Earnie Stewart has made it clear that the Philadelphia Union don’t necessarily have the resources to attract the biggest Designated Players or employ a large fleet of scouts.
And so, since taking over as the team’s sporting director a little over a year ago, he has been razor-focused on utilizing his own existing network while trying to find potential steals in the transfer market.
It’s the same philosophy that was the cornerstone of his successful front-office tenure at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar — and also the one that produced Thursday’s signing of Giliano Wijnaldum, a left back that Stewart knows from his time in the Netherlands and one who the Union boss believes can grow into a top MLS defender.
“We don’t have the means right now to have 15 scouts out there scouting for us, so you go back to the network you have.” Stewart told reporters on a conference call on Thursday. “And yes, you do try to find players that fly under the radar because the guys on top of the radar are very difficult to bring in.
“I believe Giliano is one of those players that flies under the radar, with great upside potential.”
Stewart first watched Wijnaldum play at AZ Alkmaar’s youth academy, calling him “a bright prospect.” But Stewart said the left back was in a “difficult situation” at the time, with lots of talented players in front of him as he began his senior career with AZ.
Wijnaldum went on to play at two other clubs in the Netherlands followed by a short stint in the German second division, and Stewart now believes the 24-year-old Dutchman is primed to take a leap in his career.
“He’s one of those defenders who has a lot of speed and physical ability, can be good in the air, and likes running up and down the line a lot and delivering crosses,” Stewart said. “I’m very pleased he signed with us.”
Although the Union have had trouble effectively filling the left back position for much of their existence, Fabinho has helped solidify that spot over the past couple of seasons and is set to return for the 2017 campaign.
Stewart said it’s important to have two good left backs on the roster, adding he will leave the decision as to which one starts up to head coach Jim Curtin. But he believes Wijnaldum will show his considerable skills in the preseason and give Fabinho a tough challenge.
“He didn’t come to just sit on the bench and warm the bench,” Stewart said.
Curtin has been a Fabinho fan in large part due to the Brazilian’s ability to provide an offensive spark at times. But the Union coach now sees a lot of those same qualities in Wijnaldum.
“We want our outside backs to get forward,” Curtin said. “We want them on the ball making decisions, we want them attacking, getting service into the box. Giliano checks all those boxes. … He’s a perfect fit for us.”
How Wijnaldum fits into the lineup will likely evolve throughout the preseason. For now, Wijnaldum — who knows Union attacker Roland Alberg from the Netherlands and confided in him before signing with Philly — is excited to begin a new chapter in a new country.
“It was easy for me to come here,” he said. “For me, it’s a dream come true.”