When introduced by longtime MSG play-by-play man Steve Cangialosi as an exciting interview to be doing in the void of an actual game, New York Red Bulls sporting chief Kevin Thelwell responded that he was sure “there are much more interesting things to see and do” than hear his comments on the state of the club during Saturday’s storm delay. While this response was likely motivated mostly out of a sensible modesty, there likely was an element of blunt truth to Thelwell’s framing of whatever he was about to say. In reality, his role isn’t really meant for public consumption and the true details of his activity could never be divulged in any depth on television.
In all likelihood, you haven’t heard of (or are imminently about to Google) Michael Zorc or Txiki Begiristain or Victor Orta. These are some of the key figures behind some of global football’s most important successes of recent times, but generally aren’t household names in the media even within the sphere of their clubs. The sporting director position now prevalent in the structure of modern globalized football clubs requires communication skills certainly - though ones more oriented towards the innards of the club and the recruitment scene rather than the public eye.
Though the business has its Barry Frys here and there, the sporting executive role generally requires stealth and the avoidance of public intrigue, and Kevin Thelwell has largely provided that for the New York Red Bulls. The circumstances of his arrival early last year - in which the previous sporting director Denis Hamlett was left in place underneath Thelwell - even gifted him with the non-traditional title of head of sport that provides a thin but significant layer of obscurity to his role. Indeed, in many screeds found online about the team’s perceived lack of ambition and success in the transfer market it is still Hamlett who is name-dropped, a dynamic that Thelwell likely laments on a personal level while not minding from a coldly professional view.
After making many press appearances and taking interviews last year as he transitioned the club out of the Chris Armas-Denis Hamlett era, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers executive has largely receded to the shadows since the full installation of charismatic Austrian manager Gerhard Struber ahead of this season. Brief controlled appearances in the content published around the announcement of Caden Clark’s pre-transfer to RB Leipzig have been largely the last snippets seen of the former Wolverhampton Wanderers executive since the preseason.
But Thelwell’s segment with MSG’s Cangialosi and analyst Shep Messing, while clocking in at a lean eight minutes, was a rare window into the team’s long-term outlook and approach in a season that had become somewhat shapeless even before the cancellation of Saturday’s fixture against Miami.
If there was a bombshell of any kind in Thelwell’s statements on Saturday night, it involved the medium-term status of midfielder Caden Clark, who signed a pre-transfer to join sibling club RB Leipzig of the German Bundesliga following the end of the current MLS season. In what was a theme of the interview, Thelwell emphasized that the development and improvement of the players in the club’s pipeline is a constant priority and that, while Clark is now officially in Leipzig’s long-term plans, there is still the possibility that the best approach for his development involves him staying in New York even beyond the end of 2021.
“It’s out in the open and a point to be discussed. We all hope he continues to put in outstanding performances and score and assist and that would make Leipzig interested in putting him in their first team. But I think (the Red Bull football group) are all in understanding that if it’s the case that he’s not going to break straight into their first team, that he’s still going to need first team football.”
“Why not have that be here at New York Red Bulls where he’s settled and he understands the system? You never know what can happen in football, but it would be remiss of me to not mention that we would be keen for that to happen if that’s best for us and the best for Caden.”
Whether or not the “us” mentioned by Thelwell referred to New York or the general Red Bull global football structure he was hired into is somewhat in question, as Thelwell’s interview was not afraid to emphasize the role he expects to play in making New York a more central part of the company’s highly-regarded development pipeline. But Thelwell was also shrewd to temper such statements with a confident assurance that such an approach was not in conflict with goals of winning trophies.
“Obviously the standard of MLS is improving, but leagues like the Premier League and Bundesliga are where young players have the appetite to get to. Our identity is about developing young players and giving them opportunities at a high level, and hopefully go on to a higher level from there. We want our message to be for any young player in New Jersey or New York that if you’re good enough you’re old enough and you’ll get the opportunity here.”
“Hopefully we can prove with some of these young players that we can still win things. Because of course it’s not only about the pipeline and about developing young players. It’s also very much about performance, it’s very much about winning MLS Cup or winning another trophy that proves these young players are capable of doing that.”
Left largely unremarked upon by Thelwell was the status of the team’s transfer activity this summer. With positions such as central defense and holding midfield becoming thin in recent weeks, many expected the meticulous Thelwell (who made a prolific 12 first team additions in his first full offseason last winter) to already have signings arranged when the MLS transfer window opened earlier this month.
However, Thelwell deftly deflected a question about the status of the team’s defensive corps following the season-ending injury to Aaron Long (who he described as of a caliber that’s “difficult to replace”) by praising the club’s defenders who have stepped in for the meantime. He further emphasized the skill of Gerhard Struber and his staff and the culture they’ve created over the course of the year in weathering these personnel challenges with the club hanging well in the playoff hunt heading into the season’s midpoint.
“We’re very pleased with how the coaching staff and medical staff have responded to these challenges and how every player who has been put into the starting eleven has managed to maintain the performances and standards.”
“We have a great staff with a great group of players who have a good mindset and want to listen and take on new ideas. Gerhard understands players and has conversations with them on a day-to-day basis. We’re lucky to have a coach who focuses on the details but actually translates those details into simple messages for the players.”
In a (likely unintentional) premonition of the fate met by Atlanta United manager Gabriel Heinze this week, Thelwell elaborated that some coaches “have difficulty” with this process of communicating their ideas to players and that New York feels fortunate to have Struber’s talents in place. With the seams starting to show in some of the more conventionally-run MLS clubs as the season picks up steam, Thelwell, Struber and the Red Bulls appear more committed than ever to their precise philosophy oriented towards young talent and clear tactics.
Surely cramping Thelwell’s shy style, Shep Messing stated during the interview that “everything you’ve said has been happening” since his arrival to New York in early 2020. Thelwell responded by acknowledging that the underwhelming 8th place in the conference table where the Red Bulls currently sits needs to be improved and perhaps some clean sheets would help - but there continues to be reason to trust his sporadically-expressed confidence in the team doing just that.