Stewart's resume highlights bold decisions, emphasis on culture & chemistry
All American fans know USMNT GM Earnie Stewart was a legend as a player Most fans know after his playing career he went on to serve in the front office at numerous clubs. But few know the details of the key decisions he made in these roles. Brian Sciaretta breaks down Stewart's past and how it could shape the USMNT's future.
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedU.S. SOCCER formally announced that Earnie Stewart will be the first general manager for the men’s national team and he will begin on August 1, 2018. There are two pressing issues for Stewart in the early stages of his job: to build a team culture and hire the next head coach.
June 05, 2018
June 05, 2018
Many older fans of the national team are very familiar with Earnie Stewart as a legendary three time World Cup veteran for the U.S. team with 101 caps. Not many are as familiar with his career in the front office for three Dutch clubs and one in MLS. His front office career began in 2005 – immediately after he retired as a player.
But a look into his past will show that Stewart has made bold decisions - some of which stunned his own team’s supporters. It also showed that while Stewart had significant authority to either make or influence major decisions he still had to work with a board – similar to the role he will take with U.S. Soccer.
Of course, his first major test as the GM for the U.S. national team will be to hire the next coach. A coaching search should not be a role unfamiliar to Stewart. Here is a rundown of some of the important decisions he made.
VVV VenloSporting Director for 2005/06 season
Following his retirement as a player in 2005, Stewart assumed the role of sporting director for VVV Venlo in the Dutch 2nd tier.
The Herbert Neuman hire
Only weeks into the job, Stewart hired Herbert Neumann, a 51 year old German who last coached Vitesse five years before. It was a one year deal.
"The hiring of Neumann is one of the first achievements of Earnest Stewart as technical director," Dutch publication VI said at the time.
On the field, Neumann was a success. VVV finished in second place in the second tier Eerste Divisie (the club finished in third place the season before) and missed out on promotion when it lost in the playoffs. At one point in January of that season, there was an oral agreement to extend Neumann’s deal for another year through 2007.
Stewart ended up leaving VVV in May of that season to take the technical director job at NAC Breda. The situation with Neumann and VVV, however, quickly broke down and the explanations were vague.
In June, it was announced that Neumann would not return to VVV the following season and Stewart’s successor, Mohammed Allach, made the decision.
As Dutch publication Volkskrant put it: "Technical director Mohammed Allach of the Venlo first division club said Tuesday that there is a breach of trust between the club management and the German manager." Subsequent publications would also indicate that the relationship with Neumann and the board deteriorated while also pointing to a “breach of trust.”
For Neumann, he has never landed another head coaching job since that season for VVV.
NAC BredaTechnical Director, 2006-2010
Stewart was hired as the technical director for NAC Breda on May 14, 2006. He inherited a team that finished in 16th place out of 18th place. It avoided relegation to the Eerste Divisie through the playoffs.
On July 1, 2006 NAC Breda hired Ernie Brandts, a 50 year old Dutchman who previously had coached FC Volendam the season before. At Volendam, Brandts was successful and lead the club to a third place finish. Coincidentally, Volendam was on the verge of promotion but lost to NAC Breda in the final of a promotion/relegation playoff by a 2-1 aggregate score.
In the first season at NAC Breda for both Stewart and Brandts, the club improved from 16th place to 11th place and both men were gaining popularity among NAC fans.
Letting Ernie Brandts go
The second season for both in 2007/08, saw Stewart make one of the boldest and most controversial decisions of his career. Just two seasons after narrowoly avoiding relegation, NAC Breda had its best season in years. It ended up finishing in third place in the Eredivisie.
Despite this unexpected success, halfway through the season Stewart made the decision not to renew the contract of Brandts. The news broke in late January and it was deeply unpopular. At VI, Stewart’s decision was decried as “laughable.”
For the remainder of the season, NAC Breda supporters hung banners in the stadium in protest of the decision and to support Brandts. Some signs read “Brandts must remain” while another read “Brandts took us out of the shit, we are not sure what is coming next.”
So why did Stewart let Brandts go? Club culture was a primary reason. Volkskrant put it.
“The successes were no reason for the board to extend the contract with Brandts. The football that Brandt's players play is not sparkling and does not fit with the club's core values: self-conscious, togetherness, and with a fighting spirit. The decision caused predictable anger.”
