A View from Afar / Commentary

On Earnie Stewart, Octavio Zambrano, Shep Messing and the Union GM search

If you were scouring the world looking for the ideal general manager for an MLS club, you couldn’t come up with many names that look better on paper than Earnie Stewart.

The fact that his name is in the mix for Philadelphia Union’s sporting director job might strike many Union fans as a classic case of too good to be true. Stewart has ties to the Union management team, overlapping with Union staffers Mike Sorber and Chris Albright on the U.S. National Team, for example. But it’s still a surprising earthquake of club news.

Stewart has the cache to dictate what he wants, because any MLS club should view him as an ideal hire for a sporting director/general manager. So he could end up coming in with a title of team president, head of all soccer operations, or some other title or indication that clearly indicates he is the man in complete control of running the soccer side of the club.

Stewart isn’t just a big name. He has a track record of successfully running a proven club exactly the way Union principal owner Jay Sugarman wants it run.

Stewart’s track record: Profitable transfers, success on the field

Stewart joined Dutch club AZ Alkmaar in 2010, a year after financial problems hit the club and led to a budget reduction from 40 to 25 million euros. The club still finished in 4th place that first year, and followed up with finishes of 4th, 10th, 8th and 3rd last season. They currently sit in 10th place. During that time, the team went through five different managers (four, if you eliminate the one interim manager).

Stewart basically played Moneyball each of those years, buying low, selling high, and identifying overlooked and undervalued assets.

This past summer, Stewart sold striker Aron Johanson, winger Steven Berghuis, and center midfielder Nemanja Gudelj for a combined 11.69 million euros, according to Transfermarkt.com. Alkmaar had paid a reported 4.05 million euros to acquire them, all within the prior three years, meaning the club sold them at a profit of more than 7 million euros. Meanwhile, the club paid just 2.24 million euros for new players.

The activity was consistent with prior seasons, when his most successful move was buying American striker Jozy Altidore, according to Transfermarkt, 1.5 million euros in 2011 (although it’s been reported elsewhere as a free transfer) and selling him two years later for 10 million euros.

AZ Alkmaar transfer activity, 2010-2015

Source: Transfermarkt. Figures are in millions of euros.
SeasonTotal paymentsTotal revenuesNet profit
2012-133.478.05 4.58

Each year, Alkmaar sold off key players and replaced them with cheaper acquisitions, reaping a net profit during Stewart’s tenure of over 40 million euros, or about $45 million, according to Transfermarkt. Despite that and cycling through four different managers, the club remained fairly stable and successful, finishing in the Dutch Eredivisie’s top four in three out of Stewart’s five full seasons with the club.

On the whole, it shows good scouting and player identification, combined with smart financial management.

Further, he builds teams that generally play attacking soccer. That should over time result in a more dynamic, attractive product for fans to watch, but it may not bode well for current Union head coach Jim Curtin, a former center back who has talked openly about grinding out 1-0 wins. Expect Curtin to get next season to prove himself, regardless, as he could demonstrate more attacking inclination after a successful off-season in the transfer market, but don’t expect a long leash or be shocked if Stewart replaces Curtin this offseason either.

The question mark on Stewart would be how quickly he would learn the ins and outs of MLS personnel rules. They are complicated, and he has reportedly indicated a disinclination in the past to deal with that. But it’s not rocket science.

The game-changer: Post-Sakiewicz shifts

Stewart’s emergence is a game-changer. If hired, he would be a major sign that the Union are a team to be taken seriously in the post-Nick Sakiewicz era.

Speaking of game-changers, the search for a sporting director/general manager has definitely changed since Sakiewicz’s firing.

First off, Shep Messing is probably no longer involved as a consultant in the search. The New York Red Bulls television commentator had filled a consultant role for Sakiewicz and the Union in the sporting director search and was present during some of the interview process, including with former Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls coach Octavio Zambrano.

