Earnie Stewart has a plan for the future of U.S. soccer
The technical director is working to change the perception of the national team and continue efforts to diversify the game
Long before soccer firmly became part of the American mainstream viewing experience, Earnie Stewart was part of a group of men and women at the end of the 20th century eager to make the world’s most popular game as beloved as American football, basketball and baseball.
Without Stewart’s presence giving his compatriots reasons to join the soccer bandwagon, broadcasts of major European professional leagues and commercial advertisements of the sports’ biggest stars here in the States may not have occurred. While the debate about the U.S. men’s national team’s greatest of all time focuses on Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, it would be myopic not to include Stewart as one of this country’s most important players.
Few soccer players worldwide play more than 100 games for their country, and Stewart is a part of that exclusive list with 101 men’s team appearances. His 17 international goals placed Stewart as one of America’s top all-time finishers, as he still resides in the top 10 on the U.S. men’s goal-scoring list. He also played a vital role as a premier player or leader on three World Cup teams for the men’s team.
Stewart, 53, is the only Black player to captain an American men’s World Cup team, which may change at the FIFA World Cup this fall with Leeds United’s Tyler Adams emerging as a guiding force for America’s most talented team.
Stewart’s tremendous playing background makes his role as the first technical director for U.S. Soccer all the more vital. Stewart is important not only to whether the U.S. men’s team will become the superpower its women’s program has been but also to see if leadership will reflect the diverse demographics of the country’s most fervent soccer supporters.
Stewart, who was given the inaugural technical director’s position in August 2019, 14 months after joining U.S. Soccer to be its general manager of the men’s team, oversees the men’s and women’s programs. He selects the coaches for these coveted positions and sets the ethos, or “principles of play,” as he calls it, that all U.S. Soccer teams (whether the senior level teams or the youth upstarts) will follow.
Andscape sat down with Earnest Lee Stewart Jr., the Dutch-born son of a Black American airman and white Dutch mother, about his inspiring background, the outlook for soccer in America on and off the field, and more.
Earnie, your full thoughts on being on the field for the huge moment of the equal pay collective bargaining signing for both the United States women’s national team [USWNT] and USMNT at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., after the 2-1 USWNT win over Nigeria on Sept. 6?
As [U.S. Soccer president] Cindy [Parlow Cone] said and as [USWNT defender] Becky [Sauerbrunn] said, it’s been a long time coming, so there’s a lot of work that was going on behind the scenes. Our women’s national team pushed us as an organization, but also the men stepped up in the very important moment to make something historical like this all happen, and once the signatures go on that, it makes it a real thing all of a sudden. There’s a lot of hard work that went into it: our outside counsel, our legal counsel and those that were all involved to make this happen. I’m happy that it’s something about the sport of soccer and I think it’s bigger than that. Hopefully, we see a ripple effect around the world and go from there.
How was your childhood and life growing up in Veghel, Netherlands?
I tell myself that I’ve been in the best of two worlds. My father is American. My mother is Dutch. I lived in California there for a little bit and then moved back to Holland. I was born in Holland as well. I went to The American School until I was 11 years old and I actually fell in love with the game of soccer probably a little bit earlier than 11 years old through my family. We played in the backyard. The love of the game, the round ball and kicking and diving and all that kind of stuff got me to really love the game. When I switched over to a Dutch school at 11, 12 years old, from a club perspective, that’s where my development started within the game of soccer. [I’m] still very fortunate to be part of soccer so, after a career as an amateur at 17 years old and a professional, and then later on being able to hopefully influence soccer in a positive way moving forward. I’ve been doing that now for almost 20 years. And every day, I wake up with a smile and go to work with a smile. So, that’s kind of like the best thing that you can have, probably.
What game, teams and/or players made you fall in love with the sport?
I grew up watching Ajax. I grew up down south in Holland, where usually you have to be a PSV Eindhoven fan, where I was very much an Ajax fan at the time. And just that the way they play soccer was one influence, watching World Cups and my father buying me my first tape of one Edson Arantes do Nascimento, otherwise known as Pelé, and just going out seeing him juggle melons and all that kind of stuff, and seeing if I could grab an orange or anything like that my mom would give me, to also go outside and master my craft. So, just a whole combination of things, of watching Ajax, world championships and just seeing the massiveness of the game and how big it is globally. And just from my hero at the time was Pelé as I got the first tape from my father. So, a combination of those three, for sure.
