Former U.S. international Earnie Stewart is about to start his third season as sporting director of the Philadelphia Union. The son of a U.S serviceman stationed in the Netherlands, Stewart played 18 years and registered 101 caps and 17 goals for the USA.
After retiring as a player in 2005, he began a career in management as technical director of VVV Venlo. Stewart, now 48, also worked for NAC Breda (technical director) and AZ Alkmaar (director of football affairs) prior to joining the Union in October 2015.
SOCCER AMERICA: This is your third season with the Union. Where do you see the team right now as an organization?
EARNIE STEWART: I wouldn’t say we’re in this huge transition because when I started two years ago we had this idea building a foundation around the objectives we have as a club and making sure we are a club that believes in young players and gives them chances to succeed and provide a pathway to the pros.
SA: All teams are required to field academy teams, and most of your MLS competitors either run a USL operation or are affiliated with one. Yet you’ve adopted a model even more extensive.
EARNIE STEWART: It’s ‘pathway to the pros’ with us. It starts with our pre-academy, and then from 12 to 19 in the academy and then Bethlehem Steel and then the first team. That’s all my responsibility. We have a very capable coaching staff and we do have discussions about which players fit our needs and especially with Bethlehem Steel, which started three years ago, we work toward getting every player having the potential to play for Philadelphia Union I at some point.
We’re not quite there yet but we’re making great strides working toward a situation where kids from the academy will come up and have that chance to reach the first team, as will players who come from the outside. Once we reach that, we’re going to be in really good shape.
SA: Right now, the USL is a hodgepodge of MLS-run or MLS-affiliated operations and independent teams. Can it serve the needs of all members, which have different business models and different long-term objectives?
EARNIE STEWART: I don’t see why not. The needs may be different but I think one of the things that’s important is there’s a pyramid for all these players. For me, as sporting director of the Philadelphia Union and our USL project, I want our USL players to play at the highest level possible. The game is a lot faster and once we can have our academy kids and those young talents we acquire from abroad maybe going to play in a place like Cincinnati in front of 17,000 people is great for their development.
I’d love to see them play at as high a level as possible, making sure that the pyramid is correct as we move them toward playing for the first team.
SA: Two years ago, Red Bulls II won the title and last year the champion was Louisville City, which has MLS ambitions. Does the USL structure of regional conferences and playoffs help prepare players for what they will encounter if they reach the first team?
EARNIE STEWART: I think so. A great thing about MLS and also USL is that we have this playoff system, so that’s why you see those fluctuations, I believe. As long as you reach the playoffs, you have a chance, and that’s the most important part. If you go into the playoffs as a winning team and your confidence is high, you have a chance to win it.
It is changing a little bit in MLS, I must say, but for the most part if you reach the playoffs in good shape you can win the title. That’s exciting.
SA: When you sat down with head coach Jim Curtin to plan for the 2018 season, what changes did you see that had to be made from 2017?
EARNIE STEWART: Going into this last offseason, what we saw during last season was that we were in a lot of games. We were never blown out, but we did not have those players that could help us over those certain humps at times or towards the end of the game, when it’s 1-1 or you’re 2-1 up. We gave away a lot of points in those last moments.
Two of the things that were important were to get those players who could be difference-makers for us, and make sure in the offseason the [Fafa Picaults] and Ilsinhos of this world become fitter and fitter so they could go on for longer periods of time during the season.
SA: You paid a lot of allocation money -- $1.2 million combined –- for a difference-maker, winger David Accam from Chicago. What was the process to make that deal happen?
EARNIE STEWART: First of all, we built an analytical model for ourselves so we’re not always looking for a needle in a haystack. That goes more towards the outside world and what I mean by that is the international market, and you also see what’s in the league. Combined with our analytical data that put David very high on our list not only from an ‘eye’ standpoint but also from a data standpoint.
After the season, we got wind that this might be a possibility. It did last several weeks in trying to get it done and it happened at the draft. We were in a room where we could speak to Chicago and we were willing to give up a lot because he’s a player, as you and we have seen, has meant a great deal to Chicago.
With the way that he plays and the way we play, we think he’s going to have that same -- and hopefully more -- effect, and we’re very excited he’s joining us.
SA: Even on his off days he can be a handful, and when he’s on his game, he can humiliate challengers to score goals as well as set them up.
EARNIE STEWART: When we played Chicago you always had that reaction, ‘Oh, boy, David Accam has the ball.’ It’s very good for us that now we’re going to have other teams doing the same thing that we did last year.
SA: You mean a lot of cursing, very foul language.
EARNIE STEWART: (Laughing.) I hope so, I hope so! That would be good.
