CHESTER, Pa. — When Earnie Stewart took over as Philadelphia Union sporting director, the club possessed one playoff appearance and one finish above fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
Stewart also inherited a messy situation when it came to the organization around the first team, and it took some time for the Union to build around the model the former United States men’s national team player wanted to institute.
As he prepares to depart for the USMNT general manager position August 1, Stewart leaves the club in the middle of a playoff race and in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup.
Although it’s far from the finished product, Stewart is proud of what he’s built over his two-and-a-half years with the franchise.
“I’d say when I came to the club, once again there were a lot of good things. The pathway to the pros was put in, so we had the academy, [second-tier professional team] Bethlehem Steel and we had our first team,” Stewart told ProSoccerUSA in an exclusive interview. “I would want to say that the organization around the first team was, in my mind, not sufficient. Apart from players and everything, to be a club that wants a winning culture, you have to build a winning organization around it and it starts from there.
“When we started, and I think we’ve said this a couple of times, what was important was to establish the values that we have as a club, get to a style of play and from a style of play came a formation. We have that now on paper at the club and whatever’s done with that in the future, that’s in somebody else’s hands, but I do believe the club wants to keep following that direction.”
The Union experienced some tough times during Stewart’s reign, none more pressing than the start of the 2017 campaign, when the club failed to win in its first eight games.
“We had a period last year which was very difficult, where we are looking at our players and they are doing all kinds of things that we didn’t necessarily ask them to do,” Stewart said. “It all came from a confidence standpoint. They were not confident at all.
“I thought that period was meaningful for us from a coaching standpoint to try and get those players back to just do what we ask of them, and they achieved that — and that is the hardest part about coaching. Do results worry me? Yeah, they worry me, but what worries me even more is when you don’t create chances. When you miss chances, I don’t worry that much. That’s sometimes the quality of the player.
“I don’t believe in that word, but being lucky or unlucky or whatever that is — as long as you’re creating chances, you’re going to be in a position to win games. There’s times that people go on a tear and score tons of goals and you win games, and there’s also times when they are not hitting the target.”
While outside noise questioned the job head coach Jim Curtin was doing, Stewart never wavered from the commitment to his manager.
“The relationship is, he’s the coach and I’m the sporting director,” Stewart said. “Do we get along? Yes, but it’s that. I look at what happens on the field and I don’t necessarily look at winning and losing, because that’s not it. It’s also the reality of who we are and who we can be. And then if I see progress from our players and they’re getting better and what we’re trying to do is implemented on the field.
“I think Jim is doing an outstanding job. Does that always result in winning every week? No, that does not. That’s also something I understand that that does not happen every single week. Are there things that he or I could do better? Yeah. Everybody everyday can do something better. The main part about it is that we have a staff here — and Jim here is first and foremost — that wants to get better every day. Once you have the right attitude, right mentality in developing yourself as an athlete or coach or sporting director, you’re in good shape. Those are the people that I look for.”
Behind the scenes, the Union surrounded Curtin with an efficient staff that fits the club’s means, and it’s something that will help the team move in the right direction, even when Stewart leaves.
“We’ve built a lot,” Stewart said. “When I got here, there were not that many desks around here occupied, and now every single desk is occupied. We have a support staff around the first team that is good, because every player needs a certain influence going forward. For one [player], that’s talking to the sports psychologist … The other needs to get his fitness level up, needs to become stronger. We have a dietitian that makes sure that our players are influenced in the right way and get the right nutrition because having good coaching, having the right nutrition ingredients will make a good player in the future.
“Building the organization around our first team has been a huge priority.”