Were you ever intent from childhood to want to become a professional soccer player in the Eredivisie or other places?
I can’t say I was a career planner at the time, certainly not at a young age at all. I just love the game. My mother and father, they worked hard all of their lives raising us children and my father, all he has done for us, is to travel the world as I’m doing now for my family and always providing, so I’m just that mentality working hard was something that came naturally to my parents.
So, it wasn’t about career planning, it was more just about enjoying and committing yourself to that. And from that, there are steps that you then take and make once you start moving along and actually it’s no different right now. I just try to focus on the things that I have control of within my environment, work hard at it, state my opinion about it and then together with a whole group of brilliant people try to make it better every single day.
So far in your three-year tenure as the first technical director of U.S. Soccer and four years as part of the federation in a prominent decision-making level, you have overseen the USWNT retain its World Cup title and the men return to both the World Cup and the Olympics, two pivotal successes. What are some other accomplishments during your time with U.S. Soccer that you think aren’t getting talked about enough?
There are a lot of things that people don’t see. It’s one, building a vision of a sporting organization and the way that we work together. And that all revolves around our way of playing, so documenting that is extremely important and then from that documentation are the processes that need to be in place to actually be able to perform. And the better that we as staff can organize camps and organize thoughts and get feedback will make it easier to develop players. So, that process piece is something with a lot of people that we have taken care of. That’s something that I’m really proud of.
The other piece is that we’re now finally playing in a place where we’re all playing and having the same principles no matter if we’re talking about girls, boys, senior national teams, so from top to bottom, we’re thinking in the same way. And probably the main thing is, I remember in the beginning when we started with a technical plan how our female coaches or our male coaches would talk about gender. And that’s gone. There’s no talk about gender or anything like that anymore. It’s about the principles of how we want to do that. And then some things girls are faster when they grow up and in other things boys are faster, so making a combination of learning from one another so the cross-pollination to one another is also something I’m extremely happy with. Just having that communication and it starts around one big plan: How do we want to play and the principles around that. So everything is filtered around that. I’ve said how weird this sounds, COVID was a blessing in disguise for us to get our heads out of the weeds for a period of time and be able to really focus and concentrate on that.
I’m very thankful to our two head coaches [Gregg Berhalter and Vlatko Andonovski], who are open to communicating with youth national team coaches. I don’t believe that happens everywhere, let me put it that way. And then our youth national team coaches that were here work very hard behind the scenes to implement what we are trying to do.
You mentioned the COVID-19 reset you had with senior national team managers Berhalter and Andonovski. What were some of those things that you feel you all benefited from during that period?
I’m a firm believer in being together. And human interaction is, I think, extremely important. And what happened was not everybody was traveling. We had more opportunities to be in the office together. We’re having a wine and tea summit on [September] 15th and 16th to discuss everything about YNT [youth national teams]. We planned this probably five months ago and that was the first time we could get all of our coaches, without our senior national team coaches, due to their travel, together. So that period where we were dormant and weren’t able to travel with coaches did give us the opportunity to actually focus on each other and the thoughts that we have in moving the way we want to play and moving forward.
We want to become world champion on the men’s side and stay world champion on the women’s side. We have a good way to go on the men’s side, but we can’t be blinded by the success of an amazing generation. We got to keep moving forward and evolve the game.
It’s been two months since the Under-20 men won the U-20 CONCACAF tournament to send the men’s program back to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. What is your final overview of that tournament’s success matching the ethos of what you want from your teams?
Where would I start with this? And I say this with a little hesitancy because it might come off that I think winning is important, that’s what my whole life revolves around. However, as what you were talking about, it’s the way that we did it that’s important. CONCACAF is a great environment for us to show what we can do, but winning in CONCACAF doesn’t mean anything. Because now you have to go to the global stage, Olympics, world championships and show your traits there. Qualifying is fantastic, but especially what you were talking about, the way that we did.
I’m never too concerned about players missing chances or making mistakes. That’s what I want our young players to do. I want them to take adventures, make sure that in our philosophy that to get to the global stage and be successful there you will have to have players that are creative, that can handle decision-making under stress in tight spaces. That is what that game is about at that level. That means we have to prepare for that level.
