Interview

PSP talks with Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart

PhillySoccerPage spoke with Philadelphia Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart about his plans for the club, how he interacts with coaches and players, and his emphasis on finding and developing top American talent. 

Philly Soccer Page: What kind of preparations did you make for this role? Is coming to MLS different than moving between Dutch clubs?

Earnie Stewart: No, not much different. Obviously every club has their own culture and the way they go about their business. So you get a lot of background information on what’s going on and where the club is. In the discussions that I had, those were the discussions. But the role itself — here it’s called Sporting Director, in Europe it’s called Technical Director or Director of Football Affairs — pretty much the responsibilities are the same in Europe as they are here.

PSP: When a club brings in a new sporting or technical director, it’s a signal that they want to move in a new direction. And you’ve talked about that, about having a different philosophy that focuses on finding those little advantages. But how do you  implement a philosophy like that? What do you actually say and do with people who are already at the club to communicate what you want done now?

ES: It’s very important… I don’t have all the answers to everything, but I can ask a lot of questions once we go down that road. So I have my philosophy, I have my idea about how soccer should be played and the way it should be done when it comes to working every day and reaching your goals that you want to reach. But more important is that everybody has a say in. A lot of times a sporting director comes in and says this is the way.

My philosophy is, you have to embrace this, ‘It’s not my idea, it’s not Earnie Stewart’s vision and the way they want to go. But I act to the culture of the club and the direction that they want to go and facilitate with that. In the end, it’s about getting a good group of people together, and that’s what we have over here. And talking about football and what it takes to win games with the Philadelphia Union, with the culture that they have.

PSP: I read an interview from 2012 that said you wouldn’t be going back to MLS any time soon because of all the quirks of MLS and the ways to keep parity. And now here you are. Did anything in particular change?

ES: In 2012, my kids were at a certain age that I thought it would be difficult to do. I can’t say that that situation has changed a great deal. My family situation is that they’re both 3 years older. For them, it’s not the ideal situation for them to leave school. So more to do with that and not… my ambition has always been to come back to the United States and mean something to US soccer, and now for the Philadelphia Union in particular.

I’ve said this a couple of times too, times when a moment comes by that just feels right and it feels good. And the discussions that I had, I didn’t go into them with the idea, ‘This is absolutely going to happen.’ But when I came out of those discussions with Jay and with Richie, the thought that they had about the Philadelphia Union, I was pretty set that this is what I wanted to do. Not so much to do with what I wanted to see in MLS, because I wanted to contribute and be a part of that at one point in my life, and it came a little bit sooner than I thought at first, but I’m happy to be here.

PSP: There’s been a ton of turnover in Philly, and there was a ton of head coaching turnover during your time at AZ for a wide variety of reasons. Has going through coaching searches given you a better idea of what you want to see in a coach, and how you want to be able to interact with a coach. What do you look for in a coach now that maybe you didn’t look for five years ago?

ES: It’s not that I look for something different, that means I would have changed in the period. Obviously, when I first started, you’re used to the way it works at a certain club. And over the years, you develop the way you look at different coaches. I’m very high on coaches that like to develop their players, because if you can develop them as individuals, then you can develop as a team and get results as a team. So I’m very high on that, and that accounts, one, for the players, and two, for the staff members that we have. They and myself, we need to develop every single day. We can’t expect that from our players, but if we don’t get up to par and up to speed with what’s happening in the football world, it’s not going to be good.

So what I look for in a coach is somebody that’s open, somebody that’s honest, somebody that dares to let other influences to help him guide a team in the future. I think Jim is one of those people who is very open about everything. He’s very honest, he’s honest about what’s happening. First and foremost, he’s an ex-soccer player, he knows the ropes, he’s a learning coach, but is willing to learn. All together, that’s what I’ve learned over the years, especially in Europe, is that coaches usually only go their own way, and the other way is the highway. And you have to be open to new things. And I believe Jim is a great fit for the Philadelphia Union.

PSP: You’ve been around soccer a long time, and you’ve probably seen more young players develop poorly than develop into first team contributors. What do you think are the important things that impact whether a young player will make that breakthrough from the fringes into the first eleven?

