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Union hire Earnie Stewart as sporting director

The Union finally have made the long-awaited hire of a sporting director who will oversee all of the club's soccer operations - and that hire is a spectacular one. Earnie Stewart, a U.S. men's national team legend and U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame member, has agreed to take the job.

Currently the technical director at AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, Stewart will officially begin his tenure at PPL Park on Jan. 1, after his contract with Alkmaar expires.

"I am thrilled with the opportunity to come to the Philadelphia Union and help create a winning team which the fans can identify with," Stewart said in a statement issued by the team. "I look forward to working with everyone at the Union to establish a clear playing philosophy and use my experience to create a competitive edge in our methods of recruiting and developing players at all levels of the club, from the academy up through the first team. From the first moment I spoke with the Union about the direction they wanted to go, I was excited about the long-term opportunity and my ability to help execute on our shared vision."

After the announcement was made, Union chairman Jay Sugarman chatted with reporters on a conference call. Sugarman hasn't always had much of a public profile, but he has put himself in the spotlight much more in recent weeks. On this occasion, he had a lot to say.

"I think we feel pretty strongly we needed a firm direction in terms of our playing philosophy and how we're going to go about building a competitive edge in MLS." Sugarman said. "We have room to elevate the quality of our scouting and our recruiting and our player development across the board, and on each of those, what he's been able to do, and what he has been doing, seemed to be a really good fit on how we wanted to approach the world."

The hiring of Stewart was a quick process, even if the Union took nearly two years to finally hire the head of soccer operations that they have needed for so long. Sugarman spoke of a collaborative process in the Union's front office, specifically highlighting manager Jim Curtin and YSC Sports founder Richie Graham, who plays a big role in the club's youth academy operations.

"This came together, literally, in the last two weeks in terms of people we really wanted to go after," Sugarman said. "When Earnie was able to make the time to at least talk to us, we put the full-court press on very quickly. ...  I don't think he was looking [to leave AZ], but I think long-term, he had a view of coming back to the U.S., and once we compared notes, he thought it was right and we thought it was right."

You might recall that something else happened just over two weeks ago that also had a big effect on the sporting director search. Sugarman implicitly acknowledged that when he spoke of his decision to take a more active role in the team's operations after keeping a low public profile for most of the Union's history.

"Standing back and watching and not really being comfortable with what was going on finally got to be too much, so I started taking a much more involved process," he said. "I think this is a move that every one of us is excited about -- to have someone in charge who cares deeply and who understands the business both internationally and in MLS, who's really there to make everybody better. If we get this thing right, I think you should see some of that impact relatively quickly."

The Union have been hamstrung many times in their six-season history by bad decisions and bad luck, and often by bad luck that resulted from bad decisions. Here, finally, is a case of everything coming together in the right way.

"As we went through a number of individual cases, it was pretty clear to me that he had a strong sense of how to find real players that fit his system and that really guided a lot of his thinking; kind of what we've been looking for at the Union," Sugarman said.

It also helped that Stewart was ready for a new challenge -- and specifically, one that would allow him to help shape the future of the sport in a nation that has given him so much.

"One of [Stewart's] goals in life was to come back and have an impact in U.S. soccer and really do something special for a country that he played for, and clearly has deep feelings for," Sugarman said. "He wanted to help us succeed, and also help U.S. soccer continue to grow."

Within that same context, Sugarman referred to "the maturity process that U.S. soccer is going through" and called Stewart "a great figurehead" who can shepherd the Union along the way.

You can easily imagine Stewart being the kind of person whom a youth soccer player would look up to when considering whether to join the Union's academy and pursue a professional career in the game. That's not lost on Sugarman, either.

"This intense work ethic, this understanding that to be a great professional, no matter what your talent level, requires you to really outwork, and out-think, and make yourself the best player you can possibly be," Sugarman said. "I can't think of a better person to kind of stand at the top of the pyramid, and by example, show people how you succeed. I think he did it in his playing career, but I also think you see it in his sporting director career. This is a guy who had to learn from scratch; he worked really, really hard; he's always been open to learning; he loves new ideas, he wanted to understand them and the context of what he's doing to constantly try to improve himself."

If you have followed American soccer for long enough, you didn't need much of an introduction to Stewart's résumé when the Union's announcement came down. If you haven't, here's a primer.

Over a glittering U.S. national team career that lasted from 1990 to 2004, Stewart made 101 appearances and scored 17 goals. He blended great skill with great work ethic in midfield, and had a terrific knack for delivering in big games.

Stewart's most famous goal was the game-winner against Colombia at the 1994 World Cup. Among his teammates on that squad was current Union assistant Mike Sorber, who started the play:

Of Stewart's 17 national team goals, nine came in World Cup qualifiers, including games in legendarily hostile Costa Rica and Honduras. On home soil, he put the capstone on the famous 2001 qualifying win over Mexico in Columbus that launched the "Dos a Cero" era:

At club level, Stewart spent most of his playing days in the Netherlands. He grew up there as the son of an Air Force serviceman who married a Dutchwoman while abroad. Stewart began and ended his career with VVV Venlo, playing there from 1988 to 1990 and 2004 to 2005. In between, he spent most of his years in the Eredivisie with Willem II (1990-96) and NAC Breda (1996-2003). He scored 111 goals in his European club years, the highest total ever of any American abroad.

