Earnie Stewart
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Philadelphia Union hail Earnie Stewart as "top-tier person" to "set a high bar" toward long-term success

CHESTER, Pa. – Almost a year ago, Philadelphia Union majority owner Jay Sugarman held a rare press conference to announce that the club would be making it a priority to hire their first sporting director.

Since then, many candidates were interviewed for the job. But it wasn’t until Earnie Stewart popped into the picture a couple of weeks ago that the Union suddenly moved fast, with Sugarman saying they put on the “full-court press” to bring the former US national team player and director of football affairs at Dutch Eredivisie club AZ Alkmaar on board.

And that’s because they strongly believe Stewart is a perfect fit to oversee all soccer-related decisions with the Union’s first team, new USL club and youth academy – a role he’ll begin on Jan. 1 when his stint with AZ Alkmaar is up.

“The timing here was surprisingly quick,” Sugarman said in a conference call with reporters Monday shortly after the announcement was made. “This was really the right person with the right fit from a quality standpoint. We seemed to hit it off pretty quickly. As we dug deep into his background and did some checks, everything came up as we would hope, so we didn’t want to wait. We made him an offer relatively quickly.”

There are many things Sugarman liked about Stewart, including his deep roots in American soccer and being the kind of person that the club’s youth players can look up to as “an example of how you succeed.”

More than that, though, is his experience at Alkmaar, where Stewart focused heavily on player development over the last five years and recently helped the club win the Rinus Michels Award for having the best youth academy in Dutch football.

“Earnie is a collaborative person,” Sugarman said. “He likes to learn. He’s looking for those edges in the system that he can exploit. He knew he was up against some clubs that probably have deeper resources, so they focused a lot on development. They focused a lot on making sure they were scouting and recruiting and acquiring people that fit his system. One of the things that struck me most was the development part. They had brought a lot of players in and really figured out how to make them better players.”

Sugarman has said before that the Union won’t be among the league’s top spenders, making Stewart a natural fit to once again try to use innovative “Moneyball” techniques to try beat teams with more resources. But the Union owner also made sure to say that Stewart will have the freedom to recruit expensive players that make sense for the club.

“We’re going to spend money when we have a man we believe in and players that we know fit our system well,” Sugarman said. “There’s going to be the resources for Earnie and the team to go after them. But we’ve been missing a little bit of the process and the method to make sure when we make those commitments, they are the right commitments for our team and they make us a better team. I’m looking forward to having Earnie oversee that process.”

Sugarman added that Stewart was pleasantly surprised to see the commitment the Union have made to their youth academy at YSC Sports. The plan is for the three-time World Cup veteran to be in Philly for at least five years to continue to raise the bar and transfer some of that success to the first team.

Stewart will “be in the loop” on personnel decisions even before he starts on Jan. 1, but that the new sporting director has no plans to bring in a new head coach.

“Jim [Curtin] is the coach for the 2016 season – I can make that clear,” Sugarman said. “But I can also make clear Earnie is going to set the bar high. And I know Jim is looking forward to the challenge, but throughout the organization we are expecting people to raise their games. I don’t think anybody is satisfied where we’ve been, and I have no doubt that Earnie is going to set a high bar and people are going to have to reach it.”

While the hiring of Stewart may bring more pressure and expectations, it also brings excitement. And for a club that will be watching the playoffs at home for the fifth time in its six years of existence, that’s a nice feeling to have.

“I am super-excited,” Sugarman said. “This is a piece of the puzzle. If we’re going to be a top-tier team, we need to be a top-tier organization led by a top-tier person. With Earnie in place, a lot of the hard work that’s been done on the ground can start showing results.

“It hasn’t been much fun. We want passion inside and outside the organization to really come back to the level we knew when we started the team in 2010. I really think this is the beginning of that. I’m truly excited that this is the beginning of something really good.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.