CHESTER, Pa. – Despite doing a lot of great things as a soccer executive in the country where he grew up, Earnie Stewart always wanted to return to the country where he forged some of his greatest soccer memories.
So when the opportunity came about to join the Philadelphia Union as the club’s sporting director, the former US national team star didn’t hesitate, leaving behind his position as the director of football affairs at Dutch top-flight club AZ Alkmaar to begin a new chapter in his career – and for the Union.
“Ambition is the right word,” Stewart said in his introductory press conference Thursday, his first public comments since being hired by the Union in late October. “The 10 years I’ve been in Holland in the role that I had have been pretty good to me. There have been questions asked about what my next step would be after AZ Alkmaar because things went pretty well over there. And I’ve always answered that I have one ambition – and that is to come back to the United States and actually mean something to US Soccer in general and to build something that’s lasting.”
Stewart, of course, has already meant a whole lot to US soccer, earning 101 caps and scoring 17 goals for the national team from 1990 to 2004, while starting in the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
Stewart, who was born in the Netherlands to an American serviceman and a Dutch woman, also spent two years near the end of his career in MLS, winning the MLS Cup with D.C. United in 2004.
Now, after a successful front office career overseas where he used innovation, sports science and data-driven analytics to help AZ Alkmaar compete with bigger clubs, he’s looking for more success in the United States – and in a league that’s changed dramatically since he’s last been a part of it.
“Soccer is my passion,” Stewart said. “I love that I’m still able to be in a job like this after my [playing career]. Emotionally, I’m not a big emotional guy. But at the same time, I spoke to my father, who is very, very proud of his son. I wasn’t born here, but I played many games for the US national team, and once that flag went up, I had the same emotions as all my teammates. My father is a very proud man that his son is coming back to the United States.”
The Union have been active in the first few official days of the offseason, trading for Chris Pontius, dealing away Cristian Maidana, Andrew Wenger and Ethan White, and declining options on nine other players. But perhaps because he didn’t officially start until this week, Stewart declined to discuss any specific players, instead focusing on the overall vision he has for the club and the promising partnership he’s trying to create with head coach Jim Curtin and technical director Chris Albright where communication is “the most important part.”
And just like with AZ Alkmaar, who hired Oakland A’s general manager and “Moneyball” architect Billy Beane as an adviser, Stewart plans to bring the same strategy to the Union, noting that “data is a very important part and we have to be creative in the things we do” to compete with clubs that spend more money.
“If you put a lot of money into a player and he doesn’t perform the way everyone expects him to, that’s not the way to go,” Stewart said. “You’re throwing away money. What I’m high on and what I believe in is the money that you spend, you spend on your infrastructure too. There’s so much more in players than we actually get out of them at times. That’s going to be a big job for us – we have to make sure we get the most out of players.”
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Union majority owner Jay Sugarman has admitted in the past that the club doesn’t have the same kind of deep pockets as LA Galaxy and New York City FC. But he’s also been consistent in his belief that the Union can become a perennial winner by pouring money into the youth academy, its new USL team, upgraded training facilities and a bigger scouting network.
And the hiring of Stewart, he said, was a “critical piece of the puzzle” to tie everything together,
“I’ve been on a little bit of an island trying to really get this organization focused on exploiting the edge,” Sugarman said. “Where can we find things that other people aren’t looking at that we can be best at? I think we have a common interest in doing that. I think AZ Alkmaar had to do the same thing. When I saw that he had hired Billy Beane, I was like, ‘Ah, common soul.’ It’s not like we won’t have to spend to get great players. We will have to spend. But I want 125 percent of what everyone else sees in that player. And I want a process to really identify that player, why they’re going to fit into the Union and make the three players around them better. And that’s where I think we saw eye-to-eye very quickly.”
Sugarman added that there’s “really no reason we shouldn’t be a top-tier club” but admitted that it’s “going to take a lot of work.”
Stewart, too, preached patience as he prepares to embark on his latest journey.
“Success is not something that comes overnight,” the Union’s new sporting director said. “But this is the beginning of something different – a new era. And we’re ready to take on the challenge.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.