A View from Afar / Analysis

Stewart’s system starts to show results

Photo courtesy of Stone Sports Management

Earnie Stewart has begun demonstrating a capability for bringing in quality players from abroad, at least on paper.

Last week’s acquisition of attacking midfielder Roland Alberg marked the first time Stewart mined his Dutch Eredivisie contacts for a transfer from his old stomping grounds. Alberg, 25, played in the youth system of Stewart’s former club, AZ Alkmaar, before spending the last four seasons with ADO Den Haag.

Alberg likely slots in with the army of attacking midfielders that Stewart has been collecting. In Holland, the right-footed attacker generally played as an attacking left midfielder or a center midfielder, which means he offers some flexibility. In the Union’s first exhibition match against Jacksonville, he played the No. 8 role, with Vincent Nogueira dropping off from his usual spot there to fill a No. 6 defensive midfielder spot. Where Alberg plays remains to be seen, but he certainly ups the overall talent level in midfield.

His signing marks the first significant European signing by Stewart, but he almost certainly won’t be the last. Against Jacksonville, the Union trotted out some very interesting trialists, and that move was followed up by reports that goalkeeper Matt Jones will be moving from Portugal top tier side Belensenses to join the Union as a backup to Andre Blake.

A systematic change in how new players are drawn

All told, the names say a lot about the quality that Stewart may be able to draw. It’s not like the Union have never brought in quality European imports before. Vincent Nogueira and Tranquillo Barnetta are testament to that, as was Fernando Aristeguieta, despite his injury problems.

The difference is that those moves largely had their seeds in one-off personal relationships that may not always bear fruit. Barnetta was a former teammate of new Union goalkeeping coach Oka Nikolov, who spent half the 2013 season with the Union as a player. Aristeguieta arrived thanks in part to his connection with former Union player Alejandro Moreno, a former teammate of Aristeguieta’s on the Venezuelan national team. As for Nogueira, he was simply a unique and underrated player who had interest in playing in the United States, and the Union adeptly seized on that opportunity to acquire him. (Cristian Maidana is, however, an example of the Union finding quality imports through more systematic means, albeit from South America as opposed to the aforementioned European examples.)

Stewart’s approach looks very different so far, although only time will reveal that in the end. Rather than drawing players via these one-off personal connections, Stewart’s acquisitions appear to be more systematic networking and scouting finds. (Edit: Great observation by PSP reader Dan C, that two of the signings have the same agent, which indicates that despite the aforementioned points, relationships still matter.)

A look at the new signings and trialists from abroad
  • Conceicao arrived on loan via the Brazilian football factory Trombense, which exists primarily to collect revenue by acquiring players’ rights and loaning them out to impoverished clubs in Brazil and around the world. They are a known entity that one can go back to repeatedly if so desired.
  • Alberg arrives due to Stewart’s knowledge of and connections within the Dutch league.
  • Jones is an English national who played college ball in America and likely will not count as an international player for roster purposes once his move to the Union is finalized. Basically, this is almost the equivalent of tracking American players overseas. Jones had been starting for Belensenses until January 2015, when he fell out of favor, and eventually went on loan to Tondela, a small Portuguese club recently promoted to the top tier. An injury wrecked that loan, and he returned to Belensenses before apparently departing now for MLS. He could start for some MLS clubs and will likely get plenty of action due to Andre Blake’s international absences.
  • Right winger Ilsinho is in camp as a trialist. His last club was Shakhtar Donetsk, and he is one of the world’s most valuable players currently out of contract, according to Transfermarkt.com. He recorded seven goals and 10 assists over the last three seasons as a part-timer with Shakhtar but has been out of contract since the summer.
  • Striker and fellow trialist Moussa Maâzou had finally settled in with a club and was second in the Portuguese first tier in goals last year when he was sold to a Chinese club. Much like Cristian Maidana had, he had gotten caught in the ringer of signing for a big club in Moscow, only to get loaned out year after year to a variety of clubs and never settle in, before he hit his stride in Portugal.
  • Left back trialist Ibrahima Diaby of Ivory Coast – Yeah, we have little on him, but he’s young (20) and apparently pretty quick.
A general upgrade in the quality of imports

Suffice to say, each of these players (save Diaby, on whom there is little information) appears on paper to be of potential high MLS quality. Each has demonstrated success in good, first tier European leagues (Holland, Portugal, Ukraine).

Does that always translate to reality? Of course not.

But at the very least, these players are bringing more impressive resumes than the Union have generally seen from trialists. Last year’s key additions, Steven Vitoria and Fernando Aristeguieta, came from first division clubs in Portugal and France but had generally been backups in the first tier and achieved most of their success in the second divisions of those countries. If the Union close deals on Ilsinho, Maâzou and Jones and find enough international roster spots to fit them (Jones likely won’t need one), it will mark an impressive haul for the Union.

