Some uncertainty remains about the ultimate scope of the job, its purview and potential long-term impact. But we now have a face, name and vision to place alongside U.S. Soccer’s new technical title.
Earnie Stewart, an influential midfielder in the 1990s-early 2000s who is currently the sporting director at the Philadelphia Union, was named the first U.S. men's national team general manager on Wednesday. He’ll assume the new position August 1 after moving to Chicago. At that time, he'll be the point man in the federation’s search for a permanent head coach. And Stewart said during a Wednesday conference call that, although the search will be characterized by “process over speed,” he’s already presented U.S. Soccer with a list of candidates.
“Having played for the [USA] and seeing what the capabilities and possibilities were in the United States, this was something where I wanted to jump on board,” Stewart said in a Wednesday statement. On the call, the 49-year-old Netherlands native, who was capped 101 times by his father’s homeland, said he was “extremely proud and honored to be named the general manager of the U.S. men’s national team.”
The position was created by the federation’s board in December, a couple months after the USA was eliminated from this summer’s World Cup. The fallout from that historic failure resulted in coach Bruce Arena’s resignation, the election of a new U.S. Soccer president—Carlos Cordeiro—and the search for GMs for the both the men’s and women’s senior teams (the latter is expected to be appointed before the end of 2018). Cordeiro pledged during his presidential campaign to involve additional people in soccer decisions and in April, he announced the creation of a board-level technical committee empowered to weigh in on appropriate matters and lead the search for the new GM. Previously, former president Sunil Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn had almost total de facto control of those processes and appointments.
Cordeiro said Stewart’s appointment “is a further step in our commitment to ensure that soccer operations are run by soccer experts.”
Stewart now is just one of several “soccer experts” at the federation. He won’t have full control over the governing body’s entire sporting structure, instead focusing on the senior men’s team and its coach, culture, logistics, style of play and player pool. The limits on the GM position’s power, the extent of which still seems somewhat theoretical, reportedly scared off some potential candidates. The GM won’t have the final say over the Olympic and junior national team coaches, for example, or certain development initiatives. But Stewart insisted Wednesday he was satisfied with the conversations that took place during an “extensive interview process” and that he felt he could make an impact.
Stewart will report to Flynn, and the board will give the final thumbs up or down on Stewart’s coaching choice. Considering his August start date, which Flynn said was designed to accommodate Stewart’s transition from the Union, that choice won’t be made until well after the World Cup’s conclusion.
“I don’t know many organizations where someone can just come in and pick whatever he wants,” Stewart said regarding the federation’s collaborative process. “I will be responsible in making sure I do the recommendation towards the board and Carlos when it comes to the U.S. men’s national team coach. That will be my responsibility, and obviously in that process I’m a person that’s always been known to collaborate, and that’s the way the U.S. Soccer Federation will work. In that search, I’ll make sure to speak to those that are very important in the search process and together, in the end, we’ll come with a recommendation toward our board to make the best decision.”
Clearly, in practice, Stewart must have significant latitude and influence in the search process. Otherwise, his position is cosmetic. On Wednesday, Flynn said Stewart’s appointment was for the “long-term,” designed to transcend given coaches and competitions. “At the same time,” Flynn added, “we need to see progress between now and 2022.”
Said chief sport development officer Nico Romeijn, “It’s a long-term position. It’s about overseeing the whole program. It’s looking at style of play, the player pool—not only the current player pool, but we’re looking at 2022 and 2026 … [The GM] should be the sounding board and counsel of the men’s national team coach. He will also be involved in the daily environment and the creation of the best conditions for players.”
Stewart said in a Q&A published by U.S. Soccer that the most important qualities he’s looking for in a coach are people-management skills, and the ability to communicate and implement tactical principles and a consistent style of play during the short period in which a national team is together. Style of play was a hot topic during Wednesday’s call. Style isn't about formations or lineup choices, Stewart said, but rather, “the style goes toward the values—what we want to see on the field from our players.”
He said establishing a long-term style of play wouldn’t be a hindrance in finding the right coach, who would "have the autonomy within the style of play to play in different formations.”
Stewart said, “You’ll get an understanding, and I think it’s great that the coach knows exactly what we want to see on the field. ... Everybody wants to work here. I don’t think there will be many coaches that will say, ‘No’, because the United States has values about what they want to see when they step on the field and what they want to see from their players. On the contrary, when you come with a plan, a lot of people will want to jump on board because there’s a plan, a vision, and an identity.”
Stewart revealed in the Q&A that he also was preparing to “get to know this whole player pool,” from the senior side to the youth, and hoped to visit U.S. players and their clubs for conversations. Until now, there’s been no one at the federation responsible for keeping track of potential internationals’ long-term progress and eligibility, or with establishing consistent communication protocols. Mexico’s GM was instrumental in the January switch of former U.S. midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez, for example. A coach is worried about the next camp and the next tournament. The GM can peer around corners, keep potential players in the loop and, Stewart said, help them stay apprised of their short- and long-term roles.
The GM position may evolve as needs, results or politics dictate. Some have expressed concern that the role won’t have the desired impact at a federation that’s been slow to open up. But Stewart’s hiring is a step, and the spotlight and onus now are on U.S. Soccer as much as the new GM.
Stewart’s comfort with the big picture, and among the primary reasons he’s a hire who comes with the benefit of the doubt, is rooted in a lifetime spent in European and American soccer. The son of a U.S. serviceman, Stewart enjoyed a productive 16-year career in the Eredivisie and MLS, and he played 101 times for the USA. He was a member of three World Cup squads and was U.S. Soccer’s player of the year in 2001. After retiring, Stewart returned to the Netherlands and held technical positions at VVV Venlo, NAC Breda and finally AZ Alkmaar, which was a Europa League regular under his watch. He then took over in Philadelphia prior to the 2016 MLS campaign.
His performance with the Union can be graded only in context. It’s a budget-conscious club, and although Philly hasn’t won a playoff game with Stewart at the helm, it’s made progress as a talent incubator. He’s also chosen to stick with coach Jim Curtin, whom he didn’t hire, despite the well-liked manager’s failure to finish higher than sixth in the Eastern Conference during this three full seasons on the bench (Philly is 5-6-3 so far this year and in seventh). That suggests Stewart believes in seeing a process through, and that continuity is more important than ego or quick fixes. If that’s true, that’ll serve him well in a much-needed position that’s going to take shape on the fly.