Kevin Thelwell has been asked a simple question innumerable times over the last five months after he left his post as sporting director at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
It's a fair question. Running the soccer operations of a Premier League club is highly coveted and Wolves are in a great position, thanks in no small part to Thelwell. He helped orchestrate their rise from League One in 2013/14 to the Europa League round of 16 today. They're chasing European qualification once again as the 2019-20 Premier League season winds down. These gigs don't open up with regularity, and when they do, it's more often due to the club parting ways with the employee. But Thelwell's decision wasn't a regular one.
So, there he was.
Sitting with a mask on, in front of a New York Red Bulls backdrop for his first (virtual) press conference at his new club, Thelwell fielded the expected question after becoming RBNY's head of sport Feb. 3: Why did you leave Wolves to take this job?
"It was too good of an opportunity to turn down," Thelwell confidently told reporters last week.
Thelwell was excited at the idea of joining a growing league, at a big club with "huge potential to do great things" while being in the Red Bull sporting group, joining a network that includes RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg and more. He offered praise for Wolves, but concluded that it became a "pretty simple decision to make."
Thelwell joins a crowded front office in New York, something he's familiar with. He's technically the man in charge, over sporting director Denis Hamlett, but was quick to clarify that he prefers to work in a collaborative setting.
For now, Thelwell inherits a team that last missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in 2009, picking up three Supporters' Shields along the way. His version for RBNY won't look much different than recent years. Thelwell's philosophy fits snugly within the Red Bull global ethos of generally buying and developing young players that fit their distinct, high-pressing style.
“It’s clear to everybody that the Red Bull group has a strong identity and philosophy," Thelwell said. "They’re about developing a young and hungry group that has the ability to achieve things at all of these clubs. When you look at the rosters in Leipzig, Salzburg and New York, there’s a clear pattern in terms of identifying players. From our perspective, working with Leipzig in particular, we’re keen to follow that philosophy. ... From my perspective, it’s nice to join a club that has a similar alignment in terms of values and philosophies.”
Thelwell's imprint on the roster will be revealed in the coming transfer windows. The MLS Secondary Transfer Window is set to run from Aug. 12 through Oct. 29, adjusted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You always want to improve the group you’ve got, that’ll be the focus moving forward," Thelwell said. "We’ll be looking to bring in players in the next transfer window to hopefully allow us to grow into a team that can challenge for MLS Cup. That’s why we’re all here.”
Long has faced plenty of European suitors, with Premier League sides Southampton and West Ham grabbing the most headlines. The US men's national team center back hasn't been shy in wanting to test himself in Europe.
"I wouldn’t say I welcome the interest, but when you have top players that play at your football club, that’s what’s going to happen," Thelwell said. He added that he, Long and Long's agent have had a positive discussion on the subject.
"What we have to do is exactly what we tried to do at Wolves: Match those ambitions," Thelwell said. "We’re going to try to work with Chris (Armas) and the team to continue to help build the roster to hopefully get in a position to challenge for trophies. When you do those things, it’s often the case that players do not want to leave."
It's just part of the job for Thelwell.
“My perspective on which big clubs operate, and the New York Red Bulls are a big club, (is that) enough is never enough," Thelwell said. "There’s always pressure on big teams because the fans expect it, the club expects it."