A View from Afar / Union

Q&A: The key questions in the Stewart replacement search

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

What’s next for Philadelphia Union after Earnie Stewart’s departure as sporting director?

A new sporting director, unless something goes very wrong. What does that entail? What should the team be seeking? 

You got questions. We got answers. 

What traits should the Union seek in a new sporting director? 
  • Familiarity with MLS. You want someone who understands MLS’s single entity concept, the various roster rules and approaches endemic within it, and the talent level required in the league. 
  • Familiarity with the player populace. Stewart’s replacement must know the American player development model, the current MLS player pool, and the pool of American and Canadian expatriates abroad.
  • Willingness to trade/sell assets. The only players Stewart ever traded or sold were basically guys he wanted to dump — Zach Pfeffer, Sebastien Le Toux, Kevin Kratz doesn’t count — and there’s no indication he got much in return. Today, Philadelphia has a center back depth chart that goes four deep with proven MLS starters and a fifth who probably could be one if he ever stayed healthy. Only two play at a time. He has a winger depth chart that also goes five deep with proven MLS starters. Nearly everywhere else, the Union have depth problems, and they haven’t had a high quality, true left back in seven years. The club needs someone who knows how to move the club’s assets to get legitimate value in return.
  • Critical analysis skills. The person has to smart. We’re talking analysis of data, tracking of market trends, critical thinking, an understanding of buy low/sell high, etc. We could elaborate, but hopefully you get the idea.
  • A vision consistent with the Union’s vision. The Union’s stated vision is a good one: Build a club around a productive academy and development pipeline to get long-term sustainability, and exploit market inefficiencies to find undervalued talent. The Union’s problem has never been the vision. It’s been good since Richie Graham and John Hackworth articulated it years ago. It’s the execution that has been the problem, along with the intermittent lack of fealty to the vision.
Who are some candidates to be considered?

Let’s stipulate first that there almost certainly will be numerous applicants not on the radar.

MLS’s stature has increased significantly over the last three years, particularly because of the types of coaches who are now leading clubs, notably Atlanta’s Tata Martino, New York City’s recently departed Patrick Vieira, and Jesse Marsch with the Red Bulls. With Vieira making an impressive overseas move to France and Marsch rumored for a big move to Germany, the league is now a pipeline for coaches who want to move up in the world. Plus, the league’s quality of play is far better than it was just a few years ago.

It’s tougher to predict candidates for a sporting director role than it is with coaches. In recent years, the sporting director has become a key position in MLS, but it hasn’t been crucial for so long that there exists a large group of former MLS sporting directors looking for jobs. The candidates we’re talking about are the ones moving up the pipeline from obscurity, coming from abroad, or turning away from coaching to work solely on the personnel side. None of the top roster architects in MLS — Garth Lagerwey, Tim Bezbatchenko, Oscar Pareja, Gregg Berhalter, etc. — are leaving their teams for Philadelphia. Beyond Ali Curtis and Chris Albright, it’s largely guesswork to pick out top candidates.

That being said, there are a few specific candidates worth discussing.

  • Ali Curtis: The former New York Red Bulls general manager is local enough, as he’s based in the New York area, and he did an impressive job laying the groundwork for what has become one of the league’s best teams. He’ll probably come in with a plan. It might be 300 pages long. And if he fires Jim Curtin, he’ll basically cement his reputation as an outsider who joins clubs to fire local guys working as head coaches, so there’s high potential for black comedy here.
  • Chris Albright: The current Union technical director is the next man up. He knows the club. He was part of the decision-making team that got the ball rolling on some good Union acquisitions, such as Chris Pontius and Alejandro Bedoya, but from the outside, we have no idea what his full role was or how much credit he deserves any Union moves. During his brief time in an acting sporting director mode, he demonstrated he was tone deaf on how to deal with media and the public. You can get away with that for a while if you have Earnie Stewart’s track record. Albright doesn’t. 
  • John Hackworth: The Union’s former head coach and original assistant coach was far more successful in the player personnel department than Stewart. He worked the MLS trade market like an ace, secured solid, affordable signings from abroad in Vincent Nogueira, Maurice Edu and Chaco Maidana (remember how good Edu was before he got hurt), and consistently found quality young American talent. He’s also probably the most important figure in creating the original Union vision of a development pipeline, with Union minority owner Richie Graham right alongside him, so you get continuity of vision. (Remember, the Union were the first MLS club to partner with USL and PDL sides.) He also actually got something for his players on the open market, such as Michael Farfan’s sale to Cruz Azul. Plus, he’s a class act. Sure, this will probably never happen, but I felt like provoking some thoughts about it. I’d hire him. 
  • Second tier Europe-based executives: The model here consists of guys like Atlanta’s Darren Eales, who was at Tottenham, and San Jose’s Jesse Fioranelli, previously employed by Roma, or even Colorado’s Padraig Smith, who worked for UEFA. We’re talking about executives who weren’t the top person running their clubs in Europe but were in key roles within big clubs or organizations. Considering Fioranelli and Smith oversee two of MLS’s worst clubs — Colorado may be historically awful — and Eales benefits from Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra and Tata Martino, this route doesn’t have a great recent track record.
What does the next sporting director need to do?

