A View from Afar / Union

A mixed bag: Evaluating Earnie Stewart’s Union tenure

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to add a few details, notably references to the scouting team and Sebastien Le Toux. 

Earnie Stewart did alright.

As Philadelphia Union’s sporting director departs his role for the job of U.S. Soccer’s general manager, it’s hard to say much more than that.

Outsiders may find that to be a surprise, but the reality is the Union have yet to record a winning season during his tenure. U.S. Soccer may like him, but the MLS table has been diffident.

This assessment could be very different come November, however. Right now, we’re still waiting to see whether the current Union side is in fact a good team. They’re showing signs that they are, but five games does not a season make.

There’s a bigger picture beyond that though. To evaluate Stewart, it’s worth looking a bit more closely at what he actually did and the situation he entered.

Order in the house

Remember the situation that Stewart came upon when taking over the Union in late 2015.

The hiring of Stewart as head of soccer operations instantly restored credibility for the Union. Here was a proven soccer executive with a successful track record at multiple clubs in a good European league, and he had legitimate American soccer credentials as a former national team and MLS player.

Further, it put full decision-making authority on soccer operations clearly in the hands of a respected soccer man with no prior track record of absolutely bizarre behavior. Prior to that, the buck had stopped with Nowak and later Sakieiwcz. (Former Union head coach John Hackworth never had that authority. If he had, so much would have been different.)

The change under Stewart was so significant that it was worth being called Union 2.0.

Whatever the Union did on the field, they stopped being an embarrassment off the field.

Evaluating Stewart’s personnel moves

Stewart’s personnel moves have been another story altogether. He joined MLS with a reputation for successfully buying low and selling high in Europe to profit in the transfer market. Many expected this Moneyball ninja to swoop into MLS and do the same thing.

Well, yeah, about that.

Stewart’s transactions have been a mixed bag, at best. He has aced the draft and mined a few quality free transfers from Europe, but he has swung and missed big on many of his key big signings.

2016 moves

His successful transactions in his first year consisted largely of closing the deal on moves the preexisting technical staff had been working on before he arrived, such as acquiring local player Keegan Rosenberry, signing Alejandro Bedoya (who the team wanted the year before), and trading for Chris Pontius.

The best signing fully owned by Stewart was Ilsinho, and credit him for drafting Fabian Herbers, who had a good rookie season before falling off after injuries.

On the other hand, Stewart paid a transfer fee for Roland Alberg to score penalties, argue with teammates, and not come close to fitting into the Union’s system. He also vastly overpaid for Charlie Davies to sit the bench and make college buddy Bedoya feel at home, and worse still, he traded away Union icon Sebastien Le Toux for allocation money needed for Davies.

2017 moves

With a full off-season, Stewart made a series of moves, most of them good, one of them debatable, and one failing miserably.

The failure, of course, is Jay Simpson, a striker acquired from an English fourth division club who never looked like the target forward the Union wanted.

The hits were pretty much everyone else. Jack Elliott and Marcus Epps were draft finds who became starters. Fafa Picault came off Europe’s scrap heap to become an impact player. Oguchi Onyewu and Giliano Wijnaldum came in on league minimum salaries, the former becoming a regular, the latter a low risk failure who was worth trying. Even Adam Najem was a good acquisition. He hasn’t cracked the Union’s lineup, but his performances in USL and in Union friendlies indicate he has the quality to play in MLS.

The most debatable signing was Haris Medunjanin, who is undoubtedly a quality player but also one who necessitated a significant transition in the way the team played due to his playing style.

2018 moves

Stewart went in big on winger David Accam, despite the fact that it was the rare Union position with plenty of depth (Picault, Ilsinho, Epps, Herbers) and Accam was coming off an injury and has never started more than 24 games in an MLS season. Accam is now buried on the depth chart as the fourth choice winger. It looks like a major swing-and-miss right now.

The other big acquisition was Borek Dockal, who has begun to come good in recent weeks, but the big criticism is that the Union didn’t bring him in earlier, wasting a soft early season schedule and dropping points while Dockal settled into the team.

Otherwise, the Union signed nobody outside the Union system, other than intriguing Cameroonian fullback Olivier Mbaizo, who promptly got hurt.

Meanwhile, a bunch of veterans departed — rightly so, for the most part.

Now wait, you might say. Doesn’t Stewart get credit for signing young players like Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, Derrick Jones, Matt Real, and Anthony Fontana?

Sure, but not a ton of credit. Each of these players had been in the system for years, some even coached by Curtin when he was a Union youth coach. Yes, Stewart signed them, but those players had been on the path to this point long before Stewart arrived. They’re a team success, and they’re a success of the region. Any reasonably smart soccer executive would have made the moves.