Second, Zambrano is no longer a front-runner for the job. Until this week, he was the only publicly known name among the three top candidates. Zambrano was (at least informally, if not formally) offered the job by Sakiewicz. Now, he looks much less likely to get the job, something that he even recognizes — he praised Stewart as a valid candidate — at least in part because of his connection to Sakiewicz.

“At this point I am guilty by association, and there is nothing I can do about it,” Zambrano told me via email from Ecuador. “Nick was/is a friend, but that should not play into the decision making process when deciding about whom is the most capable person to perform such an important task.”

PSP readers may recall my Sept. 30 column on Zambrano. Go revisit it, because it has been updated with new information based on subsequent conversations with Zambrano and a bit more research of my own. Credit to Zambrano: He thoughtfully addressed every question mark about him — and you may recall, there were quite a few — and some stories are quite interesting. Even if he doesn’t get the Union job, he is continuing to pursue a return to MLS and could be in the mix for the head coach opening in Chicago.

Third, former VfB Stuttgart sporting director Fredi Bobic is also a finalist and has been in the mix for weeks, although we didn’t know his exact identity till recently. Stuttgart fired him after an unsuccessful stretch that culminated in one of those typical German football blame-flinging parties. It may well be that Bobic is a good candidate worth evaluating in this space, but 1,000 words into this column, let’s not waste any more words on him unless for some reason Stewart doesn’t get the job.

And if Stewart wants the job, it’s his for the taking.


  1. J in Section 125 says:

    The sooner they get this done the better. It is critical for the Union to put 2015 behind them and give fans reason to get excited for next year. This would be a good first step.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Yeah agreed. With the news now that Stewart is coming to the US, it seems very likely. It would be “so Union” if they didn’t get this done. So please, GET IT DONE.

  2. I’m a Union supporter.
    Please don’t tease me.
    I just can’t take any more.

  3. If I was Jim Curtin… this hire would not be comforting for me…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      His feet are on the ground, if a better coach arrives he’ll get out of the way. He would certainly be a candidate for Bethlehem Steel FC 2.

      • Agreed. My guess is that Earnie would give Jim at least the beginning of the season to prove himself. Having Sorber and Albright in his corner is a big plus, even if Jim’s current preferred style of play is a minus. You’d think that there would be a meeting of some pretty bright soccer minds, and they could all hopefully agree on a style of play. For me, if we can land Bedoya, I’d be immediately in favor of moving to a 3-5-2. Mo as the CB with Gaddis and Richie flanking him. Bedoya as the right OM, Fabihno as the left OM, Tranquilo, Nogs, and Lahoud (CDM) as the triangle in the middle. CJ and a TBD stud up front. Might be night, night time for Chaco if the U go this route.

      • VDS…that is too forward thinking for the MLS! I’m dying to see one club…any club, go to a 3-5-2, 5-3-2, or 3-4-3! It would actually say a whole lot about what the vision and plan are…..attack, attack, attack! Why not us!

  4. So someone who works for a rival club was consulting the Union in the search for a Sporting Director? That’s unbelievable even by Sak’s standards.

    Isn’t Messing still a player agent as well? That’s another huge conflict to this consulting assignment as well.


  5. Fat Uncle Phil from Urkel says:

    Perhaps the soccer gods will finally shine their light on us. But let’s be honest, we’re all expecting a good old fashioned Open Cup style disappointment.

    • James Lockerbie says:

      I think we all need to water board the Negadelphia out of us all for once and for all. Only I am not sure that would even work. I got a rabbits foot every finger and toe crossed and any other good luck charm you can think of hoping and praying this doesn’t land in the pile of Union almost!