The strategic priorities are straightforward.

  • Continue building from within. The vision is good. The academy and USL affiliate are bearing fruit. Stay with it.
  • Continue building out a scouting network. The Union finally hired some in-house scouts/analysts under Stewart. Keep at it. It’s a good start, but it’s only a start. They have no consistent overseas talent pipelines. Find one. Mine it. It’s worked for clubs like FC Dallas (Colombia and neighboring countries), Vancouver (Uruguay), Kansas City (Barcelona) and others. 
  • Trade/sell assets to fill needs. There are plenty of MLS teams in need of good center backs: Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, just to name a few. Philadelphia only gets to start two. Trade one or two of the guys who don’t start. Get something in return — players, allocation money, transfer fees — to bolster efforts to improve.
  • Manage the salary budget(s) strategically. Decide where you need to spend big, and then put the money there. Don’t just pick up a big-money guy because he’s available, as the Union seemed to do with David Accam. What positions are most important to you? The No. 10? Striker? Center midfield? Decide. Prioritize. Rank. Budget accordingly.
  • Get the foreign signings right. Enough said. 
How soon must the Union replace Stewart?

Stewart stays nominally on the job with Philadelphia until Aug. 1, which takes the Union almost to the end of the summer transfer window in the U.S. Based on that, you could argue that the Union could get to season’s end just fine without a sporting director.

That said, the ideal scenario would be to have someone in place before that.

The top MLS clubs identify their off-season targets well before the off-season actually starts, so that players arrive in time for training camp. The Union have a track record of not doing that, and it’s consistently caused them problems. Imagine if Borek Dockal had arrived in January. He might have reached his current excellent form much earlier, and the Union might not have dropped points against weaker teams earlier this year.

What’s the outlook? 

Earnie Stewart’s departure from Philadelphia Union seems strangely uneventful. It should be a bigger deal for the Union’s sporting director to leave for a similar position with the U.S. Men’s National Team, but it’s not. Stewart did a good job in progressing a long-term vision already in place for the Union, but the team is no better in the standings than when he joined the club. This evaluation may be different in two years, but even then, there’s no sign yet that it will be because of Stewart’s moves. Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, Anthony Fontana and Matt Real were in the Union pipeline a long time before Stewart came along.

Other Union notes: Center midfield
  • Getting Derrick Jones’s head in the game: You don’t disprove your coach’s concerns about your awareness by forgetting to take your necklace off before entering a game. Jones’s entry to Friday’s match was awkward and embarrassing, as the referee tried to send him off the field when he first forgot and then had trouble taking off his jewelry. Normally, that’s a minor embarrassment, but it helps explain why Jim Curtin criticizes Jones for not having his head in the game. (Note that Jones was one of the players standing around, nowhere near the ball, on Keegan Rosenberry’s throw-in gaffe against Toronto. Is it the No. 8’s job to show to the ball as a third option?) Considering Curtin basically turned his center midfield upside down because he didn’t trust Jones to start, that’s significant.
  • Lack of usable center midfield depth: The Union have depth on paper, but they lack depth in reality if Curtin doesn’t trust his deeper bench, which he usually doesn’t. Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin can’t go 90 minutes every game and be productive by year’s end. Warren Creavalle deputized well on Friday, but the Union need legitimate rotation options at the No. 8 and No. 10 if Curtin doesn’t trust Jones, Anthony Fontana or Adam Najem. Whether he’s right or wrong about that, it’s the reality.
  • CBs for CMs? It’s long past time the Union traded one of their center backs. There are at least five teams — Los Angeles Galaxy, Toronto, Chicago, Montreal, Minnesota — that desperately need a center back. Two of those teams are loaded with center midfielders. Do a deal. Get something for your assets.

