Q&A: MNT GM Earnie Stewart - "Leading a country that has fallen in love with soccer is tremendous."

After an extensive hiring process, former U.S. Men’s National Team star and accomplished soccer executive Earnie Stewart has been named General Manager of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Stewart sat down with ussoccer.com for a wide ranging discussion about himself, the new position and his vision for the future of the MNT.
Earnie Stewart
Earnie Stewart

After an extensive hiring process, former U.S. Men’s National Team star and accomplished soccer executive Earnie Stewart has been named General Manager of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Stewart sat down with ussoccer.com for a wide ranging discussion about himself, the new position and his vision for the future of the MNT.

ussoccer.com: Why did you want to take the role of General Manager of the U.S. Men’s National Team?

Earnie Stewart: “Having played for the U.S. Men’s National Team and seeing what the capabilities and possibilities were in the United States, this was something where I wanted to jump on board. My ultimate goal was to be at the top of the pyramid at some point in my career to help soccer in the United States. When this came along, it was an opportunity I could not pass up.

After a period with VVV Venlo, NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar as a sporting director, it was clear to me that the pathway that I wanted to go was to mean something for soccer in the United States. That first opportunity came with the Philadelphia Union, and I’m very thankful for the period of time that I was there.”

ussoccer.com: Can you describe what your responsibilities will be in the GM position?

ES: “My responsibilities as a general manager are focused on the U.S. Men’s National Team. Everything that has to do with the team, from the scouting process to getting players into camp together with the head coach of the National Team. We want to make sure there’s a clear process for our style of play, that there’s a clear process of the way we want to play and make sure that we win games.”

ussoccer.com: Is there a timeline in your mind for when you'd like to have a head coach?

ES: “As quick as possible. I think the head coach is the most important person within the National Team. He's the man on the sideline. He's the man that selects the players and he's the man after the game that stands in front of the nation and tells them what they have just seen. I think that's very important. As we had the process in getting a general manager, I think a similar process needs to take place for a head coach. We’ll do our due diligence. It’s very important to make sure we make the right choice.”

ussoccer.com: When you begin the process of looking for a head coach, what are the qualities or characteristics that you’ll be looking for?

ES: “The most important think that I’ve learned from my experiences overseas, and especially within the U.S. Men’s National Team, is you have a very short period that you have to get results, a short time that a group gets together and needs to gel. One of the things that I’ve seen over my career is that you have to be a really good people manager. That’s one of the qualities that a head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team must have. There’s also the other part to make sure that our style of play, the way that we want to play during the game, the tactical principles that we have, that you see those on the field. Being able to implement those things in just a week, maybe 10 days, is something that points to the tactical knowledge of a coach. The combination of those two are really important, and there’s a whole other list that comes after that.”

ussoccer.com: What do you think will be the first steps that you take in the new role? What do you want to accomplish in the beginning?

ES: “In the beginning, you want to make sure that everybody’s heard. It’s not just my vision -  it’s our vision of how we want to get to success. Having a lot of conversations with people is very important, understanding what has happened in the past and where we’re going to go in the future. Obviously already having several conversations, I was very excited with the path that the U.S. Men’s National Team and the Federation were already taking moving forward. One of the most important things is making sure that we have a new head coach for this coming period.”

ussoccer.com: How do you rank your priorities?

ES: “I have a lot of priorities. Head coach is a definite priority and making sure that from the top down you're very stable. Then, getting to know this whole player pool, which is a big player pool right now, is a part of that. Making sure that the travel plans are ready to visit all players, visit their clubs, make sure you have conversations, one with the player, but two with the clubs.”

ussoccer.com: How would you describe what you think is the right culture for the U.S. Men’s National Team?