    • Not many teams can call themselves a two-time defending US Open Cup finalist.
      Which leads to the question … was that sarcasm or not? 😉

  6. .
    I simply cannot have another season like this one…
    …a house filled with the acridity of feral urine and two dogs too many, bird excrement on today’s copy of the New York Post celebration of New York Mets lining the bottom of san old birdcage- the slough of dead snake skin wafting through the air.
    So go forth coach and players I command you to wake from your slumber… end this tenement of a season on the muted whole note trumpet sustain of Bill Conti’s, Philadelphia Morning; Rocky walking outside to stretch in the 28 degree predawn, the first of an arduous climb from the self defeat of his upbringing – knowing in his heart he is destined for so much more.
    Make no mistake, this Philadelphia Pathos I lament, over and over oh-so- often is yours to bare now too Union..you have inherited it… and I ask you to mercifully end this season on a high note. End it though as I can’t stand the sight of you any longer this season… but know in your heart you are so much more.
    then begin the hard hard work of climbing from the basement forevermore…. Ernie Stewart is a good start.
    …. Faithful to the End.

  7. Stewart is a no-brainer choice. I hope that he agrees to take the job.

    • Phil in Wlmington says:

      step two after this: get Jason Kreis. Rumor has it he might be on the way out in NYCFC. Can’t think of a better coach to bring in for what Philly needs to do: build excellence through having young/undervalued players buying into a system.

      • The same thing occurred to me, but I don’t think it will happen. I would put money on him coaching Seattle next year, unless the Sounders win the MLS Cup this year.

        Lagerwey is there, Schmid is on the hot seat, and Kreis considered Seattle before going to NYC — yes, even before Lagerwey was there. (I had a source very close to Kreis tell me this — and that he was going to NYC. At the time, the source also told me Kreis would go to NYC, well before it became public news, but the source had to stay anonymous and off the record, so I couldn’t report it.) Maybe Stewart could make Kreis consider Philly, but I’m betting on a Lagerwey-Kreis reunion in Seattle.

      • Well if Kreis does go to Seattle, would anyone be apposed to Schmid? Curtain vs. Schmid. Seems like no contest to me.

      • As long as Sigi is banned from ever wearing Curtin’s go-to short pants during training sessions.

      • So glad I will never see either of these two images. My brain doesn’t thank you for putting ideas in it.

      • My top 2 choices as a potential replacement do not include Schmid. He’s not in the top 5 either.

      • Hmmmm….Patrick Viera…..or Jason Kreis…….tough one. What it says is NYCFC isn’t screwing around. Man City players will be coming over too……especially if one of their youth coaches is captaining the ship……

  8. Funny Dan, when I read the updated version of the Zambrano piece, I’m reminded of a contributor here that called you out regarding your questionable journalism skills.
    Seems to me an apology could be due.

  9. Just read the updated Zambrano post. Well done, it added some helpful perspective to it.

  10. This Stewart hiring needs to happen. This guy seems perfect for the way the Union have stated they want to run the team. My message to Chairman Jay, if you want us to believe you care about winning make this happen whatever the cost.

  11. I’m personally a little unsettled by the apparent tendency to, as soon as you can identify a valuable asset, turn around and sell it at a profit ASAP. How does that build a solid foundation or support a relationship with the community? I understand that winning at any cost sounds good to many fans, but let’s not be blinded to the trade-offs we might be making.

    • In that long interview with him that was linked here yesterday, he said he valued locker room chemistry, too. Could just be PR, but it’s what he said.

      I think being quick to sell high would be a must for any MLS club. You definitely want to build culture and stability, but you don’t want to be caught with an old roster and young players that stall in the pipeline. And, none of us will mind if it means more wins and trips to the playoffs.

    • I can certainly understand your feelings towards it, but that is the essence of moneyball. It’s playing the stock market with players with the overall point of buying when you deem the actual value of the player to be below what your perceived value for that player is, and selling when the value of your player is perceived to be at its peak (not merely the first moment you can make a profit). There is no room for loyalty here, players are merely values on a sheet of paper. Of course, in the grand scheme of things certain variables may have to be taken into consideration, such as cost of fan support if a fan-favorite is sold.

