition for his spot that Struber passed over completely in his response to the left back question.
Jason Pendant joined the Red Bulls from FC Sochaux of the French second division in March 2020 only days before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the immediate stutter to his Major League Soccer career, Pendant managed to lock down the starting left back role for the truncated remainder of the season. While Pendant’s form in his first MLS season was inconsistent and a preseason shoulder injury set him back at the start of this campaign, it was expected he would serve as important depth a position with high physical demands. But now, in the thick of a season where backline personnel upheaval (particularly at left back) is a major theme of New York’s iffy early results, Pendant isn’t even mentioned by his manager. And he’s not alone as a senior player who appears to be only referred to obliquely by club leadership.
When asked later on in the same press conference about the status of veteran Danish goalkeeper David Jensen, Struber snubbed another player putatively in his squad. He mentioned his focus of developing the team’s first team goalkeepers Carlos Coronel and Ryan Meara, reserve netminders Luca Lewis and AJ Marcucci, but curiously no plan for Jensen, who has been posting Instagram videos in recent months of himself training alone at a local facility less than a year after establishing himself as a regular league starter for the Red Bulls.
Mandela Egbo is another strange case that this website has previously touched on earlier in the year. The English youth international impressed on both sides of the ball for a stretch of starts in 2020 before being exiled from the first team completely for the early parts of 2021 as he settles for reserve minutes with Red Bulls II at USL level. Struber made sure to play a false note for Egbo in the press conference, passing right over the since-converted center back to instead discuss recently-signed fullback Tom Edwards as a replacement for the suspended Andrès Reyes.
Soccer recruitment is a game of hit or miss where statistical measurements are faulty and skillsets don’t always carry over into different tactical and social contexts. Even the most meticulous scouting system will have its busts, and the New York Red Bulls are far from unique in Major League Soccer and indeed all of global club football in having signings not work out. Perhaps it’s a credit to the growth of Major League Soccer that even players with pedigrees at high levels of Europe cannot be expected to waltz the league.
But there is a further common thread to this trio of wayward Europeans. Each of these players were signed by the Red Bulls in the strange window of early 2020 where the new front office position of head of sport was created by the club and then filled with longtime Wolverhampton Wanderers executive Kevin Thelwell. The head of sport role would oversee all aspects of the club’s operations, most importantly recruitment and roster planning for the first team. But unlike most situations where an ambitious executive is brought in to reshape a club that had lost strategic direction, Thelwell’s predecessor as the club’s sporting executive remained in place the form of incumbent sporting director Denis Hamlett. The awkward front office arrangement has proved to be surprisingly harmonious, particularly since Hamlett was kept on board even after the firing of the team’s head coach and longtime Hamlett colleague Chris Armas during Thelwell’s first year in New York. Thelwell has mentioned that Hamlett is a key guide to the ins and outs of MLS roster rules as well as the North American and Caribbean scouting landscape.
But at the end of the day Hamlett was replaced at the top largely due to a stalled transfer machine in Harrison under his watch. Over the course of 2019 (Hamlett’s only full season in charge of the club apparatus following the departure to Europe of manager Jesse Marsch) the club’s only major signings were the retread of previously-released Marc Rzatkowski, current Danish league benchwarmer Mathias Jørgensen, and anonymous short-term Southampton loanee Josh Sims. Thelwell was installed above Hamlett as head of sport on February 3, 2020, one week after the signings of Egbo and a Jensen and six weeks before the signing of Pendant. With the trajectory of these three looking more similar to the fate of the 2019 signings by the day, one must ask whether these now-doomed transfers were the final flourishes of the now-overhauled Denis Hamlett administration at Harrison?
Surely a weighty decision like the one to bring in Thelwell was one that was not made overnight, and the position’s focus on long-term squad planning means surely current and planned signings would have been discussed with Thelwell during the interviewing and onboarding process. But one wonders whether acquisitions at the level of players like Egbo, Jensen, and Pendant were small enough to fall underneath the radar of Red Bull accounting - and what the parameters of such corporate involvement are. Perhaps transfers of such intermediate magnitude were the only ones that Hamlett could both arrange on his own and not need to contact a purse holder in Austria to fund them.
But no matter what brought this wayward European trio to New York, Thelwell must now find a way to make use of their transfer value, especially with needs at various positions that must be filled by players actually deemed usable by the staff. Thelwell’s tenure so far has marked an encouraging tendency to wring value out of released players, with even the waiving of Patrick Seagrist last December resulting in a minor windfall of allocation money. The Red Bulls are seemingly in desperate need of new personnel at the center back position as well as international slots to bring in the constant waves of foreign signings apparently craved by Thelwell and Struber. Even if a transfer or loan can’t be arranged, using Major League Soccer’s once-a-season contract voiding clause on just one of Pendant, Jensen, or Egbo could give the team more breathing in roster building in a summer where the club must ensure Struber’s squad is strong as possible.