PHILADELPHIA — When Earnie Stewart was hired as the Philadelphia Union’s sporting director after the 2014 season, he gave a glimmer of hope to a franchise mired in bad front office decisions and poor on-field performances.
The hope finally started to manifest in the form of on-field results the last two months as five Homegrown players –produced by the organizational structure set in place by Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin has produced — contributed in some form.
Stewart was in charge for two-and-a-half years, and the Union appear to be on the upswing. But his legacy can’t be decided the day he closes up shop in Chester, Pa., and heads to Chicago to become the first general manager of the U.S. men’s national team, a job he is set to begin August 1.
Much like every chapter of the Union’s history, Stewart’s legacy is going to be complicated to unravel. He was put in an unforgiving position from the start of his tenure.
“The foundation he’s laid at this club, the processes he’s put in, the improvements to staff — just having a much better structure here is something that maybe people don’t see on the outside,” Curtin said. “He’s added so much to our club, with the staff, with the analytics, with the process of scouting, the video, all these guys that have made us a stronger, more complete club. And he’s getting one of the top jobs in our country.”
Stewart was installed as sporting director ahead of the 2016 season, and he had to navigate a jungle full of bad contracts and a budget that paled in comparison to even some of MLS’ mid-level spenders.
The emphasis on youth from Stewart and Curtin was on display right away at the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, where the Union took Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers with three of the top six picks.
The trade for Chris Pontius from D.C. United will go down as one of Stewart’s biggest steals. The experienced winger filled a valuable role for two seasons. But as good as that trade was, the Union also wasted a first-round pick in a trade with the New England Revolution the same year for Charlie Davies, who played 106 minutes in his time with the club.
Signing Alejandro Bedoya as a designated player and bringing in Haris Medunjanin before the 2017 season were arguably Stewart’s best deals, but the topsy-turvy Union career of Roland Alberg and the failed signing of Brazilian centerback Anderson Conceicao will be remembered as misses.
While all of the outside talent identification was going on, Stewart ramped up the focus on youth and bore the first fruits of the Union’s academy system: Auston Trusty, Derrick Jones, Mark McKenzie, Anthony Fontana and Matthew Real have all seen the field for the first team since signing as Homegrowns.
Trusty and McKenzie appear to be the centerback pairing of the future, while the other three have played sporadically and fought for positions in the starting XI on a depth chart that is the most competitive in club history.
Philosophically, Stewart, along with Curtin and the rest of the technical staff, instituted a pressing style of play based out of a 4-2-3-1 formation that each level of the organization plays.
A similar style of play, while not as stringent on formation, should come with Stewart to the USMNT, where he and the new head coach will work on an approach for all levels of the program to follow.
“I think Earnie brought to us a very clear vision on how to build from the bottom up, from youth development up through a second division team, up to the first team,” Union chairman and owner Jay Sugarman said during an interview with PhiladelpiaUnion.com. “And a very systematic approach for how you find the right players for your system, how you develop them and, ultimately, how you build that winning chemistry on the field.”
As for the Union, they aren’t in complete shambles like they were when Stewart took over, and there’s a plan in place for the organization to succeed despite the sporting director’s departure in the coming weeks.
Of course, the black cloud of a small spending budget will hang over the club when it begins the search for a new sporting director, but whichever candidates emerge should be intrigued by the prospects of the Union’s academy system and the direction the club is going in.
The new sporting director will pick up in the middle of Year 3 of Stewart’s five-year plan to place the Union among Major League Soccer’s elite.
It’s still going to take some time for the Union to be viewed as a legitimate contender, but they’ve taken the right steps during Stewart’s time in charge to at least challenge for a playoff position this season and in years to come.
The trickle-down effect of the principles Stewart fused into the club’s philosophy are only starting to show themselves, which is why it’s way too early to judge if Stewart’s time with the Union was a success or failure.
Regardless, he will always remember his days in Philly fondly.
“…It was clear to me that the pathway that I wanted to go was to mean something for soccer in the United States,” Stewart said in an interview with U.S. Soccer. “That first opportunity came with the Philadelphia Union, and I’m very thankful for the period of time that I was there.”