ES: It always comes down to a certain desire. What do you want in life and who do you want to be, and where do you want to go to? If players have that pretty clear for themselves and they stick to that, chances are that it’s going to go fairly well. And there are things that come about. Whether it’s money or opportunity somewhere else, at another club. At a big club. And they make choices, maybe sometimes it’s money reasons, maybe sometimes it’s another club, but you have to look at: Where can I play? Where can I get minutes? And where can I develop myself before you get to that other stuff.

And it’s easy to say, but at the same time, once that train comes by, kids make certain choices in life. And not necessarily the best choice that there is for their career long-term. Maybe short-term, because it gives you something. And that’s sometimes the mistakes that are made. And a lot of times players that do have that idea of how they want to develop themselves, and it’s important that they make those minutes in practice and in games at a club where you can play regularly. Those kids are usually up a step sooner than others.

PSP: It’s sort of ironic that bringing you on board was supposed to be this critical moment and the impetus for these major changes the club was going to be going through. And you’ve come in and basically said that this is going to be a long, slow process. And we’re going to do the things to create sustainable success. When you’re communicating, doing these types of interviews, what do you want fans to get out of them? Because it seems like you’ve been emphasizing the steadiness of the process, and very careful to say that the results will come, but maybe not immediately.

ES: It’s not that I’m trying to hide behind anything, but also this is an awkward situation because I’m coming in in an offseason. So you can imagine that people have their time too, so it’d be kinda weird for me to go into interviews and say a lot of things that my staff and players haven’t heard from me first. So I’m very careful in that, that I’m careful in my messaging. But I give an overall view of how I view soccer.

You know, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I’m not saying that success is going to be very, very far down the road, and that winning is far down the road, but on the other hand I want to make sure that we do put the processes we have, that we’re gearing up towards, that we do put that into perspective and into the right set of mind here at the Philadelphia Union, and that everybody believes in that. Because then you’ll go very far.

PSP: You mentioned arriving in the offseason, and that can be strange because you arrive and then no soccer is played for a while. And last offseason, the Union plugged some holes at the end of the offseason with some loans. And now you get to this offseason and the guys you brought in on loan may or may not be back. So it’s a tough way to build long term success. Do you think that it’s important to get offseason dealings done early? Or are you committed to taking as long as it takes to get the right player?

ES: Pretty much the last part. Obviously, short term and long term, not necessarily and in this situation going together. So you have to make sure you don’t tie yourself in to long term deals where you can’t make choices in the future. That’s what we’re gearing up to, but it is one of my things that the choices that you make: Don’t panic. Make sure the scouting that you do, it’s in the right manner. Bring the players in, talk to them, look into their eyes, see what their ambitions are, what kind of person they are, do they want to work because it is a job in the end. And I hope they have a lot of fun doing that job, like I did in my career, but you have to make sure you don’t jump from one place to the other.

Hopefully next year we have everything in place that things can get done very quickly because we’ve done all our homework.

PSP: In the past, the Union have relied on very versatile players. Think guys like Le Toux or Wenger, the prototype would be Maurice Edu. Guys who can play multiple positions and end up getting moved around quite a bit. At some point, the question is whether you want players who are versatile and can play all over the field, or do you want players that: You have a system, you bring them in, and they learn that role very, very well?

ES: Exactly. That second part of what you said is my philosophy. Obviously, it’s good to have a couple of players that are very versatile. But if you have specialists in every area of your field, preferably two, that’s the best way to go.

So that’s one thing I can say, we’re working towards a system we’re going to play in, and I believe you have to go out and every single day in your job and work to perfect that system you have. And try to make the players that are in certain positions, make them specialists. Because they feel more comfortable there. The roles and responsibilities they have, the organization that they have, will make an individual a lot better. And he can bring out his specialities at the same time because he doesn’t have to think about the new role that he has for this game or last game.

PSP: Every player goes through bouts of high confidence and low confidence. Is that something that you deal with in an administrative role as well?

ES: Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be a quick turnover. Every person is different that comes in. That’s why those are the discussions that you have before, and making sure that a player when he comes in knows his roles and responsibilities.

Every person reacts different when it comes to stress levels. You have to give that a period of time so people can develop. And then at some point, you have to make choices too. Because if you see things down the line that don’t work, you have to try to fix it, and if it can’t be fixed, you have to make decisions on that. That’s just part of the process there is, and the most important thing is that we do our homework very well and make as few mistakes as possible.