    • That’s the nature of AZ, not Stewart. He has to play Moneyball for profit due to financial straits of the club. I’m sure given his druthers he’d like to keep some of those assets.

      Also, I think we need to be honest about the “talent” on the 19th place Union. Ain’t a whole lot of profitability on the roster. The tendency has been to cut losses, not sell for profit. If they can get someone to take one of these stiffs off the payroll the FO considers it a win.

    • I’m not totally sure I understand your question or your unsettled feeling, but I suspect others may be reading this post with similar questions, so here goes:
      Clubs in Europe are run like businesses, for the most part. MLS is a single entity structure, so things are slightly different here.
      In Europe, it’s considered good to bring in young players for not much money, have them play very well, and sell them for much more money. This is considered a good thing by pretty much everyone involved. Buy low, sell high. Over time, the club earns money, is able to pay more for players, and continues to enjoy success. The community enjoys a winning football team, there’s your foundation. The relationship with the community is cemented by good football, a good matchday experience, and likely some charitable activities. The fact that very talented players move on to bigger clubs rarely harms the relationship with the community; everyone understands.
      How this very capitalist approach translates to revenue-sharing-franchise-model MLS is a big topic and too big for me to answer. Ask someone who understands allocation money.
      I do not agree with your characterization of “profit ASAP,” as the approach typically takes years. Three years, the example given in the case of AZ, does not seem like ASAP to me.
      I don’t understand why you think this approach equates to “winning at any cost,” because it is actually kind of the opposite of that.
      TL;DR? Vote for Earnie

    • Very good point, Chris, although I wouldn’t characterize it as profit ASAP but rather prudent profit when the iron was hot and the values were highest. Also good points from the people who responded. The one thing I’ll add is that, admittedly, I focused on that point and excluded some others I could have made. I think he moved players on when they wanted to move on, not beforehand. Like most Americans, I followed Alkmaar only insofar as their American connection went, but it seems to me that the moves were always beneficial both to the club and the individual players. (Not that Altidore should have gone to Sunderland, but it’s what he wanted.)

    • I’d rather have an SD that was willing to move on from a player before that players stock has dropped. Ruin Tomorrow anyone? Does not Stewart’s selling of Jozy now look like highway robbery? If anything is points to Stewart’s ability to judge talent, or lack there of.

  12. Ultimately, I think moving players at that rate is fine. If you have found viable options to fill in the position then selling a player does not become a problem. It also helps those younger players develop. This seems to be something typical at AZ and other European teams. Yes you move players to get more money, but not until you have the replacement in place. It makes dealing with losing a particular player that much easier. The problem with the Union has been when players have been sent packing/ traded/ sold/ loaned etc. there is never a viable option waiting and ready in the window. For example Okugo, Jack Mac, McMath. I’m not saying these were the be all and end all great players on the team, but there was turmoil and indecision on who to replace them with in each of the position causing problems down the spine of the team. Having someone like Stewart come in who can identify the right players is key. Also whether or not Curtin is manager to me does not matter however lets not have turmoil during the season. If Stewart takes the job and wants a new manager pull the trigger now before the season or let Curtin have the season. I’m tired as a fan of these mid season coaching changes and just hiring the interim manager. Don’t want to see that anymore this team needs more stability than that in the coaching staff.

    • I disagree with this. I equate it to a practice vs a game situation. All of us have been in the situation (or seen the situation) where a player can be great in practice and then disappear in the game, continuously. I have no problem giving Jim a chance in Earnie’s vision and then replacing him if Earnie feels that he’s not the right guy to lead the team forward. But to just replace Jim in the off-season for stability’s sake makes no sense. In fact, it creates more instability than anything else. If Earnie likes what he hears when he takes over, you give Jim the shot. And then Earnie feels like Jim isn’t doing the job…whether it be in March, April, May, or October, that’s when you make a change. Not before or after.