They might not have their left back upgrade yet, but early returns on Stewart’s acquisitions are suddenly looking very good.


  1. Very interesting about Jones. Though I thought the one commodity in American soccer that could be found cheaply for good quality is the backup goalkeeper. There weren’t any veterans American keepers available?

    • I think he is to “mentor” Blake more than play as a backup (maybe International experience?). He will also play when Blake is away with Jamaica though…

    • I think the backup goaltender situation going into FL was ABYSMAL, so a new body in there will be massive considering we’re going to be relying on that person for 6-8 games at least.
      Would have been very happy to have Sylvestre back as backup. Matt Jones should provide a little class as well.
      Can’t continue to give up 20-40 yards of field position EVERY time our backup GK puts ball to foot. Also the distribution decision making…Painful to watch.

  2. Nice job, Dan. This basically puts everything into perspective. Uhg, we really need a #9 striker!

    • I’d be ok with one more quality add even if it was not a #9. With thoughts of adding a #9 in the summer or next season. I’d rather have us get the best players possible and keep building with quality.

      • I agree. This is window #1 of a major roster rebuild. So much crap depth has been cleared out already and the baseline talent on the team appears to be much higher than ever. The start of the year will probably not be a complete roster but even if we make no more moves I think it’s solid enough from top to bottom.

      • All I want is a consistent goalscorer. Easier said than done.

  3. I share your optimism, Dan. I really like what I see so far. It feels much more like a plan, not player acquisition by happenstance.
    This team still needs an upgrade over Sapong. I like CJ, but I’m not convinced he’s going to be that 15-ish goals a season guy I think we need (at the very least). I’m trusting that Stewart is going to only make a deal when he finds the right one. He won’t rush it, and I’m OK with that.

    • Don’t be shocked if CJ is a 15-goal scorer. With a more disciplined midfield and more capable wingers, along with a full season of health (knock on wood), he will have room and opportunity to work.
      I’m not saying it’s a guarantee, but the stars have aligned for him to have a big year. But a wingman would help greatly.

      • I’d be thrilled if that pans out. I really like the guy. I think he showed he was better than ‘Nando in every way last year. If he doesn’t half to constantly play defense for Chaco, maybe he’ll find the back of the net more often.

      • I’m not even really sure he needs to be a 15-goal scorer.
        15 goals would have had him tied in 9th place with Martins last season. I’d settle for 9-12 from him if the new midfield options can pitch in.
        Last season, Le Toux had 8 despite starting the season ice cold but a big problem was the other two main attacking midfield options, Wenger and Maidana, only chipped in 1 goal each. Nougeria had the best goal output of his career with 5 so I think he can only be counted on for 2-5 a season. And the even bigger problem was conceding over 50 goals in 2015.
        The combination of Pontius, Restrepo, Fernandes, Alberg, and Barnetta (with a full preseason) should be able to improve the midfield goal contribution.
        A season team total of around 47-50 goals should put them in good position, especially if the goals against total can be brought down to the low 40s.

  4. I guess in the absence of actual proof we are just assuming things are going better now.

  5. If they are interested in signing any of those players, where do the international spots come from? Do they potentially send Ayuk to Bethlehem to create one? Or is Nogueira still close to getting a green card as was rumored last year?

    • Both of those are options, I would imagine. They could also attempt to get a green card for Yaro or Herbers, and loan either (or both) to BSFC while it’s pending. (Arguably, Yaro should be loaned regardless; he’d be better off playing than sitting.)

  6. Is it possible for the Union to sign all these guys and those that need an international roster slot go to Steel until that spot is obtained? I mean I have no idea if they are all worth it, but from the sounds of it they at least give quality depth both at Steel and as backups possible spot starters if the international spots are there.

    • I believe the USL also limits the number of international rosters spots, so this approach may not solve the problem since BSFC has also signed some international players.

  7. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I searched Ibrahima Diaby on “transfermarkt” and found him listed as under contract to [my highly suspect translation based on minimal college French several decades ago] Army Society of All Sports in Ivory Coast until 30 June 2016. No performance data was available. He is listed on a roster for the Ivorian U-20s that I fouNd on Wikipedia somehow, I think. (In other words I cannot likely find the information again).

  8. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Dan, I love your articles, but I do have to mention that both Andersen and Alberg are BOTH represented by Stone sports management. So are they scouting better already due to Earnie or have they just relied on agents to provide de facto scouting as in years past? Just thought I would play devil’s advocate here…..

    • Great observation. I didn’t catch that. Good counterpoint. Could be an agent he deals with regularly. Adds some nuance and prompts a potential reconsideration of some of my points above.

