Earnie Stewart hopes he leaves Union on better path in years to come

Earnie Stewart close-up

Earnie Stewart’s first impression of the Philadelphia Union was that the organization had a “really special” youth setup with their academy program linked to a private high school — one of the biggest reasons why he decided to accept the job as the club’s sporting director in late 2015.

His next impression wasn’t nearly as rosy.

“The academy was pretty well organized. But around our first team, it was not something I was used to organizationally,” Stewart told MLSsoccer.com by phone this week. “So we’ve added scouts, we’ve added data analysts, we’ve added video analysts, our sports science has grown, our high performance has grown. It’s something I think is good — and what was very much needed.”

The results haven’t always shown on the field but it’s that kind of behind-the-scenes work — as well as a growing commitment to building up the youth academy pipeline — that could pay big dividends in the future for the Union, who will bid farewell to their sporting director in a few days.

After two-and-a-half years in Philly, Stewart officially starts in his role as general manager of the US men’s national team on Aug. 1.  

“It’s for other people to determine if [my tenure was] a success or not a success,” Stewart said, declining to say what he thought his biggest accomplishment was as the Union’s sporting director.

“There’s a structure in place,” he added. “I think it’s an organization that still needs to grow from a soccer side. But I think there’s an identity. I think there’s a style of play. When it comes to the roles and responsibilities and individual developmental plans we have for players that connect to external and internal scouting, the analytics — that’s something that has been put in place. And now that it’s in place, it makes it probably a little bit easier for the next person coming in.”

Stewart was known for a creative style during the decade he spent as a soccer executive in the Netherlands, taking a “Moneyball” philosophy to help AZ Alkmaar punch above their weight in the Eredivisie. He has brought that same approach to the Union, who rank 15th in MLS payroll expenditure according to Players Association figures released in May 2018, seeking to be innovative with a carefully created analytics program to scout players from around the globe.

The Union certainly had some misses with player acquisitions but Stewart pointed to midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Borek Dockal as two big hits.

“We have a model where we can go out in the world and those countries we have data from — which is 18 right now — we can see which players are good for the Philadelphia Union because they fit with the way we want to play,” said Stewart, adding that the model evolved to find Dockal by changing data points to what they look for in a No. 10. “That is something that’s been built over the last two years and that is something that will stay here with the Philadelphia Union.”

Bedoya and Dockal have certainly been effective this season, guiding the Union into the U.S. Open Cup semifinals and to their second straight league road win Wednesday night in Houston. But the club still sits just beneath the playoff line in the Eastern Conference after failing to make the postseason last season.

The Union did sneak into the playoffs in Stewart’s first season in 2016 but ended the year on an eight-game winless streak, including a quick Knockout Round exit. The winless streak extended to 16 games with a rough start to the 2017 campaign that led to calls for head coach Jim Curtin’s firing — calls that the Union sporting director never even entertained.

“That was a difficult period,” Stewart admitted. “But it was a very good period because usually you don’t see teams coming back from that that have our stature. A lot of times you go through a season and it’s lost.”

The Union indeed at least fought back into contention last year with Stewart announcing at the end of the season that Curtin would be retained. He hopes the 39-year-old head coach will be given an equally long runway by whoever the club’s next sporting director will be.

“I think he’s a good coach,” Stewart said. “I think he’s still a young coach. As the age goes up, you become better and better in your craft.”

That also goes for the team’s influx of young players, including teenage starters Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie. Along with fullback Matthew Real and midfielder Anthony Fontana, the center back pair will play in Tuesday’s MLS Homegrown Game presented by Energizer — a fitting send-off for Stewart, who always stressed the importance of building up the club through its youth academy.

“It sounds really simple to say but it takes a lot of time to make sure there’s a really good connection between the academy, [USL affiliate] Bethlehem Steel and the first team and what to expect from players at all times,” Stewart said.

“If you look at the Auston Trustys of the world and the Mark McKenzies of this world and where they are now, I can only imagine where they’re going to be two years from now once they become accustomed to MLS and are more experienced,” he added. “I think that’s great for the future in finding sustainable success.

“And hopefully, in the stars, there’s an MLS championship at one point.”