It’s funny how most people who leave the Philadelphia Union organization go on to bigger and better things. A pair of public relations folks ended up with the LA Galaxy and Atlanta United. A third works for Adidas. Nick Sakiewicz became commissioner of the National Lacrosse League and Taylor Twellman steered his color commentary job into an international ESPN gig.
Sporting Director Earnie Stewart is the latest to hit the upgrade button, turning his two-and-a-half seasons into a national role as the very first General Manager of U.S. Soccer. I don’t know exactly what the job entails, since it’s brand new, but Earnie is a former USA international who appeared 101 times for his country and went on to have success navigating the transfer market and promoting homegrown athletes in player-personnel roles with Dutch clubs NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar.
I’m confident he’ll do a good job with the USMNT, hopefully better than what he did in Philadelphia, because his tenure here was average, at best.
To really understand things, though, you have to go back to 2015, when the Union were sort of flopping around at the tail-end of the Sakiewicz years. Jim Curtin was an inexperienced 36-year-old coach. Chris Albright was a second-year technical director. Rene Meulensteen had returned to Europe after completing a half-assed consultation gig and the Union had just lost a second-straight U.S. Open Cup final on their home field while fumbling their way to a 10 win, 17 loss, 7 draw regular season. February signing Steven Vitoria was a bust and Fernando Aristeguieta struggled with injuries. Maurice Edu was again forced into defense and goals were just hard to come by.
So the overarching thought back then was that this franchise just needed an executive with clout, somebody with connections and experience to make a few good signings and guide Curtin and Albright. They really just needed someone to tie this whole thing together. With the addition of Bethlehem Steel on the horizon, you now had a real pipeline in which to pull young Philadelphia-area players through your academy, up to the Lehigh Valley, and ultimately into the senior team.
That was probably Stewart’s biggest achievement, giving the green light to Derrick Jones, Auston Trusty, Matt Real, Mark McKenzie, and Anthony Fontana. Even if Tommy Wilson and Jeff Cook and Chris Brewer (and others) did the hard work of training those kids in the academy, Earnie believed that they were ready, and he really was the final piece to completing that puzzle. All five of those players have earned senior team minutes this season, though the most talented of the bunch, Jones, has been relegated to the bench, or out of the 18 completely.
Beyond that, there isn’t much to write about. Stewart brought a sense of professionalism to the team. He tried to build a scouting department from nothing. The team literally did not have a scouting department, and now two former interns work with Albright and the GM on external acquisitions. He installed workplace methods and processes that make it seem like things run more smoothly behind the scenes, but the on-field results haven’t really improved that much. His 2016 team stormed out to a 1st place summer, then struggled badly down the stretch and bombed out with 14 losses and a wildcard playoff exit. The 2017 team finished 11-14-9, 8th place in the east. This year’s squad currently sits in 7th with an 8-10-3 record.
Overall, the club finished with 30 wins, 38 losses, and 21 draws during Stewart’s tenure.
Maybe it was the archaic and clunky single-entity MLS rules or maybe it was the Union’s cheap budget, but Stewart’s foreign signings ended up being just okay. Some guys bombed out entirely while others turned out to be nice pieces. There really was no stud acquisition or slam dunk signing.
Looking down the list, it’ a lot of hit or miss:
- Jay Simpson*
- Anderson Conceicao
- Alejandro Bedoya**
- Roland Alberg
- Giliano Wijnaldum
- Haris Medunjanin
- Borek Dockal
- Fafa Picault
- David Accam
- Ken Tribbett
- Oguchi Onyewu
- Corey Burke
- Olivier Mbaizo
- Charlie Davies trade
- Sebastien Le Toux trade
- homegrowns: Derrick Jones, Mark McKenzie, Matt Real, Anthony Fontana, Auston Trusty, Adam Najem***
- drafting Keegan Rosenberry, Josh Yaro, Fabian Herbers, Jack Elliott, and Marcus Epps
It’s always hard to say how much specific people are responsible for certain moves.
Jim Curtin and Chris Albright wanted to bring in Bedoya in 2015**. Albright went to England to meet with Simpson*. Tribbett and Rosenberry were players Curtin was already familiar with. Najem came through New York’s system, even though he counted as a homegrown player with the Union***. The Davies trade was a disaster and the Le Toux trade made sense, though it was not popular with the fan base. Some of the draft picks went through bad sophomore slumps. Guys like Chris Pontius and Walter Restrepo I believe were targeted before Stewart officially started on the job, but I guess since Earnie was at the top of the personnel food chain, blanket successes and failures both fell at his feet.
There were definitely some good signings, like Medunjanin, Ilsinho, and Dockal. There are some big disappointments, like Wijnaldum and Simpson. Alberg was an excellent player with a shit attitude. Picault definitely has his moments. It certainly wasn’t all bad.
One thing I found interesting was Stewart’s defense of Curtin, and he went to bat vehemently for his head coach on more than one occasion, famously saying this at a closed-doors town hall meeting with season ticket holders last May:
“It really bugs me that my coach gets booed. You know what? I’m here every single day, and I watch every single practice. There’s nobody there. There’s nobody watching what he does with his coaching staff every single day. Not one person. Still, I come here on Saturday, and they boo him. That pisses me off. It really pisses me off. Is soccer about winning and losing? Yes, it is. It is about winning and losing. That part I get. That part Jim gets. We all get that. And that part sucks, that there always comes a moment where you have to have conversations with each other. But I see what they do every single day, what I ask them to do every single day – to train our system, to train our players, make sure they go from 6,000 meters to 8,000 meters, 10,000 meters to 14,000 meters.