And the way that Mikey Varas with the Under-20 team did not only play and get results and qualify us for the Olympics and world championship, it made me extremely proud. There was a really determined and set way in understanding between players, from Paxten Aaronson to Quinn Sullivan, scoring goals being dangerous, always forward facing, forward passing, plus a good organization. Now we’re in the right ballgame and if we can start doing this over and over again, we will be prepared for the global stages and the Olympics and world championships.
Because we’re bullish, we want to become world champion on the men’s side and stay world champion on the women’s side. We have a good way to go on the men’s side, but we can’t be blinded by the success of an amazing generation. We got to keep moving forward and evolve the game.
You currently still are the only Black Player in USMNT history to captain an American side in a World Cup game. What is your full perspective on your legacy and place as a Black player on the team and your position on the history and future of diversity on the national team?
My place in that? Hmm …
I was very privileged in that I grew up in Holland, a very liberal country that accepts everybody for the most part. Not to say everything’s perfect, because that’s also not [true]. I didn’t realize what I heard some of my colleagues experienced in the United States. For me to captain our men’s national team at the time was just something as a soccer player. I identify myself as an African American. [I viewed myself then] not as an African American but as a soccer player, being able to lead my team, our team, the U.S. team, the biggest country in the world. For all the goals I scored, that is the moment against Portugal that I was probably most proud.
And then later on, when we talk about U.S. Soccer DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and how important it is and what kind of places that has in our organization, you start to look back and say those are important moments. I’m a sports man at heart and I pride myself by thinking that I don’t see color [in terms of trying to see everyone equal on initial glance]. I see good and bad, that’s what I see. I try to be as unbiased as I can in the decisions that I make. As I said, youth national teams are not [solely] about winning, and I say that with a little bit of a smile since I love winning. But at the senior national team level, it’s about winning.
And if we address the root of the problem, I think in the end, to your point about DEI, we’re going to solve the problem. It might not be tomorrow, because I don’t like window dressing, like the Rooney Rule as an example. What has it really done for us up to now?
So we have got to do better with that and that for me starts at the foundation of everything. And that’s my core belief in life and as long as we go to the core root of the problem, and fix it there, man, in some cases it might be a year, in some cases it might be five years, but then we’re going to be in the right place.
You talked previously with [former men’s team forward and current New England Revolution analyst] Charlie Davies and how he expresses the importance that you and Cobi Jones had on him growing up, and myself too. And another notable Black American soccer figure of the ’90s, Briana Scurry …
I saw her actually too on the field [during the equal pay signing].
Oh, really … ?
Yeah, I tell you what, I got nervous. I’m in the box and I see Kate Markgraf, Kristine Lilly, Briana Scurry, I got nervous there, I have to say, ha ha.
That bond that you have with not only Cobi, but with other prominent Black players on the 2002 USMNT team, Eddie Pope, Tony Sanneh and Carlos Llamosa, how was that camaraderie back then?
Cobi and I roomed together for the bulk of our men’s national team career. From beginning to end, we were always roommates. I cherish those moments that we had, the conversations that we had, all kinds of things.
And then seeing the next African American standing up and Tony playing an amazing World Cup in 2002. And Eddie Pope, one of the best defenders the U.S. has ever had. Eddie was capable of anything and everything. And so humble. So humble.
It’s fun to see that everybody is involved in the game in some sort of way. Some are agents, some are helping from a coaching perspective. So, to see that just warms the heart.
It’s the second consecutive season of a number of young USMNT players playing in the best club soccer competition in the world, the UEFA Champions League. How excited are you about this continued development of seeing Weston McKennie score at another big stadium versus an elite club, a header versus PSG, as well as Sergino Dest, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna?
I think it goes back a longer period of time when U.S. Soccer created the development academy. It’s pretty logical to see the influx of talent into the national team, after not qualifying [for the World Cup] in 2018, and then making those steps to the bigger clubs.
For those European clubs, the growth of MLS and NWSL, the American player is still interesting just from their physicality. We still need to work on some things, decision-making and creativity. And we can do that with some changes. But the growth of those players and transfer into Europe at the highest level, Champions League, is something unique. It’s fantastic for the sport.
For young kids to be the next Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, how great is that to be able to see them? … These are just fantastic things to see and it shows the growth that’s happened from there. And now, that just needs to continue.