      • I would suggest that relationships matter. they can be good or bad, productive or exploitative. Given that some agencies represent many players its not unusual for a few from the same agency to come on board together. if all the new players were from the agency, that might be more worrisome.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        Below is taken directly from their website, seems like they are a 1 shop all for scouting, it’s like going to the butcher and saying you want to cook steak, just not sure what kind. The butcher then provides a recommendation, but I digress…

        Stone Sports Management, LLC focuses on five main areas. The first is as a player’s primary agent representing their careers on and off the field. The second is to work in collaboration with clubs or agents for their players to enter the North American marketplace either with MLS, NASL or USL Pro clubs. This area also applies to other markets. The third is to inquire with professional clubs regarding their player personnel needs and to find players that match within SSM’s network based on the club’s requested characteristics. The fourth is to plan and organize scouting trips for your club to such destinations as Africa, South America, Europe or Asia. The fifth is to work with professional coaches, academy directors and scouts to find them employment with professional clubs.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        I can’t take credit, whoever runs the Union rumors twitter has been re-tweeting the tweets from the agency. I just thought it was worth mentioning.

      • Yeah, I knew they had Alberg. I think I had forgotten about Conceicao or just blurred them together.

        Either way, I think the overall points I made can still stand, but like R3 said, personal relationships matter. I guess the point I was trying to make is that it seems like there is more than just that at this point, whereas in the past it has often (but not always) seemed like there was only that.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        I’m not in disagreement with the premise of your article at all. Just thought I would offer some food for thought. I would love to know who represents the trialists, however Stone does not make their client list available to the public.

      • Oh yeah, don’t worry, I got that. 🙂

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        “transfermarkt” usually lists the agent.

  9. I have waited for an article like this about our club since its inception. It’s so damn refreshing to read something like this. I know this doesn’t lead to instant success, but this is how you build it. Not throwing shit at the wall, and seeing what sticks. There is finally purpose to acquiring players.
    I agree with a comment above about maybe waiting till the summer for a true, higher priced #9. See how things go for now, and then add as necessary.

  10. Lucky Striker says:

    Just wanted to add that I need to see Sapong with decent, consistent service before I’m ready to write him off.

    In a Curtin system, the guy fills a good number of prerequisites…….

    • Just wanted to add I need to see (current Union striker) with decent, consistent service before I’m ready to write him off.

  11. “In Belgium, Double PASS’s home country with which it has worked closely since 2003, the results have been nothing short of astounding. The nation of 11 million is the world’s top-ranked team after a quarterfinal finish at the World Cup, after failing to qualify for five successive World Cups and European Championships. RSC Anderlecht went from finding 8% of its first-team squad in its own academy in 2004 to 52% in 2014.”
    …from the si.com article. This is nothing to sneeze at. .
    Liviu Bird has written a 3 part piece and it is excellent work. He is a good follow on Twitter.
    Today he released Part II :: on how French Academies are informing and molding MLS Academies and helping raise the level of education of our coaches as requirement.
    I’ve listened to quite a few coaches who have studied abroad and each one has talked extensively how becoming a coach abroad is harder than even college… its the equivalent of Master’s degree study.
    This is the model… and apparently we are at least aware of this stateside and it speaks, in my POV, to one of the reasons why we still have a recreation mindset versus a professional mindset… but are slowly moving to a professional mindset.
    Once the education requirements of coaches rise to these levels the entire structure of soccer in America will change too… the culture will change, the paradigm will change, the game will change.. resemble something more than what it is…..that’s for sure. Resemble a truly professional development model.
    This is all about developing World Class talent — as it should be… and even though I am uncertain the MLS model will allow it but at least the education will help affect the correct trajectory for change.

    • All this leads me to one VERY important place:
      Who on the Union has talked with Double Pass…have they talked with Double Pass and what coaches from the Union Academy are working towards the Elite Formation Coaching License that is underpinning Academy growth across the MLS.
      I’ve Tweeted KK about this… and would love him to press the brass to get an answer…. far as I’m concerned… this will really tell us which direction the club is going to go in for the next 10-15 years.
      I’ve written often about concerns with our youth development model matching the sporting director’s Vision Plan and Philosophy and would be pretty comfortable with the current structure if I knew coaching education was on top of this….
      Really important information today. I suggest anyone who loves the game to clue in and read.

  12. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Worth noting even at this late date relative to the article that a report on Tuesday’s practice, aka scrimmage v USMNT U-17s, indicated that all the BSFC signings have returned BSFC save Ken Tribett, that Bulowatife Akinyode (spelling not double checked) from BSFC had arrived, and that Mitchell Lurie and Moussa Maazou of Niger had both been let go. The author is Charlotte Muscroft, I believe I remember.

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