For Pete's Sake / Season Reviews

Season review: Earnie Stewart’s legacy

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: This post is part of PSP’s 2018 Season Review series, in which PSP breaks down the season that was and look at the off-season ahead. To read the full series, click here.

While the on-field roster stayed consistent from opening day this season, Philadelphia Union experienced a major turnover off the field.

In June, U.S. Soccer announced that Union sporting director Earnie Stewart would take over as the federation’s new technical director.

Stewart officially left the Union at the end of July, with new hire Ernst Tanner taking over not long after.

With Stewart’s tenure in the books, what can we say is his legacy with Philadelphia Union?

On the field, Stewart assembled the most talented rosters the Union have ever had. Working with a limited budget, he hit on a number of key transfers, which he supplemented by trusting young players to fill big roles. Stewart also made some big, brutal misses, and often seemed limited in where he would look for new players.

Off-field, the results are similarly mixed. Stewart professionalized what had always been a nearly amateur franchise, expanding both the technical and scouting staffs. But many will question his loyalty to manager Jim Curtin, and his sometimes secretive and combative public approach turned off media and fans alike.

Ultimately, the answer may be as simple as this: Stewart’s two-and-a-half years as sporting director wasn’t enough time to leave anything more than an incomplete legacy in Philadelphia.

On field

Let’s start with the roster. If you look at the starting-caliber players Stewart brought in, he did very well.

Stewart assembled the Union’s dominant midfield of Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, and Borek Dockal. He also brought in Fafa Picault at a bargain-basement price and watched the young winger grow over the last two seasons. Ilsinho was excellent value on a free transfer, one of the most exciting players the Union have ever had.  And even Oguchi Onyewu, in his last professional season, was a shrewd acquisition, stabilizing a young and oft-injured backline.

Of course, there are some downsides to that group. Other than Picault, few of Stewart’s successful acquisitions are on the upswing of their careers. Stewart also whiffed a few times, and they were costly whiffs — Roland Alberg never found a home in the Union’s formation, and Jay Simpson never grabbed hold of the starting lineup.

The Union also had some obvious blind spots under Stewart. They are one of the few teams in MLS who imported players almost exclusively from Europe, with the club unable to mine talent-rich South America for young players. Stewart also eschewed intra-league movement, which meant that the Union rarely brought in players who were accustomed to the rigors of MLS. (His two dips into that well, trading franchise icon Sebastien Le Toux in order to acquire Charlie Davies and moving MLS funny money for David Accam, were disastrous.)

Stewart also staked his reign on young players. Stewart wisely refrained from signing an aged veteran in defense before the 2018 season, handing his defense to a trio of young centerbacks and being rewarded handsomely as they flourished. Bethlehem Steel have made the USL playoffs two years in a row, suggesting that more young talent is coming through the pipeline. And players like Derrick Jones and Anthony Fontana may just be waiting for their shot at playing time.

The Union’s roster is far from perfect, and Tanner has much to do this offseason, especially given Dockal’s uncertain status for next season. In my book, Stewart gets credit for building some strong rosters with limited resources, and for trusting young players to fill out the roster. But — as with every approach to Stewart’s rule — reasonable people can disagree.

Off field

Stewart’s biggest off-field decision was in his choice of manager.

Though Jim Curtin was in place when Stewart was hired, the sporting director would have been well within his rights to bring in his own man. Instead, Stewart committed in full to the young ex-centerback, backing Curtin through a sixteen-game winless stretch that spanned two seasons and a seeming lack of fan support for the head coach. (In the last two end-of-season polls, only 18% of readers in 2017 and 27% in 2018 believed that Curtin should keep his job.)

There are, essentially, three ways that observers view the relationship between Curtin and Stewart. Some blame both men, in tandem, for the Union’s failure to win a playoff game over the past three years. Others would assess Stewart’s roster building as strong and Curtin’s management of that roster as weak. A third group believes Stewart handcuffed Curtin with a mismatched roster and a preferred formation. All three views probably have some merit, especially because the public have little way of knowing which man actually made which decision. (As attentive readers would predict, my view is the second one — keeping Curtin was Stewart’s biggest mistake.)

Stewart should get credit for professionalizing the technical side. Too often in their early years the Union were essentially an amateur franchise. Arriving just as the infrastructure (training pitches and complex) finally came in to place, Stewart expanded the technical and scouting staff to professional levels.

He also instituted a club-wide tactical approach, with the ultimate goal of playing the same style of soccer from youth levels all the way up to the first team. This is where Stewart’s past experience as a technical director in the Netherlands most clearly revealed itself. Whether this approach pays off in the long run — or whether Ernst Tanner chooses a slightly different direction — is likely to be Stewart’s most lasting legacy.

Unfortunately, Stewart’s dealings with the public were a tremendous weakness of his time in charge. Stewart shut down almost all leaks to reporters and rarely spoke at press conferences. At town halls, Stewart could be evasive or defensive, annoying fans who wanted to hear honest assessments of the club’s plans. Stewart did not seem to be a popular figure among the press corps, a trend that seems to have continued into his new job with U.S. Soccer. This communication problem also makes it difficult to clearly assess what Stewart was and was not responsible for with the Union.

Much like his roster machinations, Stewart’s off-field moves had some good and some bad.

With Stewart gone, it falls to those he leaves behind to put the finishing touches on his Union legacy.

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