It’s been over two years since the murder of George Floyd and the 2020 summer of Black Lives Matter protests changing the world. U.S. Soccer allowed their players, particularly Black players, to express their public candid thoughts on the changes required to end racism and racial injustices. The federation repealed that players and coaches do not have to “stand respectfully” for the national anthem if they do not want to. What are any other changes in U.S. Soccer that you have witnessed from that summer to address any issues of past inequality and needed diversity?
Obviously I’m a bit biased since I work in U.S. Soccer. If I just take the last two to three years under Cindy Parlow Cone, the discussion that’s gone on about it is already amazing in itself. Is everything perfect? Probably not. However, the discussions are there, we’re taking things into account, we’re talking to players, we’re trying to move forward as an organization. And as I say as an organization, we are a total landscape that needs to take everything on board. And it’s just U.S. Soccer that needs to do that.
I’m trying to be a leader in that, and the historic moment that happened with the equality signing, I think there have been steps taken that are extremely important and great for the growth of our sport. And even bigger than sport. I think they’ve done a really good job, but as U.S. Soccer, you’re almost like the government, it’s never good enough.
We talked about Briana Scurry earlier, we have witnessed a major increase of Black players on the USWNT over the last few years. Along with mainstays Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn, we have seen the likes of Sophia Smith, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma and other Black players called into rosters. What do you attribute this sudden increase to?
Once again this goes back longer and the DA [diversity awareness] and the roots and providing opportunity.
And if we can provide opportunity for those not as fortunate and just lower the level, the entry level of being able to play the game of soccer — if you look at it, it’s just balls and cones — that’s what we’re talking about. But I understand, logistically, we’re very challenged with all the travel that we have to do.
But I am convinced that if all these kids start to love the game just as much as we do and you have a big influence on that as parents, as U.S. Soccer, in having really good coaches that can create fun. That’s the most important thing: fun and safe environments that are always challenging and that kids can play at their level. And the more that grows, at the root, instead of having 5 million kids playing, if that becomes 10, 20, 25 million, then you can also imagine that the costs will really swing.
Really simply, now that we have all these kids playing the game, we have to provide a structure for that. And then we are going to see even more of those players coming through. Latinos, African Americans, Caucasians. It’s going to be a better mix of who we actually are from the United States.
Are there any other future soccer players in the Stewart family after yourself?
So my father was in American football, my mother was a sprinter, my sister was a Dutch national champion in swimming. She was the first woman of African descent to become a swimming champion in Holland.
And my little brother played soccer, he was actually at professional clubs, including PSV Eindhoven, and he never made the next step. My son played for a longer period of time but also just quit, so the next one up is my little brother’s son and he’s got to carry the torch somehow, ha ha.
What are your expectations for the USMNT as they return to the World Cup in late November in Qatar?
Gregg and I, when we both started with U.S. Soccer, one of the things we said was that we want to change how the world views American soccer. And what we mean by that is when Gregg and I played, team commitment and defense [was the style].
What we want to change is actually the way we are playing and how do we score goals. This is trying to stay away from results: How do we step on the field and how do we try to score goals and how well are we organized.
If we can get to that stage with our players, I think we’re going to be very successful. So that piece and others now start to talk about the U.S. already a little bit. They are talking differently about the way that we play soccer. Not the way we defend or that we’re good athletes, which is kind of logical, since we in the United States play four or five different sports. And if we get to that place, I’ll be a very happy camper.
For me, that is the difference at a global stage. I guess there’s been world champions that just defended the whole tournament … [but playing that style] I think you aren’t going to have success. At some point, you are going to have to show yourself, you’re going to have to score goals and there’s a way of doing that.
We’ve been working hard on that the last four years, at not just both our senior national teams, but all of our youth teams.
You have smiled a number of times during this talk, where you seem very happy with having this job. Am I reading that enthusiasm from you correctly?
What I’ve learned about myself over these almost 20 years of doing this is what makes me tick. Winning a game, though I really, really enjoy it, it lasts about two minutes, the fulfillment of that. When somebody in their career takes the next step and I played a role in that, whether a player or a coach, that gives a lot of gratification.
I’ve learned that this role is closer to who I am as a manager and trying to create environments for people to thrive. It’s not about my idea. It’s about making sure I’m creating these environments where we can get the best out of the brilliant minds that we have with U.S. Soccer. That’s my role and that’s what makes me tick every day and get up with a smile every day.