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Earnie Stewart reflects on transfer decisions, influx of young players and Philadelphia Union legacy

Mar 12, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Philadelphia Union sporting director Earnie Stewart before the game against the Columbus Crew at Mapfre Stadium. Philadelphia Union beat the Columbus Crew by the score of 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union sporting director Earnie Stewart didn’t have the biggest transfer budget in Major League Soccer during his time with the club. 

Although some front office personnel might bemoan the lack of funds coming in from ownership to purchase players, Stewart tried to work within his means to achieve success on the transfer market. 

The acquisitions of Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin and Borek Dockal benefited the Union a ton, but there were a few signings that didn’t panned out. 

“I know what we have and that’s it, and you go about your business,” Stewart said in an exclusive interview with Pro Soccer USA. “I can sit around and cry about what we don’t have all day. It doesn’t help at all. It’s not going to help me. It’s not going to help everybody. I don’t look at that. You make the best of that and try to find those players that will fit that mold.

“I’m going to be arrogant and say there’s not that many players that haven’t succeeded here. Have we made mistakes? Sure. I’m not going to mention names, but there’s not too many that have not succeeded.” 

Because of the limited funds at the club, the Union developed an analytical model during Stewart’s tenure, which ends July 31, to narrow the search for potential transfer targets. 

“Trying to find a needle in a haystack with three people is not an ideal situation, so we built an analytical model, and people that are a lot smarter than I am built that model with the help of that style of play and formation that we play, with those roles and responsibilities — we collect that data,” Stewart said.

“Instead of trying to scour the world … and then try to find that right fit for the Philadelphia Union, we would first go out and make sure that with the data that we have that we find the players that match our needs,” Stewart said. “And then we added the eyes to them. That’s a long process. It’s robust. It’s not perfect yet by all means, but it’s something we started two-and-a-half years ago that we’re getting very comfortable with the players we are finding.” 

In Dockal’s case, the Union found a No. 10 who fits their 4-2-3-1 system, and although he didn’t thrive right away, the Czech Republic international has turned into one of the most important players in the squad.

“You have short term and long term (views),” Stewart said. “Short term is very easy. Somebody hasn’t played well yet. I hear the critics about Borek Dockal in the beginning of the season, and then he scores a couple of goals and now all of a sudden people say he can play soccer, then it blows my mind.

“He’s still the exact same player he was at the beginning of the season as he is now, except now he’s scoring goals,” Stewart said. “Now they say he’s a good soccer player. That he scores more goals is something else, but he’s still the same soccer player as when he came in. There’s no difference. He didn’t eat Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or whatever it was. He’s still that player and that surprises me sometimes.” 

Oct 22, 2017; Philadelphia, PA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Brian Carroll (7) watches a video presentation before his last MLS game with head coach Jim Curtin (L) and director Earnie Stewart (R) before a game against the Orlando City SC at Talen Energy Stadium. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

The club has also been able to build from within, with Homegrown signings Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie starting at center back, while other Homegrowns Derrick Jones, Anthony Fontana and Matthew Real are fighting their way up the depth chart. 

“I think this club is on the right path in developing talent, and once that name is behind those players it’s fantastic,” Stewart said. “Two weeks from now, we have four players that are going to be in the Homegrown All-Star Game. That’s tremendous. And there’s a couple of players, especially Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie, getting the spotlight because they’re playing right now and everyone can see that, but there’s some young talent behind them coming strong and they are going to make minutes as well.

“And that’s what we want to set out to be, one of the market leaders when it comes to playing young players and giving them a chance because we believe in them. If you believe in them, you actually see what they can do.” 

Stewart was modest throughout the one-on-one conversation, and he admitted he didn’t like talking about himself too much, which is why he was simple when asked what his legacy with the club might be.

It will take a while for that legacy to be cemented, but Stewart’s helped set a foundation as he departs for the U.S. Men’s National Team general manager position.

“The only thing is that they continued with the path that we set on,” Stewart said. “That’s all. I hope the influence that I had here and what we wanted to accomplish with each other, if they go a total different direction, then it’s not a legacy anymore, it’s a different direction.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, but you never know because there’s another person who will come in. When they build on that, and hopefully years down the road the Auston Trustys, Anthony Fontanas, Mark McKenzies, Derrick Jones are playing for the U.S. National Team, for a national team, then it will be fun to watch.” 

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