I still remember Earnie Stewart’s goal against Colombia in the 1994 World Cup. It was the legitimate goal of the biggest win the U.S. men had earned in over 40 years, and it turbocharged the Americans’ fascination with soccer. When the men play in the biggest international games today my dreams must subconsciously use that moment as it’s target - the moment I’m hoping they can regain and I can revisit.
Earnie epitomized the American Soccer player on the pitch but also bridged the international divide that is so discussed today. He grew up in the Netherlands and played almost all of his club soccer there as well. That led to a mysteriousness about Stewart, because even today the Eridivisie is difficult to watch in the States. Earnie literally popped into our consciousness from seemingly nowhere and was one of our key players for more than a decade.
I live in a suburb outside of Philadelphia and when Major League Soccer awarded the Union a franchise in 2008 I was ecstatic. I attended the first game at Lincoln FInancial Field and saw Sebastian Le Toux’s opening hat trick up close. I’ve seen countless other games since and have followed the ins and outs of the team closely since 2010. In the early years Nick Sakiewicz was the lead administrator which often led to more laughs and tears than to outright joy. As fan anger over the lackadaisical club record built up, the ownership eventually turned to Earnie Stewart.
Stewart was the Sporting Director at AZ Alkmaar in the Eridivisie and the word was that he had focused on youth development and done wonders with a club on a tight budget. These were exactly the characteristics an MLS team like Union should be looking for, and hope sprang eternal when Stewart was announced the new Sporting Director. That Stewart eyed a more prominent role in the U.S., as he had aspirations of helping his country continue it’s development, meant his stint might be short, but I was happy to have it.
Change was immediate. Players and staff spoke about the change to the culture - there was a seriousness about winning and a positive vibe working itself through the organization. Fast forward three years and the Union have not materially advanced from the laughingstock they were when Sakiewicz was in charge. Certainly the organization appears to be better run, but the team on the pitch does not. There have been many questionable signings and furthermore a mysterious belief in a coach that has not earned the favor. As usual there are many agents involved when a team does not win, and it’s difficult to parse out the key issues. I did my best last year at the conclusion of another lost Union season, and I gave Stewart the lion’s share of the blame.
Sporting Director for the Union and GM for the USMNT are two different jobs. It’s certainly plausible that he is more suited for what the USSF is looking for. The Federation listed the following responsibilities as the top focus for the GM, and they are different from what he did for the Union. Here are a few of the responsibilities as stated by Nico Romeijn, the USSF’s Chief Sport Development Officer.
Driving the culture of the team
In the case of driving culture I am fully confident that Earnie Stewart can check that box. He loves America, soccer and is a serious executive that clearly believes in the importance of a positive administration. If you want culture, Earnie can deliver.
Running the process for the hiring and firing of the coach
Earnie Stewart inherited young coach Jim Curtin when he arrived in Philadelphia and has been a staunch support of his, despite the results. Stewart even compared Curtin to Bruce Arena in terms of potential at one press conference. In the flawed world of popular opinion I actually think Jim Curtin has performed above that average opinion, which isn’t saying much, but I still feel like Stewart’s support has gone too far. Would Earnie have hired Curtin if he had the choice? The situation is strained enough for me not to trust his eye for a coach. That said, if he does get the coaching decision right, this will be a non-issue for years to come. It also appears that he won’t have full authority on the decision, so that is comforting.
Overseeing the technical side of the senior national team - including specifying the style of play the team will implement.
Earnie Stewart told a story about his first days in Philadelphia. The story goes that upon arrival he sat down with Jim Curtin and they defined a style of play that Philadelphians would appreciate, and they commited to that style. I don’t know how much you’ve watched the Union the last three years, but I’ll be darned if you can tell me exactly what that style of play is. It’s supposed to be high press and possession oriented soccer but the players have never been able to consistently execute it, primarily because the talent doesn’t necessarily match the style. For example, one of Stewart’s marquee signings is Bosnia and Herzogovinian international Haris Medunjanin, who is fun to watch, but the last defensive midfielder you’d pick for a high press team. He’s slow and a poor defender as a result.
I have no doubt that Stewart will commit to that same approach for the senior men. It’s the progressive style that all teams want to play. It will look great against the minnows of CONCACAF, but it might look equally poor against the strongest powers in the biggest games. That is, until the player pool has enough quality to pull it off.
I’m a believer that the style should adjust to the talent pool, but if the Union experience is any indication, Stewart thinks very differently.
Monitoring the player pool
It’s important to consider that whatever style is chosen will bias which players are considered leaders in the player pool. If the team is going to press, then that will leave some players out and bring some players in. There’s no way around this. Beyond Medunjanin there are a few examples where talent monitoring has not exactly stacked up. The most notable miss is the signing of half million dollar striker from the fourth tier in England named Jay Simpson who currently can’t even get on the bench. When news of the signing came out word was he was solid in a two striker setup. The problem is that the Union haven’t had a two striker setup since Jim Curtin became coach, and Simpson has floundered his entire time here. There are other examples of players that don’t quite fit and there are some good signings like Fafa Picault in there as well, but the bottom line is that Stewart has brought in players that aren’t ideal for the rigid system he and Curtin designed. Whether or not this is fully on Stewart can be debated but I worried for a day where he and the coach and the system they designed are not fully in sync.
As far as identifying and pulling in players that are on the fence about which international team they will play for, I see Stewart as a fine recruiter, and could see him flying all of the world to convince young players to play for the United States. I don’t foresee anymore debacles the likes of Jonathan Gonzalez.
Increasing and formalizing oversight and accountability
The biggest red flag for me is accountability. To hear Earnie speak about the Union is to hear about a team that is making progress in the middle of a rebuild. It’s a bottom half team, but Stewart never takes accountability for the fact that the team has 37 points, 42 points and 42 points in his three years. As much as I admire a long term perspective, he has failed to eloquently outline the details of that plan, and he fails to acknowledge any issues in the near term. It’s beyond mysterious and into frustrating.
The USSF is no stranger to leaders who don’t take accountability. Sunil Gulati, Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann all showcase a clear lack of accountability for recent results. At best they give it minor lip service. This accountability issue will be something to watch not just because I haven’t seen it from Stewart, but because the organization as a whole hides behind other accomplishments when the going gets tough.
Earnie Stewart will always be a central figure in my development as a soccer fan, and due to that I am hopeful he will serve the U.S. senior team well. He certainly has the credentials and experience to take on the task. These are a few key issues worth keeping an eye on as they may lead to discord down the line.
But for now let’s just welcome Earnie to the GM role and remember this moment....