You could theoretically credit Stewart for choosing not to sign certain players to keep open paths to the first team for those youngsters. For example, Stewart could have signed a veteran center back this off-season. He didn’t, and now teens Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie have impressed. But that’s balanced out by not signing a quality veteran left back, which is of course a Union tradition. Matt Real is a year younger than his cohorts and hasn’t yet proved ready as an MLS starter, so it’s still a position of weakness.

Then of course there’s the issue of not replacing Tranquillo Barnetta for more than a year. Dockal arrived a year too late, and 2017 was a lost season specifically because of Stewart’s failure to acquire a quality No. 10 playmaker in attacking midfield. Even if Dockal has a great season, the Union still have a potentially uphill battle in securing his services for next year, as he is only on loan from Chinese side Henan Jianye, which has sought a large fee for his full transfer.

Evaluating the rest

As for the rest, it’s hard to say.

We don’t see Jim Curtin’s coaching staff behind closed doors, so we can’t really evaluate the hires there all that well. Credit for him for beginning the process of building a scouting team for the Union, a move that was long overdue.

Somebody deserves credit for ensuring the Union hired Brendan Burke as Bethlehem Steel’s head coach, when Sakiewicz was leaning toward someone else prior to his firing, but there’s no indication Stewart is the guy deserving of that credit. That’s probably on minority owner Richie Graham to a large degree.

Meanwhile, there has been nothing revolutionary about the Union’s use of Bethlehem Steel for player development, but they’ve done a competent job of getting minutes for young players like Trusty to develop and grow into first team MLS players.

Stewart’s insistence that the Union and the rest of organization adhere to a strict 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation has drawn a lot of criticism, but now the Union are finally beginning to look again like they’re capable of functioning in such a lineup, with Dockal flourishing as a No. 10. His sample size is small, however, just a good five-game stretch. We need to see more.

And that’s the catch with evaluating Stewart in general.

Grading Stewart’s performance

If the Union finish the season as a good team and continue as such next year, it will be in large part because Stewart finally found enough good players for head coach Jim Curtin. Further, it will be because Stewart and Union chairman Jay Sugarman were extraordinarily patient with Curtin. The latter had been viewed by many largely as a sign of Sugarman and the Union ownership team being cheap, but we could find that it was a sign of justifiable prudence.

Likewise, if the Union spiral back toward the off-field, dysfunctional embarrassment we saw prior to Stewart’s tenure, that will tell us something else.

Overall, Stewart’s presence in Philadelphia has been a positive for the Union, but not overwhelmingly so.

Give him a C+ or B- grade for his tenure as of now, but if the Union are a good team still playing when November rolls around, we’ll have to revisit that grade.

26 Comments

  1. A “B-” sounds about right to me. Let’s also keep in mind that the Union was embarrassingly thin in terms of depth off the bench prior to Stewart coming in. Now in most areas of the field I don’t think it’s a significant drop off in talent whenever there is a substitution or squad rotation. I also believe it’s difficult to make a huge impact as a GM when you’ve only been with an organization for 2.5 years, and that first half year largely being dedicated to learning the MLS system, organization, area, culture, etc. On the other hand, definitely disappointed in some of his poorer personnel decisions.

    As a side note, for anyone feeling like Earnie is skipping out the door on the organization, I’d say to try to look at this situation from his perspective. We all knew when he came here that this would not be his final destination, and while I think he was given more freedom from the front office than I expected him to get, this isn’t exactly a dream organization to work for in its current iteration. The purse strings are tight compared to most other organizations which already hamstrings decision-making, and the ownership continues to hold non-soccer events on the field even after Stewart expressly stated his displeasure with the practice. In short, I don’t think there was really a ton keeping him here.

    • I agree with all of this except his goal was to improve US Soccer so in that regard this Union are just as good as any other MLS team. Strong base for the academy but it was still new enough (and he had the power) to shape it how he wanted. Now he is moving to a job he can impact US Soccer more, but the Union probably were the perfect MLS team for him otherwise.

  2. “Sure, but not a ton of credit. Each of these players had been in the system for years, some even coached by Curtin when he was a Union youth coach. Yes, Stewart signed him, but those players had been on the path to this point long before Stewart arrived. They’re a team success, and they’re a success of the region. Any reasonably smart soccer executive would have made the move.”

    [NEW PARAGRAPH]
    This I can’t agree with. Just because they were promising 15 year olds when ES arrived DOES NOT MAKE IT A FORGONE CONCLUSION that they should be signed and then produce in the MLS.

    [NEW PARAGRAPH]
    Just ask Zach Pfeffer. Every single team in this league has promising 15 year old kids who are “on the verge” on signing a HG deal.

    [NEW PARAGRAPH]
    Under ES, we signed 5 of them, we incorporated them in the pipeline, got them USL games, started them training with the first team, and now all have appeared for the first team with mostly positive results.