"We are enjoying the current season" Stewart said at the time. "But next season we will just start with zero points again....Everyone looks at the results, but we are not afraid to take on bigger issues of the day.”
The Robert Maaskant hire
Stewart and NAC Breda then hired Robert Maaskant to at first work with Brandts for the remainder of the season and then take the job completely to start the 2008/09 season.
Maaskant was previously coaching MVV Maastricht in the Eerste Division but was well known by NAC Breda fans as his father, Bob Maaskant, coached the team from 1975-1977.
What is most important for Stewart is that the bold decision to replace Brandts with Maaskant was gradually viewed upon favorably.
In 2008/09, the team got off to a strong start and actually was leading the league after six rounds. Despite finishing in eighth place (down from third), it won the playoff to qualify for the Europa League. Stewart, as technical director, earned praise by getting valuable production out of players who were written off elsewhere.
"The players now prove that the success of last season is not only due to Brandts," Stewart said in the middle of that season. “Nobody thought we could get more out of this group and we were surprised if we did claim it. I do not talk in terms of getting the same, but the success was impossible to attribute to one man.”
“[The players] feel at ease here, so they show that they have been wrongly written off by some,” Stewart added. “The warm atmosphere is all-important, everyone will agree with that. It is therefore not surprising that some boys at NAC suddenly perform well. They feel at home here."
In 2009/10, the financials issues within NAC Breda began to take its toll and Stewart was hampered by restrictions on his ability to buy players. It advanced two rounds in the Europa League playoffs but did not make the group stages after a tough defeat to Villarreal.
The club finished in 10th place and both Stewart and Maaskant left NAC Breda by mutual consent.
Maaskant was still viewed favorably when he left and was eventually brought back as manager in 2015 after serving as an assistant coach in 2014 for the Columbus Crew.
AZ AlkmaarDirector of football operations 2010-2015.
In June 2010, Stewart was named director of football affairs at AZ Alkmaar which had finished the previous seasonin fifth place. In April, before Stewart was hired, Gertjan Verbeek was announced as the next coach for AZ after previously leading Heracles in the Eredivisie.
While Stewart did not hire Verbeek, he was happy to have him running the club. At his press conference he even indicated that he initially wanted to hire Verbeek at NAC to replace Brandts but Verbeek instead went to Feyenoord.
There is no question that Verbeek was successful at AZ Alkmaar. In his first season in 2010/11 the club finished in fourth place while also advancing to the group stages of the Europa League. In 2011/12, the club finished in fourth place again while advancing to the quarterfinals of the Europa League. In 2012/13, the club took a step back with a 10th place finish and a failure to advance past the playoff round of the Europa League. Still the club won the Dutch Cup and a spot in the Europa League the next year.
The Gertjan Verbeek fire
Then at the start of the 2013/14 season, Stewart was part of yet another controversial decision. The club was off to a strong start. It qualified for the group stages of the Europa League and began the season in fourth place. The day after a 2-1 victory over Eredivisie leaders PSV in late September (which included a stunning goal from American Aron Johannsson), Verbeek was dismissed – despite a high level of success on the field. It was a decision the shocked many.
The club issued a statement that there was a “lack of chemistry” between the players and the coach and that was the reason for the abrupt dismissal. Stewart went into detail in a press conference.
"There has been no request from the players," Stewart said of the Verbeek firing. "We have received multiple signals from within the organization that the chemistry was disrupted between the players and the coach, which meant we unfortunately had to make this decision. We have not taken this decision lightly overnight. This played out over a long time, because a lack of chemistry is a lengthy process. We looked around how things went and came to the conclusion that the co-operation was very difficult. The trust was harmed. This process has been exacerbated in recent weeks, the players and the coach did not grow closer together."
Stewart and AZ elected to hire Dick Advocaat to take the team through the end of the season. At 66, Advocaat was an older coach who had a successful previous stint with AZ for the second half of the 2009/10 season. Under Advocaat, AZ won its Europa League group before falling to Benfica in the quarterfinals and it finished the Eredivisie in eighth place.
“We wanted to bring in a great coach,” Stewart said at the time. “I think Advocaat’s qualities will be a good mix with our squad. We want him to play dominant and attacking football. The people here like to see that.”