ES: “The right culture in the United States has everything to do with the culture that there already is. Sports culture in the United States is an important part of who we are and how we tick. Creating an environment where players can be themselves is important, knowing what their role is and also knowing what their responsibilities are going forward. We want to make sure that when we step on to the field that we know who we are representing. We want to know that and create that environment with the will of going out there and fighting like lions every time. We might not win all the time, but it certainly can never be that when we step off the field, people can say we didn’t fight for it.”

ussoccer.com: How important is pride in playing for your country?

ES: “Pride is everything. Passion, pride, those are values that I deem as very important. I played with a lot of pride and passion for the United States. It was something that was dear to my heart and has gotten me to a place where I am right now. That’s what I expect of our players going forward, that we all carry that same pride when the flag goes up and we’re representing our country.”

ussoccer.com: What do you plan to establish as the process for scouting to look for the next players for the MNT?

ES: “First and foremost, it’s very important when we scout our players that we know exactly what they’re about. Creating a style and a culture where everybody understands their role and their responsibilities within the way we play is very important to getting results, whether at home or on the road. The scouting process means going to see these players, sit down with them, talk about their ambitions, their endeavors, and quite frankly, what they’re good in, what they’re not so good in and see if we can help in that regard.”

ussoccer.com: How much will you be working with the Youth National Teams, their coaching staffs and their scouting staffs to make sure that all these things are integrated?

ES: “If you want to create a culture together, you have to be at a table together and you need to be talking about that culture. You need to be talking about a style of play. The identification of these players, building a culture is something that you have to do together. It's not one person or two people. It's actually sitting down and having conversations with the coaches of the U.S. Youth National Teams. It's also making sure that we all identify what our culture is and then implement it every single day.”

ussoccer.com: How do you think your experiences as a player, both at the club level and the international level, and in management will help you in the role as general manager?

ES: “Having seen both sides of the table is great in the experience that you gain. As a player, you have a certain view of what goes on and how you go about your business. At the same time, once you’re on the other side of the table those things that you thought about in the past were the best way don’t necessarily make sense on the other side.

The combination of those experiences is very important. Both the head coach, but also the general manager of the National Team, is going to have those responsibilities to be able to talk with players, but also be able to talk with management about what we see on the field, what is expected and what is needed for these players to get results. Having that experience on both sides of the table is something very valuable and I’ve used that throughout my career.”

ussoccer.com: “You’ve mentioned that you saw some things that the Federation was doing that you thought were encouraging. What are some of those things you think are heading in the right direction?”

ES: “The best example of where the Federation is heading and the new direction that it’s taking is the process that they went through for the general manager. I think it’s tremendous that you know on paper exactly what you want, in your mind know what you want, have some good conversations with more people than myself and talk about what’s needed for the National Team. Plus, there are so many things there for the U.S. Men’s National Team to be successful in the future. Things like data analytics, changes in coaching education, player development initiatives and others show the Federation has taken some massive steps, especially since the time I’ve played. Seeing that is tremendous.”

ussoccer.com: Are there things that you would like to see changed or improved?

ES: “I think that's difficult to judge just having been brought on and not being on the inside. There was a long conversation, but at the same time I think you have to be on the inside to make sure that you understand what's exactly going on, the processes that there are and then try to bring in your opinions. We want to make sure that we as an organization make the right choices.”

ussoccer.com: What is it that attracted you most to this General Manager job?

ES: “It's the top of the pyramid in my profession. In my book, this is the highest that you can achieve as a sporting director. Being able to lead a country that has fallen in love with soccer and is still growing as we speak is something tremendous. I'm very honored and very pleased to be able to sit here in this chair. This was something that came along and I've worked very hard to have this opportunity. When it came, it was something I could not turn down at all.”

ussoccer.com: How would you describe your approach to team building?