PSP: The Union were reportedly pursuing Alejandro Bedoya during the last transfer window. Is that something you look for, national team experience? Does that make a difference when you’re looking for players?

ES: You have your system, you have your roles and responsibilities, and you try to find the right fit. The national team is something that is a great honor, and I got to play a certain number of games for them. And you take into account that those players are going to miss three or four games, that is what it is. But if you have the opportunity to bring good players in, that fit the way we want to play and the roles and responsibilities within that system, that’s no problem for me at all.

PSP: So the opportunity to bring someone in: All things equal, there are two wingers, one plays for the US national team and one doesn’t, is that something you pay attention to? Do you say, ‘You know what, we want guys from the national team playing here for the Union’?

ES: Let me not put it as national team players, but as American players. I do believe that at Philadelphia Union we want to know what’s in our backyard. What I mean by backyard is that I want to come here and I want to mean something for US soccer. That means I’m making sure players develop.

Yes, if they play for the national team, that’s a plus. But hopefully I’ll be bringing a lot of players over here that haven’t necessarily been on the national team but at some point will make the national team. That means we’ve done our job in the right way, in the right manner, and Philadelphia Union has profited from that.

PSP: Are there any specific things you look at, based on your time in Europe, and say, ‘These are the things we need to work on in the youth setup, to instill this philosophy starting with the youth side of it’?

ES: Yeah, just having the idea of what you are as a club and what you want to go to. And just sitting down with players individually and seeing what their ambitions are and where they want to go to. And make them owner of their own personal development.

If you can get that done, and that’s something I’ve seen in the last years I’ve had this job, is that it makes it so much stronger because now you’re together with a player discussing his strategy and his ideal situation for how his career will be. And if he wants to reach those certain goals and ambitions that he has, he has to do certain things for that. He needs Philadelphia Union with the facilities and coaches to reach his goals. And if you both become owner of a career, you’re in very good shape.

PSP: Was there a moment in your career where that happened to you, or you saw it happen with someone else, and you made that connection that you had to refocus your career and make directed change?

ES: I was a right outside winger in Holland, and I fought against that every single day because I wanted to be a striker. I worked very hard in my career to get where I wanted to be. So after practice if I do extra practices, I’d be shooting balls from the eighteen yard box rather than whipping balls in from the side. And if somebody would’ve sat me down at some point and talked about my career and where I thought I needed to be and what would be good, and what attributes I had, then I probably would have come to the conclusion that the outside winger role suits me better than a center forward role, where you need to be 6’3″ or 6’4″ to make sure you can head balls in.

I didn’t have that guidance until I got one coach who just sat me down and talked to me about my career, and who I was, and what my qualities were and what position that filled out. And that was Henk Ten Cate. And once he did that, I was clear. And after that I would go after practice to the side and whip balls in, and actually, I got to like it very much. Maybe it would have been easier to do it a little sooner, but it is what it is.

PSP: If someone in Holland didn’t know about your driving ambition to influence US soccer and you said to them, ‘I’m leaving Holland to join a MLS club’ how would they react? How is MLS viewed there?

ES: First, it comes back to sports. Everybody looks to the United States as a sports culture that you want to be a part of. If you see how people in Europe talk about the new markets in the world, they talk about China, they talk about India, but they also talk about the United States. So that means there is a different look at MLS and the clubs that there are, the soccer specific stadiums that there are, the talent that is there. The US national team has done well on occasions, it’s something new, it’s a new market. And people look at it a different way.

And [AZ] knew about my ambitions. I was never secretive of those, that that was something I would always want. So this would not have come as a shock to people who have read things and have read interviews about me and my ambitions. So I don’t have to worry about that too much. But I’m pretty sure everybody thinks this, for me, was a good choice.

PSP: Are you going to look to Holland for players that could be a good fit for MLS? It hasn’t been the most generative pipeline in the past, so does this fall under that notion of an area you can exploit to the Union’s advantage?

ES: Not specifically only Holland, but I do have to, when it comes to scouting and comes to players, where I’ve been for the last couple of years, that’s where my concentration was when it comes to players and how I see players.