“And still, Monday through Friday, I don’t see anybody out there. Still, they come and they criticize.”
In that same meeting, Stewart gave an impassioned, 20 minute reply to a question about the lack of attendance at the stadium, the waning interest in the team, and the overall absence of success since the team’s 2010 founding.
The most intriguing part began with a look back at his Alkmaar years:
“…In the five years I was there we managed four times to get European soccer and evolve. What made me proudest of all was that I turned on the TV, I’m watching my old team, and they’re playing at FC Twente. They started the game with five players that came out of the academy. The three substitutions that came in were academy players who came in for players that they bought. That’s eight academy players on the field and they won the game in the last minute. It doesn’t say much, but all of the crap that I took for having a plan and having a vision, but that game, and I’m not there anymore, those eight kids were out there. They’re really good. One is up for the Dutch national team. Another has gotten sold for millions. The others are competing for European soccer. That part makes me very proud.
That’s why I sit here and can say to you, and I don’t want to sound corny or sound like the 76ers, but I have a passion and a burning desire and we’re going to get there. Hopefully, soon those seats will be full. And people who come for winning and losing? If they’re only coming for that, I’m not going to promise it. If you come to see us win every single game, don’t do it. You’re going to get disappointed. But if you come to watch our players roll up their sleeves, go out every day, play within our vision, play in our system, and compete, we give those players chances. Everybody talks about DPs. Playing Derrick Jones and Josh Yaro, they are DPs for me. They don’t make DP money at all. They’re not even close. But they are gonna be DPs for us.”
I always had a problem with that quote – “people who come for winning and losing.” This is Philly. It most certainly is about winning and losing. It’s not about driving down to desolate Chester, Pennsylvania to golf clap for a “good job” by the lads.
And of course, he backed up Curtin’s insistence on playing the same 4-2-3-1 formation day-in and day-out, suggesting that maybe the players were unable to learn something different:
Exchange between myself and Earnie Stewart regarding the Union's commitment to the 4-2-3-1: pic.twitter.com/ugMNoME1F2
— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) May 3, 2017
Earnie definitely hitched himself to the Curtin bandwagon when the fan base was not entirely enthusiastic about the head coach.
I know Stewart never had much to work with as a Sporting Director operating under the frugal and ambition-less Jay Sugarman, and maybe he was trying to temper expectations via misdirection and the elevating of auxiliary goals such as youth development and U.S. national team placement. Maybe he knew this was an impossible task and tried to drop us some hints along the way. But at the end of the day, you play to win the game, as Herman Edwards once said. I think it’s really cool for the Union fan to see Derrick Jones in a United States kit, but they definitely would prefer the first playoff victory in franchise history.
Recently, I’ve come around to the idea that maybe we put too much on Earnie’s shoulders as fans and media. To think that a player-personnel executive was going to fix all of the ills of this team was, in retrospect, naive, but people need to remember that we were exiting the Sakiewicz years and it felt like this franchise, for the first time ever, was moving forward with a cohesive strategy. Everybody got along with one another. The media leaks and the ridiculous behavior stopped. Peter Nowak and Diego Gutierrez were long gone and the lengthy list of Union disappointments and fuck-ups seemed to be a thing of the past. Earnie did a lot to clean up the culture around the club and get it operating like a professional sports franchise, which is the very least that should be expected out of a Major League Soccer club in 2018. The Union now have practice fields, an excellent training facility, and a pipeline from the academy to the senior team. The most evasive thing has been meaningful wins on the field.
So I don’t really know what to think. I would say that, yes, the Union are in a better spot now than when Earnie Stewart started in 2016. On the IASIP podcast, we sort of characterized the team as a website that now runs more smoothly on the back end with a smarter layout and operational fluidity that didn’t previously exist. It’s kind of like going from Geocities to WordPress, right? The analytics and scouting and day to day processes are in place. The foundation is there. A lot of the behind the scenes stuff is much improved, which is difficult for the average fan to see since it’s not readily apparent.
It’s hard to describe, but it just “feels” like the Union are more buttoned up than they were a few years back.
But the problem is that the evolution is not congruent with the way the rest of the league has grown. Yes, the 2018 Union are probably better than the 2016 Union. But the 2018 Red Bulls are also better than the 2016 Red Bulls. Atlanta and Los Angeles, recent expansion teams, are light years ahead, playing high-level soccer in brand new, downtown stadiums. Toronto FC lost a continental cup final on penalty kicks after knocking out a couple of elite Mexican clubs.
Where are the Union? They’re now eight seasons in with zero playoff wins. They’re 0-2 in cup finals and hemorrhaging season ticket holders. They can’t score goals and they simply can’t compete with the upper tier of MLS clubs.
It’s nice that Stewart came in and improved things and stabilized the structure and added the foundation and whatever, but you’re a professional sports team. You’re SUPPOSED to have a foundation. It shouldn’t take eight seasons to establish that. You’re supposed to have scouts and analytics and an academy and a minor league team. These really are bare minimum prerequisites for running a professional sports franchise, and it shows you just how far behind the Union actually were when they started from scratch in 2008.
Earnie Stewart’s legacy, then, feels like a connecting flight, when I think everybody had hoped to reach their final destination instead.