In 2003, Stewart moved from one home to the other to sign with D.C. United. He played two seasons at RFK Stadium, helping the club win the 2004 MLS Cup. That team was coached by Peter Nowak, who later took charge of the Union. Many of Stewart's teammates also went on to various management roles across the American soccer landscape, including two with the Union: Josh Gros (who's still with the team) and Alecko Eskandarian.

After hanging up his cleats in 2005, Stewart made his own transition into management. He spent a season as VVV Venlo's technical director, then rejoined NAC Breda in 2006 as its technical director. In 2010, AZ Alkmaar hired Stewart to be its technical director, and he has been there ever since.

Stewart's tenure at Alkmaar has been very successful: the club has reached the Europa League six straight times despite having far fewer financial resources than Dutch powerhouses Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven. In 2015, AZ won the Rinus Michels Award for having the best youth academy system in Dutch soccer.

I suspect you might have heard of two players Stewart helped shepherd to prominence: U.S. national team strikers Jozy Altidore and Aron Jóhannsson.

Altidore joined AZ on a free transfer in 2011. after years of purgatory at Spain's Villarreal and England's Hull City, and scored 39 goals in two Eredivisie seasons. In 2013, Sunderland bought him for $13 million.

Jóhannsson arrived at AZ in January of 2013 from Danish club AGF Aarhus, and rose to the top of the striker depth chart after Altidore's departure. Rumors abounded that Altidore helped convince the Icelandic-American with roots in Alabama to play for the U.S. national team instead of Iceland's. AZ bought Jóhannsson for around $2 million, and sold him to Germany's Werder Bremen this summer for nearly $5 million.

If that kind of success sounds like something you think might resonate with the Union's front office, you're right - and not just because any MLS club would be thrilled to make that kind of profit on transfers.

"What I saw in AZ was [Stewart] really had a strong track record of finding players that fit his team's system," Sugarman said. "He's looking for those edges in the system that he can exploit. He knew he was up against some clubs that probably have deeper resources, so they focused a lot on development."

Sugarman is well aware of the criticisms that have been leveled at him and the Union as a whole over its lack of willingness to spend big money on salaries. But it remains the case that in Major League Soccer, big spending does not automatically guarantee big success. Look no farther than this year's playoffs, where all four teams that earned first-round byes - Dallas, Vancouver, the New York Red Bulls and Columbus - did so without breaking the bank.

"When we have player we want who will fit our system well, Earnie will have the resources to go after them, but we've been missing a bit of the methods and process to find those players," Sugarman said. "I think we agree: You spend when it's right to spend. We are not going to be the highest-spending club in the league, but we are going to spend when it's the right move."

With the Union, Stewart will work alongside another former national team colleague, Chris Albright. Stewart will be above Albright, the club's technical director, in the hierarchy. In addition to overseeing construction of the senior team, Stewart will have a big role in building up the Bethlehem Steel, the USL club in Bethlehem, He'll also have influence with the team's well-resourced academy, including the high school at YSC Sports in Wayne.

Some things will have to be done before Stewart's arrival in January, including the hiring of the USL team's head coach. Sugarman said Stewart "will be in the loop on that" and "will oversee all the technical aspects" of the team, but the coach decision "has to happen soon."

Sugarman also said directly that Stewart will not be deciding whether to keep Curtin as manager heading into the 2016 season. That decision is already made, and it's a safe bet that Stewart wouldn't have taken the job if it was an issue.

"Jim is the coach for the 2016 season -- I can make that clear," Sugarman said. "But I can also make clear Earnie is going to set a high bar, and I know Jim is looking forward to the challenge. Throughout the organization, we are expecting people to raise their games. I don't think anybody is satisfied where we've been."

It also seems that Stewart will not have to concern himself too much with the business side of the organization. He'll have to pay attention, as any sporting director would, but Sugarman said he will consider hiring another business-focused executive to work alongside current senior vice president Dave Rowan.

"Dave Rowan is in the seat right now, and is doing a great job," Sugarman said. "We're definitely looking to add any talent we can there that's going to make the whole organization better. We have not begun that process, but that's something certainly as we settle in on the technical side we can turn our attention back to."

The sporting director search took precedence, and understandably so.

"When we looked at our priorities right now, the sporting director was our highest priority," Sugarman said. "We're making significant investments and significant decisions and without that person in place we're really not going to make the progress we need to make. So that's where the focus has been recently."

Now the Union have their man. More importantly, the Union have their vision. And for the first time in a long time, there's real reason to believe that the team is finally on a truly sound path toward realizing its potential.