    [NEW PARAGRAPH]
    Simply look at the HG ratio before and after ES.

    Before: Pfeffer, Rameriz, Jimmy M
    After: Jones, Fontana, Real, Trusty, McKenzie

    Which list has more hits? Which lists has the players who have already retired?

    [NEW PARAGRAPH]
    So really I can’t understand the mindset on this one, sorry. Plenty of teams have promising kids in the system for years. Most of them DO NOT successfully make the leap to MLS starters like we have seen so far – and ES was the man in charge making it happen.

    • Well written, although most of us go with a – or a .

    • Chris Sherman says:

      Yours is definitely an arguable perspective, and may prove to be true as we get more information.

      However, my personal expectation is that the GM is not likely a key contributor to a homegrown player’s growth/stagnation, at least compared with coaching staff (youth and senior teams), just as my growth as an employee likely has more to do with my manager’s abilities than the CEO’s.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Doing a before/after doesn’t work because what you’re seeing now are the first players who began in a full academy at the beginning. Pfeffer, McLaughlin, etc. were not truly players, just like Zack Steffen were not. They were local players developed outside the Union pipeline. Some of the recent signings have been in the pipeline since they were 12 years old. That’s a true academy producing.

      So yes, Stewart deserves credit, but he’s not the only one. The vision for the Union development pipeline began with Richie Graham and John Hackworth 7-8 years ago, and it took an entire village to raise these children from kids to adult pros.

      • Agreed. Stewart gets credit but who knows how much really. It’s not like Curtin hasn’t been giving praise on all these players before Earnie got here. Or that the pipeline system they used was not already in the plans. I do think Earnie’s probably the reason why basically all of them are having success and why it’s happening so fast for the academy, but I also think you have to give the players credit too. If they didn’t really want it, and didn’t really work for it, they wouldn’t be having the success they are now.

      • I simply think Stewart gets more credit than not. I’ll just leave this here:

        http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/soccer/jay-sugarman-union-earnie-stewart-us-soccer-20180606.html

        [The question was about how they decided to invest money and what ES wanted] “Earnie’s was, I have to spend it on youth development. I want the best youth development system. I want the best USL team. He didn’t want to cut any corners. … And as those foundational elements got firmed up; as, frankly, the physical infrastructure got to the place it needed to be, then we said, OK, now we can start spending money on the first team.”

        So here is more proof from the #1 guy in the entire organization that yes, ES literally had a lot to do with it. ES wanted this in place, he choice to invest in this area the most, and it’s paying off.

      • I simply think he deserves more credit than not. Look here:

        http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/soccer/jay-sugarman-union-earnie-stewart-us-soccer-20180606.html

        [The question was where did they invest, and Sugarman said it was ES’ decision]”Earnie’s was, I have to spend it on youth development. I want the best youth development system. I want the best USL team. He didn’t want to cut any corners. … And as those foundational elements got firmed up; as, frankly, the physical infrastructure got to the place it needed to be, then we said, OK, now we can start spending money on the first team.”

        So I mean, ES literally wanted this to happen. He choose to invest in it, he choose to focus on it, he choose to enrich it. He said “Let’s focus on this pipeline and making our HGs the best they can be” and it happened… so I don’t understand why people don’t want to give ES more credit.

    • John O'Donnell Jr says:

      I would just add one more thing to this paragraph.

      Simply look at the HG ratio before and after ES.

      Before: Pfeffer, Rameriz, Jimmy M
      After: Jones, Fontana, Real, Trusty, McKenzie

      Which list has more hits? Which lists has the players who have already retired?

      Which list had the benefit of the Bethlehem steel?

  3. Agree completely with all you wrote. Well summarized!

    • likewise. i was attempting to write similarly in the roundup then just decided to wait for the better articulated article.

      this is a fair grade and i’d be willing to hear a defense for a better grade from the man himself if he determined he didn’t deserve it.

      we’ve been dysfunction since day 1. i would hope the next regime would continue building on the last till we reach competency let alone contender and ultimately a powerhouse.

  4. The Chopper says:

    I’d have to grade him an incomplete. Job is not done, so right now it is impossible to judge his overall impact. Is the academy producing better because of systematic change or is the academy just maturing as any new venture would? Probably a bit of both.

    Curtin and Burke still on the job, so hard to gauge the impact on coaching. Albright still crunching the numbers for MLS as he did prior so no change there.

    Hit and miss on acquisitions and the scouting was already done on his first draft. I would also add that while he is not to blame, the Clubs two best ever players in my book, Nogs and Barnetta (signed prior to Stewart) left on his watch.

    Sorry he is going as I think the stability was beneficial. Just not sure it’s a huge loss.

  5. WeAreSteel2K18 says:

    People, mostly non-Union fans, are giving him way too much credit for the youth development. Most of the infrastructure and player pool were in place before Earnie. I’m not going to miss him. I just hate that he’s going to the US who I also support.