33 Comments

  1. I always liked Hackworth, especially with GM-moves, I’d be quite happy if he took the reins. I’m just surprised I’m not the only one 🙂

  2. You know, the Hackworth suggestion is quite intriguing. His problem was that he was a lousy in-game manager. I always thought of him as a really good identifier of youth talent, but you are right that the foreign signings under his watch, both European and Latin American, were good. And as you say, it’s not like this is a position that has a pipeline within MLS, and a pipeline from other leagues won’t help because of MLS’ peculiarities. Hmmmm…

    • The Chopper says:

      John Hackworth is a class act and would be great for the club in this role.The problem is John Hackworth knows exactly what Jay Sugarman is all about.

    • I think Hackworth really found his level as a youth coach. I think his best use is in that system.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    Let me ask you all- just because I have to.
    .
    When NYCFC go out and sign the guy who’s sat next to Pep Guardiola helping the manager to 24! trophies. What does it matter. Because from this seat… it doesn’t.
    .
    These people are so far ahead in the thinking and spending this small market destination with its 18,000 seater is….. generally irrelevant. Here’s hoping that academy knows what its doing, but I’m not even so sure about that having been on the record in detail about that too.
    .
    The growth is exponential all around us. EXPONENTIAL.
    .
    In other news, my buddy and I did lament DJ’s obvious WTF moment as he entered the game…and it stands to reason this could be part of the issue behind the player for the manager, of course he then did go out and attempt to deliver the best pass of the entire season- which amounted to nothing.
    .
    .
    As for the Sporting Director moving on to USNT- I leave this little scorched earth piece of work.
    .
    http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sports/soccer/world-cup/sd-sp-us-soccer-world-cup-zeigler-20180610-story.html
    .
    .
    oh hey, suns out and its a beautiful day.

    • Intriguing hire by NYC. Potentially a very good one. I like it on paper.

      But proximity to Guardiola doesn’t guarantee he’ll be a good coach. Rene Meulensteen was Alex Ferguson’s right hand man. He didn’t make a good head coach. Check out his managerial record here.

    • Great read, El P. A little depressing, but necessary to read and keep in mind all the same.

    • I got to the sentence on the US “war on rondos” and am now far more depressed than I should be on the eve of the eve of the World Cup kickoff…. I had just talked to leadership of the club where I’ve coached about how we need to focus on rondos and similar ball moving and awareness skills in practice because our U-8, U-10 and U-12 kids were still not thinking that way — creating 2 v 1 situations, filling space whenever possible, etc. They all try to beat other kids on the dribble and practice seems to reinforce this. — So Rondos are good enough for Pep Guardiola but not the US. I’m going to try and just pretend I didn’t read any of that. …

    • This is like the NFL. How many of Bill bellichecks assistants got head coaching jobs? How many were successful?

    • John O'Donnell Jr says:

      Let’s review Vieira’s accomplishments:

      0 trophies
      0 first place conference finishes
      0 CCL qualifications

      1-3-0 playoff record (no series wins), -6 GD
      0-3 Open Cup record, -6 GD
      3-5-2 derby record, -14 GD

      All the resources in the world

      I saw this on Twitter and it makes you wonder what is more important, actual record or the hype of the candidate?

      His record isn’t exactly eye popping considering the budget he has to work with.

  4. “What traits should the Union seek in a new sporting director? ”
    Ownership
    1. Cheap
    2. Inexpensive
    3. Free

    Me
    1. No previous Union affiliation
    2. MLS Experience
    3. Previously successful

    “Continue building from within. The vision is good. The academy and USL affiliate are bearing fruit. ”
    No it’s not. The academy is such fools gold. All the time and $$ spent on the USL and academy, they could have just bought good players instead…..and I don’t know, won games.

    If Hackworth is named GM, I’m out. Plain and simple. Done completely.

    • You might want to actually watch a Union game now and again. There’s this guy named Trusty. Another named McKenzie. They’re pretty good.

      PS: They’re not going to hire Hackworth.

      • I watch plenty of games. Yes their are some good players that have been developed and are currently playing 1st minutes. Big deal.

        The $$ spent to have a few players develop is a terrible ROT. The cost/benefit will never be profitable. Lets start thinking of the team as business.

        The Union FO could have just spent the $$ to run the academy on actual players who can help now. Give me the good team now not the good team later.

        Trusty and McKenzie will never be sold for 7 figures so whats the point. We get them for a few years at below market value then what? Exactly.

      • We have 5 players signed to the Union that went through the academy’s first class. That’s insane return of investment. I think you are greatly over stating how much money has been spent on the academy.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        while we’re at it, lets get rid of A, AA,AAA baseball and forget altogether about using this model to developing local talent — because its a waste of time and money.
        .
        Is this Con for real?

      • Minor league baseball farm system and Soccer Academy system is comparing apples and oranges. Mostly because 1 MLB player makes more than an entire MLS team (sans Atlanta, TFC, etc.). Also, the only things the MLB clubs supply the minor league affiliates is players and coaches. Not stadiums, facilities, travel, etc.

