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What legacy does Kevin Thelwell leave with the New York Red Bulls?

Englishman leaves club better than he found it despite abrupt exit

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Soccer - FA Youth Cup - Third Round - Liverpool v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Anfield
Kevin Thelwell’s work at Red Bulls is likely to impact the club far beyond his two-year tenure.
Photo by Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images

It’s fitting that an organization that used to be called the MetroStars, which now has a badge that says Red Bull New York, but operates a team called the New York Red Bulls, would extend their flair for semantic adjustment to their executive roles.

When Kevin Thelwell was hired by the club just over two years ago, he was not given the same sporting director title he had at English club Wolverhampton Wanderers. He was not even given the American-style general manager designation still used by some MLS teams. Instead Thelwell was named Head of Sport for the New York Red Bulls, a previously non-existent title (at the club or…the entire global game) that symbolized both the makeshift nature of the role he was hired for as well as the distance his tasks had from the conventional purview of a sporting executive.

Thelwell, who left New York yesterday to become director of football at Premier League mainstay Everton, was hired in February 2020 to oversee an overhaul of the entire club structure while veteran MLS operative Denis Hamlett remained in place as sporting director. Hamlett would continue to handle immediate first team matters and the navigation of idiosyncratic league regulations unfamiliar to Thelwell. But the well-connected head of sport would take over the big picture planning and recruitment responsibilities in which Hamlett had struggled in the preceding two years with Chris Armas.

Still, the first team is the most important part of the big picture, and it cannot be said that results improved for the Red Bulls over Thelwell’s two year tenure. When the Englishman arrived, the club was coming off a 6th place conference finish in the 2019 season. After Thelwell fired Armas near the end of his first season in New York and replaced him with in-demand Austrian coach Gerhard Struber, he leaves the Red Bulls coming off a season where they finished 7th in the East before another first round cup exit.

But ultimately Thelwell’s impact on the club will reach far beyond the first team’s results and his two years of physical presence. As discussed by OaM’s Ross Haley yesterday, immediate table standings in a peripheral league are not the metrics that well-heeled European clubs are evaluating Thelwell (and Struber, for that matter) on. Not only are foreign footballing scenes more and more conscious of how Major League Soccer’s chaotic competitive structure and rigid roster rules handcuff even the most talented executives, but such clubs understand that a sporting director’s work is not focused on grinding out three points or not.

As displayed in OaM’s interview with Thelwell last year, the head of sport was almost fixated with the future. Circumstantial evidence always showed Thelwell’s installation as an attempt to move New York closer to the model achieved at Red Bull’s flagship club in Salzburg, where sellable youth talents are combined with domestic veterans in a self-financing, trophy-accumulating cycle. In the press release announcing his exit from New York, the premise of a “five-year plan” was made explicit, and the rhetoric matches his actions over the last 25 months.

Taking over the club as the 2018 Supporters Shield-winning squad ran stale, Thelwell set out to lower the age of the club’s teams at all levels and establish a fresh talented spine for the first team to grow around. His messaging on building this young core and its importance to success in MLS reached all sectors of the club from Struber down to reserves assistant Ibrahim Sekagya, speaking to the communication skills that serve a sporting executive so well.

SOCCER: FEB 20 MLS - Red Bulls Media Day
For now Denis Hamlett is yet again the lead sporting executive in Harrison.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While the covid pandemic that began a month into his tenure limited Thelwell’s communication with fans and media during his stay, it did allow the renowned academy guru to focus on building out New York’s substructure for most of his first year. Like at the professional level, Thelwell focused on lowering academy and reserve team ages to increase competition and the rhythm of progression to higher levels. In the wake of increased flexibility around MLS Homegrown territory rules, Thelwell and academy director Sean McCafferty have put the club near the cutting edge of recruiting out-of-region domestic youth talents, with Minnesota’s Caden Clark serving as the crown jewel. Thelwell’s final backroom hire came in his recruitment of former Liverpool development director Gary Lewis from Seattle Sounders to manage the reserve team in USL. And the centerpiece of Thelwell’s work — a multi-million dollar training facility planned for Morristown — will likely not be seen until 2024 at the earliest.

While Thelwell may have implored fans for patience with his emphasis on such foundational building, he also delivered shiny new toys from the transfer market at a rate the club had never before seen. In his first offseason with the club ahead of the 2021 campaign, Thelwell secured a dozen first team additions. While many of them were “try-before-you-buy” loans as the lingering pandemic made financial and personal commitments difficult, Thelwell has locked down league-class talents Carlos Coronel and Andrés Reyes, with other young recruits such as Patryk Klimala and Dru Yearwood still capable of reaching their high potential.

With Thelwell opening an unprecedented pipeline for European transfers, the last on his watch being Legia Warsaw winger Luquinhas, his exit to Everton is perhaps instructive on the peril of moving into such a market for both players and executives. MLS is growing rapidly and attracting more and more in-demand personnel — but it is still low enough on such a bell curve to see those talents leave sooner than would ever be convenient. This double-edged sword is even more pronounced for coaches and administrators — hiring a Premier League executive is always a coup until he remembers he’s a Premier League executive.

Indeed when speaking to OaM last year, Kevin Thelwell said a major part of his long-sighted role was looking into a “crystal ball of doom” and imagining worst case scenarios to develop contingencies. The man himself would probably concede that an executive leaving on the literal eve of the season could be one of those scenarios. But Thelwell was not expected to ever kick a ball or handle a training session, and the 2022 season can still be salvaged and may already be getting so thanks to Thelwell’s crystal ball.

Paradoxically for this future-based strategy Thelwell installed, the timing of his exit leaves the club with an opportunity to live fully in the present as the search for a new head of sport ensues. Gerhard Struber, who lamented his team’s winter transfer dealings earlier this week in comments that can be read in even more directions after Thelwell’s exit, appears to be unfazed and focused on the task ahead. With rumors of reputed Struber favorites such as Ashley Fletcher and Jurgen Heil being lined up for transfers, it’s possible that the Austrian will get to try out his best Jesse Marsch impersonation this year. When Marsch infamously ousted Ali Curtis in 2017 — to place Denis Hamlett in the more restrained sporting director role where he remains to this day — his resourcefulness was put to the test, with the club relying on promotion of academy prospects and canny MLS trades along with infrequent foreign transfers. The result was an Open Cup final appearance, a points record-breaking Supporters Shield, and a promotion to the European big time for Marsch.

Assuming he remains more committed to the New York project than his brief managerial career suggests, Struber in fact has a higher chance at success in such a scenario thanks to Thelwell’s work. A house money 2022 season with a competent manager plugged into the corporate structure in Europe, a young and hungry squad core, and a modernized youth development scheme is a far better state than Thelwell found the club in two years ago, and arguably a better state than the club’s best-ever season plotted by Marsch.

Perhaps the legacy of Thelwell’s foundation-building work is the makeshift crew he left behind turning out so successful that his replacement is given a downgraded role called something like…conductor of soccer.