The player that AZ wanted back then is different than what the Philadelphia Union want. It’s a different playing style, it’s a different culture. The fans identify with their players in a different way. But it is a fact that if you know players over there, it might make things easier. So I use that, and together with Chris and with Jim, we talk about players and the style that we want to play, and those players are in the mix too.

PSP: You’ve talked about that idea of culture, or DNA, before. Is that something you figure out with Jim and Chris? With the whole organization? Is it something you get a sense of when you’ve lived in Philadelphia for a while?

ES: All of the above. Foremost, it’s something that I’ve discussed first with the ownership. Who they want to be. I do all kinds of things, speak to different people, and that’s what the process that we’re having right now is speaking to. Everybody in the club to get a good idea of who we are as a club, what we stand for. Also, hearing from different people gives me direction of what the fans want to identify with. What kind of football we want to play that puts people in the stands and people can feel excited about.

PSP: How do you as a technical director interact with fans in Holland? And are there any new ways that you as a sporting director here, will try to interact with fans that might not be the traditional ways its been done?

ES: I guess it works the same way here as anywhere else. You want to give access to the information that you can give at that moment. It’s always difficult because a lot of times, especially in Europe, all they want to hear about is which player are you going to sign. For transfer reasons and for negotiation reasons, it doesn’t make much sense to make another team a lot smarter than they already are. So that sometimes is difficult. But when it comes to direction and where you want to go, that’s no problem at all. And that’s something that we’ve already discussed a little bit over here, but we’re going to give that some thought on how we can manage and do that.

PSP: Thanks for talking, Earnie.

25 Comments

  1. Great stuff, as usual from this site

  2. This is special stuff and I wish I could express my gratitude sufficiently. I didn’t pay a cent while sitting here in wide eyed wonderment reading first had about this thinking, some of which has been reiterated numerous times the last ten days, and some of which is fresh and new versatile information. Truly excellent work PSP.
    .
    Now for the nuts and bolts– DEVELOPMENT… the next three years are going to tell us everything we need to know about this team’s mid term to long term future- from building a sustainable team right now to watching as players begin matriculating to the first team- finding a voice on the field. There is a huge development gap in our youth generally and a huge development gap in our young men 18-22 specifically… whether professional or not.
    .
    The club has to date done a rather poor job developing players wether HG or college grads but that was an infrastructure and philosophy problem… there hasn’t been many if any kids that I’ve sat and said, ‘man that boy is getting better and better or wow look at his growth.’ I expect full well this is going to change.
    .
    The teams that bridge these gaps most successfully…building players with a specificity to the club system and style of play will have lasting success and lasting sources of revenue and income… all the while proving that you do not have to sign mercenaries in the 9 and 7 4 or 10 position as an example to win… as we all see, the price of doing business in world football and other professional sports is astronomical and quite often without lasting gratification.
    .
    I need to know that your kid, my kid, my club player recommended for the Futures or Juniors… the special player I see at YSC on a thursday evening or the slight and near pubescent on the 12s Academy has a fighting chance to MAXIMIZE every ounce of his potential. Every ounce. That our players have the best chance to grow in a system of play that is highly technical and emerging-ly intelligent.
    .
    I pray the Vision, Plan and Philosophy arguments will no longer merit such attention — that these core values our Sporting Director mentioned are safely in place and we can begin to see their fruition throughout the whole system.
    .
    Development. The culture of clever. World Class quality. Absolutely the essential prime movers going forward. Process and Progress.
    .
    Excellent interview Adam Cann. Thank you.

  3. Tough posting this at 6 on a Friday afternoon, but agree with Mark, nice to get any info we can from the new head man. Nice work Adam. Nothing too specific here but I liked his look at what he thinks makes a successful coach. And in that sense I can see why he brought Curtin back- no question he’s shown himself to be honest (and direct) and open to learning. Seems like a good base to start with to me. Just have to hope we can add ‘capable of learning quickly’ to the list next year. Also, even though some have said they don’t like the idea of holding back some funds for moves down the road, I’m on board there too. Got tired of hearing we can’t do anything until we move Valdes, or dump Mbohli, or Adu, or…

    • Funny I actually appreciate the late entry… gives me something to chew on over the weekend.
      .
      I also agree hole heartedly regarding the manager… I really hope JC understands the science of coaching and has a high uptake for information…cause I have zero doubt about his artistic fortitude in connecting with players.
      .
      For me it is all about his in game IQ and ability to maneuver around the style of play we are implementing.
      .