        So what 5 players have gone through the system and are playing now. What’s our record? What’s our record going to be next year? A little better.

        Why is everyone enamored with the academy and homegrown local players. There goals aren’t worth any more or less. Just sign the best players you can afford. Why play this wait and see game if/when a player develops?

        1 or 2 homegrowns is one thing but gimme a break 5 now. Of those 5, 2 will be playing (on this team) next year.

        Everything the Union has done since the beginning of time has been a shit show, why would this be any different?

      • Tim Jones says:

        To address Con’s return on investment point.
        .
        Richie Graham has bee pouring money in. So far, he’s not gotten money back. That cannot continue forever.
        .
        Con is correct that the return on investment is very poor, if you only consider the players who go pro.
        .
        But the vast majority of them go on to college with the skills to succeed there and then beyond in whatever endeavors they choose. And they are actively encouraged to try their hands at various business endeavors while stil at the Academy, some of them.
        .
        Once that track record is established more firmly, parents will want to send their children. There will always bee a high proportion of scholarship kids, but it cannot be in the 80% range as i think it may be now.
        .
        In 20 years with loyal alumni, and local foundations interested in investing in local young people with the potential to make a difference in the world, the Academy may become more self sustaining economically.
        .
        Consider the other grads besides the young pros as you look at return on investment.

      • The academy is not free to attend. It’s not expensive, but it’s not nothing. Right now we have 2 of the 5 players as starters on the Union. If you don’t think at least 1 more will be starting next year I don’t believe you have been watching the games. Of course they haven’t made their money back yet, the first players (19 year olds) are just arriving.

  5. The more time I spend thinking about Ernie Stewart’s tenure in Philadelphia, the less I think I know about it. I completely agree that his departure is entirely uneventful. And I can’t help but conclude that his effect on the first team has been uneventful.

    One could argue that the 2018 edition of the Union is far superior to the 2015 team. But relative to the league, its place has barely budged.

    More than anything though, I don’t think Stewart ever managed to live up to our expectations. We thought his moneyball-informed mastery of the football market in Holland would somehow be employed to populate the first team roster with hidden-gem players that would provide far more quality than their price tag suggested. Instead, nearly every foreign player we’ve signed has failed to impress.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had lower expectations for this team.

    • The more I think about it, I conclude that Stewart’s impact is essentially getting the organization to the point they should have been since Year 1. Which, to be clear, was not on Earnie to begin with and is something he should be given a ton of credit for taking on and cleaning up. I can’t think of another franchise that joined the league with less in place on Day 1, leading to all the dysfunction over the years – Sak, Nowak, practicing in a public park, etc and the lack of success.
      .
      At face value though, I’d rate his time here a 3/5 since that is the amount of time he will be here for his five year plan. If you walk away from a 5k only 3k in, you don’t get a medal.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        maybe, just maybe one of the best and truthful comments on this site in a long time. well thought out.

      • Pete Mazzaccaro says:

        I think that’s probably right, CPfeif. A lot of that — the organization behind the organization — is difficult for us to see. We’re not doing business with the Union on a regular basis beyond buying some tickets. Perhaps that will bear fruit down the line. My bet is that Stewart’s contribution to that is not going to be any more clear then than it is now.

  6. Season ticket renewals start shortly after Earnie’s departure. They need to show those that are on the fence for next season that there is a plan and a reason to redoop.

  7. Don’t need to retread Hackworth. Nice guy but let’s move forward. We all wanted, and still want, for this franchise to be brought to the next level by Stewart. It has not happened. That has tempered expectations.

  8. Roger Allaway says:

    Is Caleb Porter in the conversation for this opening? Maybe he’s not interested in moving from the sideline to the front office, but if he is interested, is he worth looking at?

    • This is a VERY interesting thought. He could start out much like Vermes did with KC. Then in a year or two if on field results aren’t there, he can take on the mantle of Coach as well. He could become the Union’s equivalent to Berhalter.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I doubt he’d move to a job like this. I think he still wants to coach. He’s probably waiting until Sigi Schmid gets fired with the Galaxy, or something like that.

  9. OneManWolfpack says:

    I was pleasantly surprised (aka – SHOCKED) when the Union hired ES. I really hope I am pleasantly surprised again. I’d love to see Curtis. I wouldn’t even mind Hack, but I don’t like his familiarity with the organization. Come on Union, do that rare thing where you surprise us all and make the right move.

    • Very often does the apparent right move actually become the right move in terms of coaches or GMs. Just look at the Eagles.

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