    • Almost all of Bethlehem’s roster was signed by Earnie though? I think the biggest thing he added was signing young vets like Holness, Najem and players like that to complement the roster. None have worked out great yet, but it’s a good strategy and adds talent to player pool.

  6. Tim Jones says:

    I write from the perspective of one whose assignment is to follow the Steel, who has chosen to add an interest in the Ysc Academy Schoolhouse, and one who is a union season-ticket holder.
    .
    I hope to make two major points.
    .
    First, add Michee Ngalina to Olivier Mbaizo as “intriguing.” 18 years 2 months old, had to wait to sign till he was 18. Has had practice time with the Union itself while on trial as well as with the Steel.
    .
    Also add Propser Chiluya at left back to the list of those signed to the Steel this year. He has had to play sooner than intended for Bethlehem in the organization’s spate of injured defenders, and has done at least acceptably and in some ways better than that.
    .

    .
    Second, in the process of player analysis, Earnie has systematized it, and changed its emphasis. I know for facts that there are formal reporting meetings monthly and informal reporting continuously.
    .
    More importantly, on his watch the single most important quality once minimum physical and technical parameters are met is mentality. From my perspective (see above) that mentality has been displayed by the Steel in 2 of its last 3 away matches (Indianapolis & North Carolina) while in the 3rd it most emphatically was not (Ottawa).
    .
    Steel captain James Chambers said it best after North Carolina, “This team doesn’t know when it’s dead, to be honest.” others have used the cliche, “Never say die.” Those who followed the Steel last year will remember away success levels that exceeded normal expectations given the Steel’s overall record. That has occurred on Earnie’s watch.
    .
    I make these remarks before having had a chance to ask coaches Burke and Hogan to assess the outgoing Sporting Director’s effect on the Steel in his 2 1/2 years.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Also, they have increased the videotaping and analysis thereof available to the first team, and they now spend the money to fly the steel everywhere save north Jersey, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Richmond. The recent bus ride to Ottawa was an anomaly and they paid for it. They are not an old veteran side like Louisville who knows how to cope.

    • Great points Tim. I was wondering why there was no mention of BSFC in this post, even though Earnie is in charge of them too correct?

      They have made some quality signings this off season as you mention.

      They have developed Burke into a MLS contributor – who should probably be starting.

      And from what I have seen this pipeline will continue to pay off. From what I hear/sense someone like Moar is probably next in line to become the next Burke.

    • Great extra tidbits Tim. I for one am quite grateful for these.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Great perspective to add, Tim.

    • “Never Say Die” should be the Union’s/organization’s motto instead of Join or Die.

  7. Spot on, Dan. I agree with this piece in its entirety. I feel like we can’t really grade Earnie’s tenure until at least the end of this season. And we may revisit it after that. For the time being, I wholeheartedly agree that it has been a mixed bag.

    I don’t begrudge him the move to the USMNT, though. For a guy who wore the US kit himself, this is basically a dream job. And he may indeed be better at it than he was at managing an MLS salary cap. I certainly hope so.

  8. Stewart moves on to his dream job. No hard feelings . I wish him the best and hope he makes the impact to get US soccer on track to be a true world contender/beater. His time here was a mixed bag as Dan states above. Soooo what’s next. Only time will tell!

  9. Pretty much agree with the B-/C+ grade, he did some good things and some not so good things. One pretty big miss that I haven’t seen mentioned is drafting Josh Yaro at #2 overall in 2016. He should be a key contributor at this point, but is buried on the depth chart and has been passed by other younger defenders. They could have taken Brandon Vincent to fill the perpetual hole at LB instead. ES did an OK job here, hopefully he’ll do better for the USMNT.

  10. What many fans and media are trying to do is compare a Sporting Director’s role to that of a General Manager in American Sports. It’s not an apples to apples comparison. Stewart came in and he set the tone for the soccer side of the Union. From the youth, all the way through the first team and back room staffs. He built and implemented a structure that was not there. This structure should now be in place for the foreseeable future. Stewart was charged with setting up a sustainable model for repeated long term success.
    .
    As Fans we will always look at the here and now. The success/failure of player signings, making/not making the playoffs, and winning games. Earnie’s tenure will be a success or a failure depending on how the Union are 5-10 years from now. I fully understand that fans don’t like hearing that. Look at Ruben Amaro. Everyone called for his head. The ground work he laid is now starting to bear fruit.
    .
    Earnie’s tenure is going to need some time before it can be fully graded.

  11. Another thing that was not specifically addressed is that those homegrown players signed before Earnie/BSFC essentially had no way to reasonably develop their skills in game situations. They were not quite good enough for the 1st team, and there was no BSFC for them to get playing time with. If BSFC had existed back them, those early homegrowns may have panned out better.

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