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Earnie Stewart behind the Union's culture change

IT WAS A crisp night last Friday and the Philadelphia Union and archrival D.C. United were in the closing minutes of what looked like a scoreless draw at Talen Energy Stadium.

Philadelphia Union sporting director Earnie Stewart.
Philadelphia Union sporting director Earnie Stewart.Read moreSteven M. Falk/Staff file photo

IT WAS A crisp night last Friday and the Philadelphia Union and archrival D.C. United were in the closing minutes of what looked like a scoreless draw at Talen Energy Stadium.

The point earned would have been a positive result, especially considering the tightness of the race in the Eastern Conference of Major League Soccer. In the past, the Union would have happily walked away with that.

The 2016 Union, however, has a strikingly different attitude. This team was irritated it had just played to three straight draws.

So as the final moments of stoppage time ticked, the Union still pushed for the win and three points. The aggressiveness paid off when defender Richie Marquez, who had never scored an MLS goal, sprinted into the box and put in a perfect cross from Sebastien Le Toux to give Philadelphia a 1-0 victory.

The three points earned moved the Union (5-3-3, 18 points) into first place, somewhere they had rarely ever been.

If you followed the Union since its inaugural campaign in 2010, you recognize the different atmosphere. This franchise has historically been better at talking a good game than playing one.

These ZOlOs, however, are walking the walk.

That change in culture this team always talked about seems to have finally arrived.

The person getting much of the credit is sporting director Earnie Stewart, who was hired in October.

Stewart, the former U.S. national team player who scored a goal in the seminal 2-1 victory over Colombia at the Rose Bowl in the 1994 World Cup, came to the Union after a successful five-year stint as director of football operations at AZ Alkmar of the Eredivisie - the highest professional league in the Netherlands.

"I think everything starts at the top," said Union assistant coach Mike Sorber, who was a teammate of Stewart on the 1994 World Cup team. "There have been a lot of changes in the front office. Earnie's leadership and what he's brought to the table is definitely a part of this.

"I think that is the most important thing for a team, to have the right people on the team, the right people working together, and that you're all moving in the right direction.

"We did not have that in the past. I think you are seeing the performances and the results on the field."

What is it about Stewart that could change the mindset of a franchise that had made the playoffs only once in its previous six seasons of existence? How does that occur so quickly?

Talking to Stewart at lunch last Monday, I asked him if he understood how important it was to Union fans that the team qualify for the 2016 playoffs.

Stewart responded by asking: Why talk about making the playoffs instead of asking about winning the 2016 MLS Cup?

"That's sports," said Stewart, who played 18 professional seasons, most in the Eredivisie. "You have to strive to be the best.

"In the United States, and I find this exciting, everybody wants to be the champion. That's what everyone says right from the start, 'We want to be Super Bowl champs or MLS champs.' I think that is healthy approach.

"I think it is dangerous to say we want to make the playoffs - not because we won't. I think it is healthy to say we want to be MLS champs. If you make the playoffs, you've reached your goal and then a lot of times you see a dip.

"People might say this guy is crazy for saying 'MLS champs.' I feel you have to reach for the highest and the see where you end up."

It's a challenge.

Because of its salary cap and limitations on international star players, MLS has evened the playing field. But because of other opaque player-acquisition rules, the system can be gamed by teams with considerably more cash.

The Union is not one of the deep-pocketed teams in the league.

The teams Stewart guided in the Netherlands - Venlose Voetbal Vereniging (VVV), NAC Breda and AZ - all had limited financial resources.

Still, they all had solid levels of success.

In 2005-06, Stewart guided VVV to its best finish in a dozen years and, after moving to NAC Breda, he moved it from near relegation to its best placing (11th) in the Eredivisie since 1956.

During his stint at AZ, the "Cheeseheads" won the KNVB Cup and twice reach the quarterfinals of the UEFA Europa League in 2011-12 and 2013-14.

"I worked at clubs where we didn't have the same money as teams above us and around us," Stewart said. "OK, so what do you do? We had to learn to do it in a different manner."

At AZ, it was embracing the use of sabermetrics and analytics that Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane used to turn his low-budget baseball team into a consistent contender.

Stewart said his approach with the Union is what he learned at AZ: "They tried to think ahead, like what is soccer going to be five years from now, and then make a decision on that. It's just looking at different things to gain that small percentage of being better than others.

"If don't have money now, you make money later by developing young players who reach value that others spent a lot more for. It's more of a process than just going out and buying, but if you identify the right players they could have way more value two or three years from now.

"My goal is to have each player reach his full potential. When you have talented players reach their potential, you have a contender."

When Stewart came to the Union, he asked head coach Jim Curtin which players he wanted to keep and which ones he didn't.

Then they found replacements.

They used their three first-round picks in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft to select Georgetown defenders Joshua Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry and Creighton midfielder Fabian Herbers.

International players Ilsinho, Roland Alberg and Anderson were signed.

Player makeup and how they would fit into the structure of a team was just as important as skills.

"Some guys were let go who I don't think were pulling their weight," Sorber said. "New guys were brought in. Collectively as a group, we have pieced this thing together in a new way."

Stewart coming to the Union started years earlier from a chance meeting with (Union part-owner Richard Graham) at a soccer leadership conference. They talked about the Union's soccer academy and the one at AZ.

When the Union was looking for a sporting director last winter, Graham called Stewart.

A conversation that began with what Stewart thought was needed in a sporting director turned into whether he would be interested in taking that job with the Union.

"I had always said I wanted to come back to the United States and be a part of growing the sport more there," Stewart said. "I was comfortable. I was fine, but if something new came along, I was open to it."

As a player, Stewart, who won the MLS Cup with D.C. United in 2004, left the league with a sour taste.

"How do you say this in a nice way?" Stewart said, "but I didn't think too much of (MLS) at that time. I'm not talking from a soccer standpoint or competition, because there is a lot of talent in the United States.

"What we did with the talent, I did not think was necessarily that good. Maybe (failed wunderkind) Freddy Adu was the best example because he was on my team.

"He was 14 years old, very talented but only practiced once a day. That was it. The rest of the time, he was doing interviews or appearances. If there's something you should be doing at 14 years old, it's being on the field the whole time and mastering what you could be very good at. I could not stand those things.

"After I quit, however, I still had the feeling MLS could be really good, but it was going to take the right kind of effort, a lot of thought and vision. I always had in my mind that I wanted to come back and be a part of building this game in the United States."

A dozen years later, Stewart is back. His role is different, but the attitude is the same.

Midfielder Brian Carroll is in his sixth year with the Union and is the franchise's player with the longest uninterrupted tenure. He was a second-year player with D.C. United in 2004.

"(Stewart) was very professional but very intense," Carroll said. "He was a great teammate. He just wanted the best out of you.

"He was someone you wanted on your side to go into tough games. To have it come full circle and be working with him today in a different capacity is nice. This is a breath of fresh air. He's pushed all of us to a higher level by demanding more of ourselves and this club."