When I interviewed Union sporting director Earnie Stewart for my recent piece about the United States' historic run at the 1995 Copa América, we didn't just chat about the past. We also spent a few minutes chatting about the present.
Because there's only so much one can shoehorn into a print story, everything in the latter category didn't make the cut. So here are the leftovers: the prestige of the Copa América, Andre Blake's rise to stardom, the stars of the current U.S. national team, and the potential of Hershey-born rising star Christian Pulisic.
If you picked up Friday's Inquirer or Daily News, you saw Marc Narducci's piece on Pulisic's return to Pennsylvania as the U.S. prepares to face Paraguay in the Copa América Centenario. So it seems the right time to highlight Stewart's remarks on Pulisic, and the pressure that comes with being touted as American soccer's newest Next Big Thing.
Stewart has played with a lot of players over the years who've been given that title whether they want it or not - including the most famous such player of all time. So when it comes to offering advice, he knows what he's talking about.
We'll get to that in a moment. First, a few other thoughts from Stewart on this tournament and some of the big storylines in it.
Obviously, this Copa América Centenario is going to be a great spectacle. But it's not quite the same as a "traditional" Copa América. When you look at this tournament, what do you see in terms of how prestigious it can be - and in particular, how prestigious it can be for the United States team?
It's prestigious. Apart from how we look upon it, I know how the players look upon it. That's the most important ingredient of making a tournament a success: the way they go about their business in winning that cup. That's something you'll always see.
I agree with you that it's going to be a little bit different because in South America it can be very hostile when you play somewhere, especially [against] the home country. Here, it's a little bit different. But then again, you're going to see all these [fans from] different ethnic backgrounds and support their teams.
It's a big, big tournament. You have the World Cup, and then you have the Copa América Centenario and the European Championships, which are big tournaments in the world. This is not going to be any different, and like I said, the most important ingredient that there is this that the players – that you need to have success.
Have you talked to, or taken any questions from, Andre Blake about playing in an event like this?
No. To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure if Andre knows I played in it. That has a lot to do with the age difference that we have. So I'm not sure if he's aware that I played in a tournament like that. But I did wish him well with Jamaica, and obviously I hope that he comes back successful and very healthy.
Does it mean anything extra for you that the U.S. will be playing a game in the tournament, and a big game at that, in your adopted city?
Yeah. I'm happy that I can go see them. That's one thing that's fantastic. I support the U.S. national team as I did when I was a player, and it's great, and we're going to host them for a training session.* That makes it special too. I'm really going to enjoy that.
[* - That ended up not happening, but at the time of the interview it was on the provisional schedule.]
Are there any players from the current team that you particularly enjoy watching?
Clint Dempsey, for me, he's a player, when I see him, how important he has been for the U.S. national team, and that he continues to be just a big-time player.
I enjoy Michael Bradley, I saw him, you know, I almost want to say grow up. I remember him playing one of his first games in training camp against D.C. United as a very young kid, [and] after that going to Heerenveen, where he did very well. And then progressing his career from there.
Also [Bradley is] one of those players that's so important for the U.S. national team, because he's one of those players that can actually slow the game down. You give him the ball, and things calm down. He has good vision, he has that pass in him.
Clint's that guy who makes those special plays to get the United States on the board.
Those are two players who I really enjoy watching, because they really exemplify what the American player is about: their heart, their soul, they put everything into the game. That's what I really love to see in players.
Have you gotten to watch Christian Pulisic much?
Not much. I got to see him come into the game in Columbus [the World Cup qualifier against Guatemala]. Very, very special player. But I haven't seen him that much.
I hope and I hope that he gets time to ripen and become the player and potential that he really has, and that we don't make another Freddy Adu of this. We have to be careful.
I realize we want that next player that's like whoever important in the world, but we have to make sure we give him the time to ripen, but the potential is definitely there. A very good player, and I enjoy when he gets the ball. It's nice to watch. He's one with the ball. That's always good.
A lot of times, with the soccer culture in this country, the anglo fans here look to European culture and playing styles foremost, and maybe they don't watch South American teams as much. And they think European ways are the direction that American soccer should go in.
Do you think this tournament, with all the attention it's going to get, could open some eyes to different ways of seeing the game?
Yes and no. I do believe that we have our own culture, and we have our way of playing, and we should not try to be someone else. We are the U.S., and there are things that we're very good at, and there's things that we're still developing as a soccer country. So, focus on what we're good at, focus on our culture and what we can bring to the table, and that will get you results.