      • Very true- it’s usually pretty dead here on weekends. Curtin definitely seems like a guy a player would like to play for, and not because he runs a ‘country club’ either. But as you say, that is only one part of what is needed- let’s hope he develops.

    • I agree and that has been my argument for keeping Curtin on.
      .
      He seems to have the intangibles you look for in a good coach, such as keeping a locker room together in hard times, but comes up a little short on things like substitutions, in-game/halftime adjustments and so on. The good news is that those types of things can be gained with experience and an open mind.
      .
      One thing that should be done, however, is hunting down and hiring an experienced assistant to help him. Maybe Earnie knows someone?

  4. James Lockerbie says:

    Wow! Awesome interview Mr. Cann. Great questions and I would say you got real, honest answers.

  5. Sieve!¡!¡! says:

    If he builds the entire team in the philly tough mode. I’m out.

  6. The Little Fish says:

    Excellent Read. Thanks PSP. Great job Adam Cann! Coach plays his cards very close to the vest. I hope he does find some under the radar Dutch talent though. I was pleasantly surprised that he wants specialists and not just versatile all-around guys like Wenger. So far I’m enjoying the ride. Go Union…!!!

  7. Fantastic interview, Adam. There are so many good tidbits in here. I didn’t know that story about Henk Ten Cate (sort of reminds me of Lahoud’s admission earlier this season that he hadn’t accepted his role as a defensive midfielder up until now).

    It sounds like we’re gong to need to be patient as Stewart sounds like he’s going to be very deliberate with his moves. This is fine with me as long as I feel like we’re moving forward and making progress. He also sounds like he really likes Curtin as his manager which is good. I think with the right backing, Curtin can be a very good manager in MLS.

  8. Great interview. Good topical questions that needed to be asked. again great soccer interview. I am truly pulling for Mr. Earnie Stewart!

  9. James Lockerbie says:

    I would be remiss not to Thank you Adam Cann, that was a lot of typing to get that all down in one article. Thank you Sir!

  10. we are lucky as a fan base to have this website, i doubt any other city in mls has a news and content source as good as this

  11. Agreed. Famtastic work, guys!

  12. I guess Luis Suarez cant play for the Union at center forward. He is not 6-2 or 6-3. Too small to head in goals against River

  13. Very little was said here if you ask me and I am fine with that. Yes I get it lets not give anything away about the style of play, speak of developing players, its all good. My worry though is this build towards the future and get specialists. We have a roster of 13 guys most who were not the most successful starters last year. We have 4 I think players on BSFC. That means you need 15 for the first team and 24 – 30 for the BSFC, I guess not sure of their roster size. So what I want to know is what are you doing to get these players and where are they coming from? You cann’t just develop 45 guys overnight to fill out a roster. Lets at least have an inkling of possible signings. I mean the Union missed out on having a backline of beitashour moor marquez ashe with backups of Klute and Gaddis. I get that it is early and I don’t think the international window is open yet. But I am getting the feeling that the Union are already missing out on a lot of cheap available talent.

    • lets not get too giddy like kids on christmas eve. Stewart has his prejudices and faults. Like the implication that a coach has to have been a player in order to be effective. Beware of this type of narrow thinking. enthusism with a healthy dose of skepticism is in oreder.

      • One eye on hope one eye on observation.
        .
        I do think football lends to the ‘better’ coaches having played…while not a rule, I do think it is a pretty solid generalization.
        .

      • yeah you’re right. I should have said that the level of performance as a player has no bearing on the ability to coach later on.

      • Solid.
        .
        I tend to think the best coaches are those that play or played at a fairly high level but were not talented/skilled enough to succeed and recognized the other avenue to football importance… coaching.
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        The player student coach. Unless you are Diego Simeone.

    • When talking numbers keep in mind that those players that are 20-28 on the Union depth chart will likely be “loaned” on a week to week basis to Steel so they will not really need a filled out roster.
      .
      I imagine that at least 3-5 players under contract with the Union will pretty much only see time with Steel.

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