So…the Head of Sport at New York Red Bulls actually exists.
This glib introductory line is not meant to tease the new holder of the role Jochen Schneider after his delayed arrival in Harrison. It’s meant far more to ridicule the role itself. If you’ll bear with me for a few paragraphs, let’s look at a brief history of the New York front office…
Up until early 2020, the Red Bulls had no Head of Sport. Since the advent of Red Bull ownership in 2006, the sporting director role had carried on in somewhat consistent succession from the days of Jeff Agoos through Erik Soler and Andy Roxburgh, all the way through Ali Curtis before things got…a bit weird.
In early 2017, Curtis parted ways with the club in what was perceived to be a coup by upstart head coach Jesse Marsch after a series of transfer disagreements. Marsch used his growing clout with Red Bull’s sporting administration in Europe to install his assistant Denis Hamlett — a veteran MLS coach but with no formal front office experience at the time — as the new sporting director heading back-of-house roster operations and planning. The duo forged ahead and built the side that would set a league points record on the way to winning a Supporters Shield in 2018, but after Marsch’s promotion to the European side of the Red Bull operation in the middle of that season, the seams of the makeshift setup he had assembled with Hamlett began to show.
The Red Bulls endured a relatively dire 2019 season marked by inconsistent form on the field under Marsch’s replacement Chris Armas and underwhelming transfer market activity from Hamlett. The development pipeline that had sent talents like Aaron Long and Tyler Adams to the first team became cluttered by managerial indecision and a series of SuperDraft busts while the short-term loan of English winger Josh Sims turned out to be the marquee senior transfer of the campaign. Roles like chief scout and academy director went unfilled for extended periods of time as the club quickly entered a noticeable malaise.
Action was taken to address the atrophy before the 2020 season in the form of Kevin Thelwell, a veteran British coaching administrator who had developed Wolverhampton Wanderers from a lower division dinosaur into a respected Premier League outfit over the course of the previous decade. But the hiring of Thelwell did not mean the exit of Hamlett, who remained intact in the sporting director role handling the day-to-day operations of the first team. Instead a new position overseeing and planning all soccer decisions was created, and Thelwell was named the first Head of Sport in New York Red Bulls history.
After Thelwell’s departure on the eve of the 2022 season to return to the Premier League as sporting chief at Everton, it was unclear whether the Head of Sport role had departed with him. Head coach Gerhard Struber carried on with an overhauled squad and staff while Hamlett took the full reins of front office activity again as a moderately successful 2022 campaign ensued. Thus it was a mild surprise — and an intriguing one — when the Red Bulls hired a new Head of Sport who has finally gotten to work this month.
“I think I wouldn’t see it that different from how Kevin saw this role,” said Jochen Schneider as he made his debut in front of the New York soccer press this past weekend. A 51-year-old German with a long professional history in the Bundesliga and with the Red Bull global soccer network, Schneider’s first public remarks in American soccer were marked by familiarity with the context and challenge of his unique new job on a new continent.
“I oversee the whole soccer department, from the first team over to the second team and our academy, scouting department. Denis, I know him more than seven years now and he’s a great guy and a fantastic sporting director. He is a little closer to the first team on a daily basis, but we work together.”
Much like his predecessor Thelwell, Schneider has a calm, disarming speaking style and handles English fluently. Also like his predecessor — and really any figure tasked with the perennially unpopular concept of steady, long-term planning — he declined to make grand proclamations about future marquee signings, and such remarks were interpreted with a predictable amount of cynicism.
No answer a soccer administrator can give besides the budget is doubling and we’re 100 percent going to sign Messi will ever be popular to fans, part of why sporting directors rarely speak to the press in most contexts. But at a club like New York Red Bulls, with impersonal ownership and a conspicuous amount of attention to its roster-building strategy, the chief executive is under more pressure to take such slings and arrows. The credentialed press corps in Harrison is not as tough of a crowd as the infamous town hall Ali Curtis faced in 2015, but Schneider carried himself well and displayed a confident mindset about what lies ahead.
“I know and I fully understand, for sure, that our fans and supporters want to see an MLS Cup in this building and want to see the Open Cup in this building for sure…But we do it our way. We don’t copy any other club.”
“To be able to get wins and to win trophies. That is what this sport is about.”
Schneider has a long history in the shape-shifting beast that is Red Bull global soccer. Following a decorated career as a sporting executive at VfB Stuttgart (winning an unlikely Bundesliga title in 2007) Schneider was headhunted by former Stuttgart manager Ralf Rangnick as one of his deputies in his new role running Red Bull soccer. Schneider served as Coordinator of Global Soccer from 2015 to 2017 before spending a couple years in a role more focused on recruitment at flagship club RB Leipzig. In this sense Schneider represents a doubling down on the Red Bull way, which he made no qualms about in his remarks on Saturday.
“We do it our way, the Red Bull way and we are convinced this is the right one. I think the idea of how we want to play soccer is the same and we follow that path…on one side, high pressing and vertical play and on the other side, young players with potential.”
One appeal Thelwell had that Schneider doesn’t was his status as a gesture towards expanding the Red Bull footballing braintrust. The former Wales FA executive maintained the Energy Drink tactical and technical identity of high pressing and young signings, but also opened up a beachhead for New York and Red Bull as a whole in the hyperactive British transfer market. Combing the volatile Championship and Scottish Premiership for young talent falling through the cracks proved a cohesive and fruitful strategy for New York under Thelwell, with New York able to power through the covid era and bring in a conveyor belt of English-speaking foreign talent who settled quickly. Meanwhile (though his level of involvement is difficult to discern) Schneider’s first summer of transfers was a fairly muted one with only the loans of Elias Manoel and Kyle Duncan as the club’s signings in a window Gerhard Struber had put a great deal of onus on.
But in contrast to the upwardly-mobile Thelwell, Schneider seems a much better bet to stay in New York long-term and install a more structured leadership that the club has cried out for in recent years. Unlike Thelwell, who had developed a sterling reputation at Wolves but was still in need of an intermediate role before reaching a big job like Everton, the 51-year-old Schneider is at the point in his career where a move to a new league and continent is likely to be a more long-term stay.
His last role at Schalke ended poorly after the club was relegated in the midst of the covid lockdown period. With bigger roles unlikely, Schneider became a strong candidate for the type of long-term project in the peripheries of world football that New York represents. Schneider remarked on his desire to work in Major League Soccer (“the fastest-growing league on Earth” in his words) but also to live in the United States and experience life in a new environment. It’s doubtful a job more significant than his triumphant stint at Stuttgart and stressful experience at Schalke will come along in the near future, giving Schneider the chance to settle in and build for the long-term the way fellow Red Bull alum Ernst Tanner has successfully done in Philadelphia.
But at the same time Schneider displayed a consciousness of how the Red Bull approach is perceived by the New York fanbase. While cannily boasting about Red Bull Arena’s status as one of the most prestigious venues in American soccer, he was adamant about ending the oft-wielded accusation that New York is a “farm team” for Red Bull’s ostensibly more doted-upon teams in Europe.
“It’s important for me to tell our fans — who are great and always create a special atmosphere in this wonderful arena here, one of the best in this country — that I am happy to work for a unique soccer club, an independent soccer club in the family of Red Bull.”
“We are not a farm team, and this is very important for me to point out. We are here to develop players and to win trophies, and therefore I’m very excited to be part of this wonderful family.”
Diving straight into farm team discourse is a brave, if treacherous, choice from Schneider. But he displayed a savvy pride in the existing foundation of success built by Red Bull in New York. He built upon his praise for the arena Red Bull built by pointedly referencing the team’s oft-unsung prowess on the field.
“I have to point out that the club did an amazing job in the last decade,” as Schneider brushed off a question about the club’s supposed starvation for success.
“I think they have qualified for the playoffs 11 years in a row (editor’s note: actually 12) and this is not given by God. Winning three times the Supporter Shield, which is a great achievement, this is more than something.”
In addition to his flag-waving for the club’s recent trophy cabinet, Schneider also defied the discourse in discussing his pride in the team’s roster — which has seen criticism from typical fan and media discourse but even occasionally from head coach Gerhard Struber himself.
“To be honest, even after three weeks, I love this team,” Schneider remarked even after his onboarding process took place during a month of struggling form.
“I could immediately feel that we have a great group of players, an amazing coaching team, the staff; they all work together. I could feel immediately that there was a fantastic energy in our facility; that there’s a great connection.”
But ultimately it’s clear Schneider wants to build — and he finds this club and squad in a healthier state than the only previous Head of Sport found it. With the lowering of the squad age that Thelwell emphasized to begin the rebuild now complete, Schneider hinted at the possibility of augmenting the squad with some more experienced veterans — citing the signing of stalwart Mexican international Pavel Pardo that launched his Stuttgart team to a title. With a new training facility for Morristown planned, Schneider will guide it across the line with whatever planning board compromises might be needed. With a tactical identity re-set in place by Struber, Schneider will have the flexibility to commit to the Austrian or replace him with a coach of similar character if need be. Schneider even discussed building out a more specialized global scouting program for New York to complement the existing ties through Bragantino and the European offices.
In his introductory remarks on Saturday, Schneider made clear he knows that the Head of Sport task he takes on is not Thelwell’s task of transition but rather one of conclusion. Perhaps the most poignant summation of the previous stage of New York’s rebuilding process was when Gerhard Struber said last summer that the club needed to be patient about turning the “dream” of squad redevelopment “into a goal” of trophies. Jochen Schneider’s tenure in charge of the New York Red Bulls will be defined by whether the club achieves that goal, or slides back into another era of dreaming.