It's been almost exactly 13 months to the day since former Wolverhampton executive Kevin Thelwell was named head of sport for the New York Red Bulls. As has been said and typed ad nauseam since then, the year which has transpired has been anything but normal or straightforward.
Still gripped with the global pandemic today that was soon to take hold of the globe a month after his hiring, Thelwell is well in the midst of his first full offseason leading the club. He is beginning to put his stamp on the roster.
The Red Bulls made a coaching change towards the end of 2020, naming Gerhard Struber head coach and made some key changes to the squad.
“We’ve had some gaps to fill, hadn’t we? We can’t let nine players depart and not fill with a similar number," Thelwell told MLSsoccer.com. "We’ll take stock at where we are with the squad. Get to preseason, identify where we may have some gaps, then work very hard to fill them.”
Edwards joins from Stoke City, the second player from England's Championship to come to RBNY under Thelwell's watch, following Dru Yearwood. A pair have come from RB Salzburg, in Coronel and midfielder Youba Diarra, and a pair from South America, in Venezuelan youth international midfielder Wikelman Carmona and Brazilian forward Fabio.
Fabio may be a product of Red Bull global's vast scouting network, as he was plucked from the Brazilian second tier after spending time in Japan. Thelwell admitted the club tried to sign him a year ago but the timing didn't work out. The 23-year-old comes with an intriguing profile, as the 6'4" striker jumps off the screen on a highlight package. He has been the lone key attacking addition to a team that struggled at times to score goals, so he should stand to be a key figure.
As is necessary to progress in modern MLS, it's been an eclectic recruitment process, though the oldest of their total nine offseason signings is Coronel at 24.
"All of these players need time to acclimatize, the league is very different to what they’ve experienced before," Thelwell cautioned. "It will take a little bit of time and they’re all young players. But what I’m hoping to see is, once Gerhard has the opportunity to work with them, we’ll see some positive signs.”
The current roster is not the final product, but like many other teams across the league, the Red Bulls aren't in a rush to make decisions. They want to retain flexibility to identify areas which are in most need of a boost.
While they have a number of players who require international roster spots, the club have plenty of flexibility through other mechanisms, particularly senior Designated Players and the new U-23 DP initiative.
“We’re not so much looking at the categories, we’re focused on process and profiles of players," Thelwell said. "If they fall into that mechanism, great, if they don’t, we’ll figure it out.”
He struck a similar tone about potentially signing senior DPs, stressing it's about the right player then deciding which designation to roster them as.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the teams, the infrastructure, all of these things," Thelwell said. "The league is getting better. … I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t be excited by MLS.”