ES: “It starts with our culture. The culture of professionalism, of having values with each other and then reacting to those values. Coming into camp every single time and making sure that everybody knows exactly where they stand and who they are. It creates a culture that is very strong. Once everybody believes in the same goals, there's going to be an automatic team chemistry. I truly believe that if everybody understands their roles and responsibilities, not only of themselves, but of everybody that’s next to them, you create this great team chemistry. I think one of the things that we have in the United States, apart from creating that kind of team chemistry, is that when the flag is raised, we know exactly what business is about. The combination of those two can be very good.”

ussoccer.com: You talked about the pride that you had playing with the National Team. How much pride do you feel in taking this leadership role?

ES: “I feel a lot of pride in taking this leadership role. I've been asked several times what is the greatest moment in my career. A lot of people would probably say goals that you've scored or anything like that, but for me it was being able to lead our team out as captain against Portugal at the World Cup in 2002. I thought that was amazing. That was the thing that I've always dreamt of. When I'm sitting here now and thinking about the leadership role that I have at the top of the pyramid, it’s something that I'm really proud of. I'll do everything in my power to make sure that we find success in an endeavor to become world champion at one moment.”

ussoccer.com: Where do you see the program at this stage and what are the next steps forward?

ES: “It’s almost a rebuilding phase. There’s a bit of a change now. The next generation is going to step up and I think you've seen that in recent games as the U.S. Men’s National Team has played with a young player pool. What M.L.S. has meant for the U.S. Men’s National Team player pool has grown and grown. Now we have these young talents coming up and being the next generation. That change is something that's fantastic. I think the current coaching staff has done a great job bringing these players in that have that potential for the future. Going into that next phase, it’s critical that we know exactly what these players are capable of and what they're worth. Qualifying comes around very quickly again.

ussoccer.com: Is failing to qualify for the World Cup a failure of a cycle or is it a failure of a system?

ES: “I think it's a failure of a cycle. It obviously hurts, but I don't think it has anything to do with systems. I think it has more to do with the period that you're in. Unfortunately, we were on the bad side of that cycle, but now there's a new cycle coming along. There's a new player pool coming along. There's a lot of talent in the United States and it's something that we have to look after and make sure that they reach the highest of their potential. Being able to be there for them, facilitate them in that, is the most important job for us.”

ussoccer.com: What's your vision of a process for talent identification?

ES: “Talent identification is first and foremost making sure that you know who's eligible, who's out there and then going to see him, having conversations with them, just seeing what drives them, what their ambitions are, where they want to go and how can you facilitate that at the same time. It’s about seeing them in their environment, seeing them flourish in their environment and seeing if you can tweak that left and right with some help. Obviously, there's a federation piece and there's a club piece in that. They need to connect with each other, and together make sure that the players are maximizing their qualities.”

ussoccer.com: Do you want to establish a style of play? If so, how?

ES: “The style of play will be evident for people that are close to the team. What's more important is that people on the outside know exactly what they see on the inside. You might not know anything about soccer, but there’s a certain way of playing that we want the National Team to bring. Once again, the pride and passion come to mind as important values that we spoke about in meetings. When our players step on the field, we want to make sure that people always see that.”

ussoccer.com: There’s this exciting youth movement within the team now. What do you see from these young players?

ES: “There’s the excitement of these young players when they step onto the field. They have no history whatsoever with the U.S. Men’s National Team, and they bring this passion, this energy that's just exciting to see. You see them fighting for their time and for the limelight and that needs to carry over, not only in this period, but continuously during the campaign of our endeavors to become world champion at one moment. These are exciting, exciting times with everything that's happening at the Federation, especially with the player pool that exists right now for the U.S. Men’s National Team.”

ussoccer.com: What are your ultimate goals for the program?

ES: “My ultimate goal for the U.S. Men’s National Team is to become a world champion at some point in the future. I'm not saying that that needs to happen in four years, but making sure that we create this great big player pool, together in the landscape of the United States from academies to M.L.S. and also our players that are in foreign countries, that gets us into a place where we are a country that needs to be reckoned with. I think we already are. I think we've come a long way. After all these years, people recognize us and what our capabilities are.”