SA: When DaMarcus Beasley went to PSV Eindhoven in 2004, the club wanted him to use his speed to get in behind defenses and score goals rather than just cross the ball. Is this a major change from the way wingers played during your playing days?
EARNIE STEWART: That is definitely a transition from when I came into the Dutch league. You still had the classic right outside wing or left outside wing who would reach the endline and cross balls in for a center forward. Now you see a lot of times the outside wingers have to play on the inside as well and be comfortable on the ball and be able to score goals.
It’s an important part of trying to win games. If you only have a center forward who scores a good amount of goals you might not reach the playoffs. When you can add players who can score goals and get assists not just from the No. 10 spot but the No. 7, 9, and 11 as well, you’re in good shape.
You have seen that transition and that has changed over the last 20 years.
SA: What else was (is) on the shopping list?
EARNIE STEWART: We wanted to get a left outside winger and a No. 10. I can say we succeeded 100 percent in signing David Accam. The other thing that we’ve added with David is with him and Marcus Epps and Fafa Picault we have players who can get up and down the field at a very high pace.
Opponents have to be aware of them and with Haris Medunjanin on the ball he can send every single player away. That is something very important.
The other part that we wanted to add was a No. 10 who sees the game very well and with a lot of touches on the ball has the ability to string passes to players likeC.J. Sapong and Epps and Picault and Accam. We’re working on that and we have Borek Dockal in camp and we’re trying to finalize it.
SA: Medunjanin adapted to MLS very quickly last year and is regarded as one of the best at his position.
EARNIE STEWART: What we try to do here and what we feel is very important is that every player adds to our team chemistry and cohesiveness. With new players, we explain who we are and what we want to be but what’s very important for the culture we’re trying to create is a place where people want to work for each other.
Haris has been fantastic in so many ways. Are there things he’s not so good at? Yeah but that’s for every single player. He excels in some key, key points and especially as a No. 6. He’s an incredible person and an incredible player.
SA: The Union has made the playoffs only once (in 2016) since Curtin took over from John Hackworth midway through the 2014 season. How do you evaluate the job he has done so far?
EARNIE STEWART: First and foremost, I think it’s important to mention that a coaching job is very much an experience job. Jim is a young coach  but he is a modern thinker when it comes to coaching, and that’s what I really like about him. When I came to the club, I was in that situation where you have to see how it goes, and I was very pleasantly surprised when I walked onto the field.
We have three phases on the field and we had all these discussions about our play in different phases: what to do when we have the ball and when we don’t have the ball or where the ball is in a certain phase. I was very impressed by how he implemented that during a training session.
He was very far along in those thoughts already. Once you see that on the field and you see players respond to that before games or even during halftime, I think you’re in a good spot.
I understand in pro soccer there’s stress, but I don’t believe in just throwing a coach out because you’re losing games. You have to see from a technical standpoint but also a coaching standpoint is someone still reaching the players? That’s one of his biggest, biggest things.
SA: It’s been nearly a decade and a half since you played in the league with D.C. United. You must be amazed at how much the league has grown in that time.
EARNIE STEWART: Oh, yeah, for sure. That’s one thing I take note of from when I played in the league in 2003 and 2004: the amount of people that come watch games has increased enormously. We have soccer-specific stadiums in almost all of the cities And with my background of Dutch players, you cannot believe how many of them want to play in the United States.
There are two things. One is that MLS is the new kid on the block and it’s exciting, but what’s also very important is life. Everybody wants to move to the United States. It’s a very exciting time for soccer in America and for MLS.
I remember one night I played with D.C. United in Giants Stadium on a Thursday night. I believe I could have shaken hands with everyone in the stadium. What you see now is amazing and compliments to everybody who’s made the league the way it is right now. We’re very fortunate in Philadelphia with our fans and the way they show up for games and support our team.
SA: What can those fans expect in 2018? How much progress has been made?
EARNIE STEWART: For the most part, I’m happy where we are right now in terms of how our team and how our roster look, and, the way that we’re playing because that’s the most important part for me.
The intention we have from a playing style and a playing standpoint in being forward-minded, not only when we have the ball but when we don’t have the ball so in a pressing situation we take the ball away from our opponent as quick as possible.
It’s been good. Obviously, it’s preseason, and anything I say today really doesn’t mean anything until we win a game against New England [Saturday's opening-night opponent] and we’re in league games again but up to now I’ve been satisfied with what I’ve seen. We have several pieces we’ve added to the coaching staff that have a different view, which is healthy. It’s a little bit more detail-oriented in some points and that is jelling well with Jim and his coaching staff.
I’m pleased with where we are right now but the first game is going to tell us the most.