      • The only way this works is if you have someone else in place for the job. Why go through another season with an interim manager in above his head to only get hired after having half a good season to again next year find out he is in above his head. This happened with Hack and I feel the same with Curtin. They each have their strong points, but they are not the managers this team needs. Hack was good at identifying talent and players that fit together, but not coaching. I think Curtin is a good assistant/ developmental coach as he sticks with players when struggling via what we saw with Wenger (sometimes to long, however I could see this working in USL). This gives players a chance to get out of their own head. But neither of these skills translate to strong managers in MLS. The tactical acumen of both Hack and Curtin just wasn’t and isn’t there. I mean firing Curtin mid year means Sober takes over does anyone feel confident that he is ready to coach the team. Personally I would rather a strong manager of the SD choice come in from the beginning and establish a solid hold on the organization and first team. Jim is in over his head and we all have seen that for the whole season and last season (he gets out coached time after time). By no means do I think they should get rid of him overall, but it is the same as saying things like “hey Le Toux is a fan favorite he should always start”, but we all know there are better players out there who could take his position.

      • I don’t think you can say one way or another that Jim is / was over his head. The roster is garbage. They have 5, maybe 6 MLS starters on this team. Until mid-August, they had the worst GK situation in the league. They have no depth. Sorry, I’m not buying it. Let’s see Bedoya here as an outside MF with a strong goal scorer to complement CJ up top. 3-5-2 with some talent…then, a true evaluation can be made. But having to start guys like Ethan White, Fabihno at LB, Wenger, Pfeffer, Brian Carroll repeatedly…dude, Bruce Arena isn’t winning with that roster. And, there was no other formation than a 4-2-3-1 that we could have played this year because (a) we didn’t have any goal scorers, (b) our GK was incredibly weak, (c) our outside MF (before the last month of Barnetta) was the worst in the league, and (d) our top guys (Edu, Nogs, Marquez, CJ) were hurt for a good deal of the season.

      • I’d say there was plenty of evidence to say he was over his head. First off how long did he play Wenger when it was clear the kid was not with it. Plus the roster is not going to change that much from what he had so if he can’t win with what he had time to move on. A 4-2-3-1 was not the only option actually most of the season this team was setup to play a 4-4-2 and two flat lines of 4 prob would have produced better defense if they worked together since the 4-2-3-1 isolated the outside backs pulling the center backs out of position causing holes. And as you said our wing play was none existent so why play with wingers that is when you need to change formation. We’ve never had clear goal scorers on this team so that is nothing new. Edu wasn’t hurt till the end of the season marquez was out I think 4 games all season nogs as well. Any team is going to have injuries it is the coaches job to know how to adjust and cover for that. Bedoya is not saving this team and people need to understand that first. The team needs a full defensive 4. Another striker. A CDM and at least two outside MF. They need a coach who understands tactics and isn’t afraid to change things up when they don’t work. They need someone who can also adjust quick on the fly not wait until the 75 minute to try to change the game. A lot of work needs to be done.

      • There is no evidence that Curtin is a top flight manager. As for instability, well, staying this course doesn’t seem wise and if the roster will be turned over I’d rather it was with a new manager at the helm.

      • Evidence – sitting Chaco in opener, late & poor subs, saying “1-0” but delivering very poor “GD,” this fiasco in NJ last SU, etc. is contrary. But Big Ern would be smart to let Curtin stay and then go if the U start poorly in ’16. And I hope he stays, if he changes. And I hope for Big Ern!

      • I do believe he’ll adjust when given a more complete, deeper roster. I think the counterattacking, gut out 1-0 wins quotes were a reaction to knowing his team would be outmanned and outgunned often. I’m not convinced that’s his preference.

      • It may not be your preference, but as a manager you have to work with what you have. Although can’t say this team gutted out many 1-0 wins so regardless of what he wanted that was just not the right way to go with things. I mean if they keep Curtin as manager fine, but I would just rather get a little more stability in the coaching staff.

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