Ford: Earnie Stewart has Union on the run

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On the manicured grass field set between the riverfront and the cracked asphalt of the surrounding Chester neighborhood, the heat rose in shimmering waves one day last week, and the soccer players swam steadily through, advancing toward the goal.

It was just the first of two daily practices for the Philadelphia Union, the only team in Major League Soccer with a training schedule as demanding. It is much tougher than a year ago, and the players either fall in line or fall away.

A lot is different with the Union compared with a year ago. The team, which has qualified for the MLS postseason just once in its six-year history and not since 2011, has been near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Also new is the front-office presence of Earnie Stewart, a former U.S. national team player hired in the offseason as the Union's sporting director, the soccer equivalent of a general manager.

Stewart, 47, the son of a U.S. Air Force airman and a Dutch mother, has lived his soccer life with one foot in the world of the European game and one in that of the United States. Most of his professional club career was in Holland, but he played in three World Cups for the U.S. team and two seasons in MLS for D.C. United near the end of his career.

He gravitated toward team-building after retiring and became known as a general manager in Holland who made the most out of the least, developing a blend of soccer analytics and common sense to put together rosters that could succeed against more powerful clubs. It went well, but Stewart had an unfulfilled ambition to return to the United States and help advance the game from its eternal but static position as the country's sport of the future.

"There's so much untapped potential," Stewart said. "We have tremendous athletes, but you need a system and a style of play that adapts to that."

Out on the shimmering field, the ball is taken down the wing and worked to the end line, then brought back and dropped to an onrushing attacker. Stewart's breakdown of MLS goals showed that a large percentage are scored like that during the run of play, so the Union work on it every day. They also work an extraordinary amount on set pieces, the free kicks and corner kicks awarded when play stops, because those, according to Stewart, not only decide games but, more often than not, are the first goals scored.

"I don't have to tell you that the difference between leading 1-0 and trailing 1-0 is huge in this game," he said.

And they run. And they run and they run and they run. They run because it is the MLS, and Stewart has studied the correlation between distance covered during a game and the final score. This is not a league in which the talent level is so high that the players can hustle selectively. They run every day, twice a day, because running wins here.

"We make up with that for what we don't have," Stewart said.

What the Union have not had during their existence is a large bucket of money to drop into the well of available talent. Among the many things that have changed this season, that has not. The Union's payroll of approximately $5.65 million is in the bottom five of the 20-team league and dwarfed by payrolls of teams such as the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York City FC, and Toronto FC, which can reach and crest $20 million.

It has been the philosophy of Jay Sugarman, the team's principle investor/operator - the single-entity league doesn't technically have franchise owners - and his partners to eschew the path of signing big-ticket marqee players in favor of building with a young foundation. That process under former front-office executive Nick Sakiewicz, who became a touchstone for dissatisfaction among the fans, did not go smoothly.

That opened the door for the hiring of Stewart, who had very specific ideas for developing a winner in MLS. He recommended that the team double down on its commitment to its youth academy, improve its training facilities, figure out what kind of players and what style of play succeeds in the league, and forget about buying expensive fruit that might be ripe today but will rot too soon.

"We sat down at our first meeting and he said, 'How do you want to play, and what do you want it to look like?' " said head coach Jim Curtin, the former Villanova star whose own professional career in MLS started at the academy level. "And I said, 'Well, we have this central midfielder who has this good quality and this bad one, so we hide it by doing this and this.' And he said, 'No. How do you want to play? And we'll sort out the rest.' His vision is not just to win today but five years down the road."

Stewart didn't wait five years to get going. There have been as many as 15 new players on the roster this season. He made two trades to get additional picks in the first round of the MLS draft, and the three rookies selected among the top 10 picks - Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry, and Fabian Herbers - have all contributed. Rosenberry, the right back just named to the All-Star Game, has played every minute of every match.

"I don't just look at good players. I look at good players for the Philadelphia Union," Stewart said. "Not every player fits in MLS, and not every MLS player fits with the Philadelphia Union. You identify who you are and what you want your product to be on the field, and that's the people you try to get. You have to make that identity very clear before you make those decisions."

Stewart was not a flashy player himself. It isn't his personality, on or off the field. He was a speedy and gifted midfielder, however, and, in 1994, scored a goal in the first U.S. World Cup win since 1950. On a team that changed its style several times during his 14-year tenure with the national team, Stewart was never the biggest piece but the glue that bound those together.

