Kevin Thelwell: “There is always consistent pressure on some of those big teams because the fans expect it and the clubs expect it and so on. I don’t think for one moment that we’re in a rebuild at all.” (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Bradley Wright-Phillips is gone.
So is Luis Robles.
And so are a few other members of their supporting cast that made the Red Bulls one of the most feared and respected Major League Soccer sides for years.
Last year’s team stumbled to a rather mediocre 14-14-6 record and a sixth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
Yet, Red Bulls head of sport Kevin Thelwell felt that his team is far from being in a rebuilding phase.
“First and foremost, my perspective on how the big clubs operate and New York Red Bull is a big club, is that enough is never enough,” he said during a media conference call Friday. “There is always consistent pressure on some of those big teams because the fans expect it and the clubs expect it and so on. That said, I don’t think for one moment that we’re in a rebuild at all.”
The Red Bulls have never won an MLS Cup in the previous 24 seasons, although they have enjoyed great regular season success in recent years. During a six-year span from 2013-18, they captured three Supporters Shield crowns.
Since former French star Thierry Henry left the Red Bulls in 2014, the team hasn’t added a player close to his stature while other clubs have signed some high profile and high-priced Designated Players. Many supporters felt the club has been behind the league curve while Red Bull Arena rarely is filled for games.
Thelwell said the team is following the philosophy of the Red Bull organization and teams from Salzburg and Leipzig of developing young homegrown players, although it has brought in outside performers.
“Probably best to start by saying that it is clear to everybody the Red Bull group has got a very strong identity and also a very strong philosophy when it comes to recruiting players,” he said. “So, they are very much about pipeline. They are very much about pathway. And, they’re very much about developing a young and hungry group that has the ability to achieve things at all of these levels at all of these clubs. If you look at the roster at Leipzig, if you look at the roster at Salzburg, and also New York now, which has one of the youngest groups, you can see there is a clear pattern on the type of players they are trying to identify and recruit, not only for the good of 18, but also for the greater good in due course.”
That isn’t forgetting about veteran players, although it didn’t seem Thewell or the Red Bull philosophy was high on signing big-name DPs.
“From our perspective and Leipzig, in particular, we’re keen to follow that philosophy. I understand MLS has a strong history of signing some high-level DP [players] and some of those signings have been a slightly different age [range] from the ones we are trying to recruit. But certainly from a New York perspective, it is still certainly a philosophy that we want to try and sign high level players, very good players. But of course, we want them to fit the overall identity of the group and certainly that’s what we’re going to do going forward.”
Thelwell, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers FC sporting director was bullish on the 2020 version of the Red Bulls.
“If I look at the current roster, I think we’re very, very strong in most positions,” he said. “I think we’ve got good cover in most positions. In fact, there’s lots of competition for those No. 1 places on the team. Chris [Armas, head coach] and the coaching staff have had a very difficult time over this period because the players have been so motivated and so focused on getting better and making sure they are absolutely ready to get going in this games program.
“But of course, like any team, you are wanting to improve. Certainly, that’s going to be a big part going forward. We’ve got a strong group, but we think we can improve the group and I think that’s where we’re going to be trying to put some step and pointing to some players in the next transfer window to allow us to grow into what we hope that is a team that can challenge for MLS Cup.”
When Thelwell was named head of sport Feb. 3, there was great concern by fans, media and observers that Denis Hamlett’s position as sporting director was going to be diminished greatly. That wasn’t the case, Thelwell said.
“From my perspective, I hope that I have been recruited because I bring a certain level of experience and a certain level of expertise,” he said, adding that Hamlett “has got some outstanding qualities, abilities.
“He’s got a very network across MLS. He knows the rules and regulations very, very well. He’s very competent as a sporting director and so I see my role as a support mechanism for Denis to help him to grow and develop and for us to work very, very closely together to get the best for the team.”
As head of sport, Thewell said he had the “over responsibility for those decisions.”
“In my experience, somebody has to make those decisions at the end of the day. but I prefer to operate at a much flatter structure,” he added. “I don’t tend to believe that one guy has to make all of the decisions and [be] the rainmaker about recruitment. It is very much a process that involves Denis, people like Paul Fernie, who recently joined us as head of scouting and of course, our head coach Chris Armas. We’ll all work very, very closely together to identify the profiles that we think are going to make the team better in a short, medium and long term and hope to reap the benefits of that.”
Any newcomer to MLS needs to take a graduate course in salary caps, TAM, GAM and whatever financial mechanisms the league concocts. Thewell admitted “without question, it’s a little more complicated than life in the Premier League.” But he again praised Hamlett, “who has been an outstanding support mechanism for me as well as other people at the football club.”
“He’s got a very clear understanding of the rules and regulations and he’s very, very able to communicate some of that detail to me on a regular basis. I’m sure I’m a thorn in his side at the moment because I’m constantly and consistently asking him questions about of these rules, just to allow me to grasp the understanding on how we build a successful roster. … He’s got a very strong network and a really, really strong understanding of MLS. He’s going to be a very important piece of going forward to help us build this group to hopefully be a challenge in the not too distant future.”