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Black History Month: Big Earn’s importance on U.S. Soccer

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He came up in the Dutch system, but quarterbacked the USMNT’s play for a decade, and now he’s trying to shape the future.

Ernie Stewart

For the bulk of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was one man who roamed the middle for the United States Men’s National Team. That man was Earnie Stewart. The midfielder was one of the main stars for the USMNT as the team entered its modern era.

Born in the Netherlands to a black U.S. Air Force airman and a Dutch woman, Stewart grew up in the Netherlands and came up through that nation’s club system. He signed with VVV-Venlo in 1988 to begin his professional career, spending 2 season at the Dutch club (then playing in the Dutch First Division, Netherlands’ second tier league) before transferring to Eredivisie club Willem II in 1990.

At that point, he was getting noticed by the United States Men’s National Team, and he got his first cap in December 1990 in a match against Portugal. It took over a year before he would feature for the USMNT again. In the meantime, he went on to score 17 goals in his first season at Willem II, which was good for 3rd for the entire league. He got his second USMNT cap in an away match against Brazil in February 1992, and it was there where he became a regular starter for the team.

Stewart scored 49 goals in 170 appearances for Willem II over 6 seasons. While he was doing that, he was also getting the job done for the USMNT. In 1994, he was a starter for all 4 matches for the team in the World Cup, hosted by the United States. In their 2nd group stage match, Stewart scored what would be the game-winning goal against Colombia for their only win of the tournament and its first World Cup win since 1950.

After the World Cup, Stewart continued to be a regular in the starting lineup for the USMNT while he was playing well in the Netherlands. In 1996, Stewart switched to NAC Breda, where he would stay for just over 6 seasons. The team got relegated from the Eredivisie in 1999, but Stewart led the club back to the top flight the next year by winning the First Division. On the national team, he played in all the matches at the 1998 World Cup in France and the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. He was one of only 5 players in USMNT history to play in 3 World Cups.

Earnie Stewart would leave Breda in 2003 to join D.C. United and play in MLS. He played 2 seasons for the club, and while he didn’t play nearly as well as he did in Europe, he helped D.C. United win MLS Cup in 2004. After that season, he returned to the Netherlands for one more season at VVV-Venlo before he retired in 2005. His time with the USMNT came to an end in 2004 with 101 caps and 17 goals. He ended his career 5th on the all-time goalscoring list for the USMNT. He scored 115 goals during his club career in the Netherlands, still a record for Americans playing abroad.

After his playing days ended, he began his second career as a technical director for VVV-Venlo. He was there for a year before moving to NAC Breda to become their technical director, staying at Breda for 4 years. In 2010, he moved to AZ Alkmaar to become their Director of Football Affairs, but he mentioned that his long-term goal was to return “to the United States and to be of importance to soccer.” He eventually did that in 2015 when he became the Sporting Director for the Philadelphia Union.

Earnie Stewart moved on to the USMNT, becoming their first general manager in 2018. Just a year later, he became U.S. Soccer’s first Sporting Director, where he hopes to shape the future of both the USMNT and the USWNT. However, no one will forget his days in a USMNT uniform, patrolling the middle and quarterbacking the rise of the team through his Dutch knowledge and ability to keep possession as the team moved forward to victory.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.