In April, Stewart and AZ made a splash by announcing that Dutch legend Marco van Basten would be the next head coach. The former World Player of the Year had previously coached Ajax in 2008/09 but resigned with the club’s failure to qualify for the Champions League. He then coached Heerenveen for two season with relatively successful seventh and fifth place Eredivisie finishes.
Van Basten, however, would not last long due to his inability to handle the stress of the job (reportedly he suffered heart palpitations just weeks into the job). By September, left his post as head coach.
Stewart and AZ were in a tough situation. Initially it seemed as if assistant Alex Pastoor was going to get the job but the two sides could not reach an agreement. Pastoor was also fired for allegedly making leaks to the press during negotiations.
John van den Broms hire
Stewart then made a play for John van den Broms who was available after he was fired by Anderlecht earlier in the year. The former Dutch international had previous coaching success in Holland after qualifying Vitesse and ADO den Haag for the Europa League.
"John is part of a new generation of Dutch trainers, but also has a lot of experience," Stewart said. 'He has been successful at all his clubs. He is a trainer with a good eye for talent. For example at AGOVV, he stood at the cradle of the careers of [Belgian national team players] Nacer Chadli and Dries Mertens.”
Van den Broms proved to be a good hire and is still the team’s manager. Overall he has lead the team to a third, fourth, sixth, and third place finish in each of his four seasons.
Bringing Billy Beane on board
Before leaving AZ Alkmaar at the end of 2015, Stewart displayed willingness to think outside the box when he hired Billy Beane as an advisor. As an advisor of the general manager of the Oakland Athletics in Major League Baseball, Beane was famous for implementing “moneyball” tactics designed to use analytics to uncover overlooked talent at a lower cost.
“We’ve had a lot of contact with Billy in the last few months” Stewart said. “His knowledge and ideas are impressive. Also Billy’s soccer network is excellent. We have already noticed that Billy thinks two steps ahead in the area of innovation. That’s what really connects with the ambitions of AZ.”
The move was viewed skeptically in both Holland and the United States but AZ continued to finish near the top the Eredivisie since Beane was hired.
With Beane and Van den Brooms, Stewart left AZ in a strong position when he moved stateside in 2015 to join the Philadelphia Union.
Philadelphia UnionTechnical Director January 2016 – August 2018
Unlike any of his previous clubs, Stewart never put his stamp on the head coaching position at the Philadelphia Union. He inherited Jim Curtin and Curtin remains there to this day.
The club has struggled since its inception and has made just two playoff appearances - and has never advanced. In his first season as the technical director the club qualified for the playoffs but in 2017 it finished in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
While the team has not had much success on the field, there are some noteworthy accomplishments. In 2018, Philadelphia has performed well while using two teenage American central defenders in Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie. In addition, Philadelphia has been pushing a high number of players onto U.S. youth national teams over the past year.
What to take from Stewart’s resume?
Despite a lack of success with Philadelphia in recent years, Stewart is highly qualified for the general manager job.
In light of the U.S. national team’s stunning failure throughout most of the recent cycle, reports have surfaced that call into question important areas such as ruined team culture, poor chemistry, and a lack of understanding between coaches and players. When looking at his managerial decisions, Stewart values those greatly and is willing to fire a coach is he believes chemistry and culture is an issue.
As the GM of the U.S. national team, he is not going to be in charge of acquiring players like he was a the club level. Rather he will be in charge of bigger picture issues.
The decisions to either fire or not extend the contract of Verbeek and Brandts points to Stewart’s deeper understanding of a team’s health. In both situations, while fans were focused on recent results, Stewart was thinking bigger picture with an eye towards a longer-term success. More importantly, both decisions, unpopular at the time, were later regarded as the right decisions based in part because Stewart made successful choices to succeed those coaches.
In Holland, Stewart got far more right than he got wrong. VVV, NAC, and AZ all improved under Stewart. He left AZ in very good shape and the club continues to reap benefits to this day. Also there is a chance that Philadelphia could also succeed in future years if it can harness the young players coming through.
If Stewart is invested with a significant authority from U.S Soccer, he could and should do well. He can made difficult decisions, can work well with a board (as he did with every club in Holland) and does view building a team with a long-term vision. Combined with the fact he cares deeply for the U.S. team, it could turn out to be a smart hire.