"Earnie was always a smart guy, and not every international player is necessarily smart," said Union assistant coach Mike Sorber, who was on the national team with Stewart for six years. "He was a guy who was alert and had an idea what was going on around him. You look back and see a guy with his experiences, knowing both cultures, and his intelligence, wherever he went, he was going to be successful."

Building as the Union have chosen to build is not going to inflame the ticket-buying public, or at least the casual fans, in the same way that other franchises have chosen to do by extending large salaries to big names. Ricardo Kaka, or merely Kaka, a Brazilian midfielder, earns $7.16 million from Orlando City, more than the entire Union salary budget. Midfielder Maurice Edu, at $793,000, is the highest-paid Union player. If the MLS playoffs began today, the Union would have a high seed, and Orlando would be on the bubble of qualifying.

Still, part of Stewart's long-term job is selling those tickets eventually. The Union's average attendance has decreased every season, including this one, since the team's inception, from 19,254 in the inaugural 2010 season to 16,842 through nine home games prior to Saturday's match at Talen Energy Stadium against D.C. United.

Part of the reason is the Union's lack of success; part that the novelty of both the team and the dramatic setting of the stadium is no longer new; and part, frankly, is that soccer is a tougher sell for fans who are less than die-hard and have other options.

"Some things are frustrating. Not being the No. 1 sport like in other countries can affect the thought process in your own company," Stewart said. "For me, the first thought should always be, 'How does what I do today translate to success on the field?' That's not always there, and I can't blame anybody for that. But that's what we need to work on."

What is the first thought instead?

"How can I make money?" Stewart said.

Stewart's real job is to combine those two goals. He envisions a time when the Union will develop homegrown talent through the academy; through players that mature with the team's USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel; and those players will then fund the enterprise either on the field with a successful, profitable Union team or as assets to be cashed in with transfer fees to clubs around the world. It isn't an MLS model that has ever been tried to the extent Stewart intends. It is really a European model, based on the junior feeder systems that funnel talent upward to the top clubs. In effect, the best clubs in the world each have their own minor leagues. Can that work in the United States?

"We play so many sports here up until a certain age," Stewart said. "In Holland, if you're a boy, you're playing soccer. That's it. Here we play soccer this season, football this season, baseball this season. If you do that until you're 13, 14 years old, it's too late. If you give 30 percent to soccer, it's going to amount to 30 percent. We don't specialize until a certain age, and you're missing out. The hours you put in is what you will get out."

Stewart thinks the Union's main youth development focus - YSC Academy in Wayne - will eventually widen the funnel to at least a large trickle that can reach the professional level. It's cheaper than paying Kaka and has a chance to be a more lasting philosophy.

"I believe we can really have something special," Stewart said. "We're not going to have the money that L.A. or New York has, but that doesn't matter. We're going to do it in a different way. We have our own identity, and I truly believe that with that identity, not with that money, we can do spectacular things. I see this here, and I want to be part of it."

On the field, the first practice session ended. The players, dripping wet and flushed, went to the sideline to remove their cleats. They would be back out before the shoes had a chance to dry, but they play for an organization that is on the run. The boss has everyone running to catch up, running to set a new pace.

"He made it mandatory that we train two times a day. No other team in the league is doing that on a consistent basis," Curtin said after leaving the field, also red from the sun. "The players have bought in. If a couple results didn't go our way early on, we could have started to hear a little chirping, but we got the results. We're a young, growing league, and one thing we have is athletic, young players who are fearless. That's good, but it can also sometimes lead to the chaos of the league where it is all about running and fighting. But, don't get me wrong, it's getting better. We believe 11 guys on the same page can beat any group of individuals or superstars."

Stewart is the man designing the page. He has studied what it should look like in the United States and within MLS for a long time, both up close and from far away. The plan is easy: grow your own players, give them a style that fits their strengths, and manage them carefully. The execution of the plan is the tough part.

"This season, the emphasis is we want to see passes that go forward and not square balls or balls that go back," Stewart said. "We want to attack."

He has them moving forward, moving to the future, moving in a direction no one else has really gone. The Union are running, literally, to keep up. It is one day at a time. One day and two practices.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports