Earnie Stewart, One-on-One: On Escobar's death, USMNT's culture and the Union's ambitions
A chief ingredient in the United States men’s national team’s early progression in international soccer in the early ‘90s was the addition of foreign-born sons of American servicemen, and the most important of these players undoubtedly was Dutch midfielder Earnie Stewart.
One of the most talented and dynamic midfielders ever to pull on a U.S. jersey, Stewart debuted for the U.S. in 1990 and played in three World Cups and won 101 caps before his international career ended in 2004. He spent most of his playing career in Holland before playing two seasons with D.C. United, where he was an MLS Cup winner in 2004.
Knee ailments ended his playing career a year later, and he quickly went into management, serving as technical director at VVV and NAC and director of football affairs at AZ Alkmaar.
That's never the way sports should end up, no matter where you are and how important games are. In the end, it's a game, and there should not be lives lost over an own goal, let me put it that way.
He returned to the U.S. in 2015 to become the sporting director for the Philadelphia Union, where he and his staff are working to build a winner with far less funding than most of the competition. It's a difficult task, but Stewart, 48, believes they're on the right track.
FourFourTwo caught up with Stewart to talk about the Union and its path forward, his experience at the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups -- and his role in the game that cost Andres Escobar his life -- and the Americans' failure to compete for next year's World Cup.
FFT: You fell into this kind of position right after retiring, first at VVV Venlo and then NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar before coming to the Union. What made you adept at this?
ES: I don't know. When I look back at my career, I was always one of those players that was interested in more than only the soccer ball. The business around it, the mentality around it, so more the mental part of playing and how they step onto the field and what that does, and taking that from my career to what I do now in trying to help my coaches and the players, so it's more coach to coach. Actually, I'm a coach in -- I don't want to say the business part of soccer, because that's not it; it's still soccer -- helping them to be better and making sure my coaches coach the player to be better every single time.
I don't know. I'm open for new ideas, for innovation, if it all makes sense. Making sure that you have an open mind. ... Just being open for that is something that I thrive on, that I enjoy doing.
FFT: Let's go back to your days with the U.S. men’s national team. You played in three World Cups, and they were very different World Cups with very different U.S. teams under very different coaches. Can you compare and contrast? What means the most to you from these experiences?
ES: I'd say '94 and 2002 were very similar in the part where the group knew from each other exactly what they needed to do and what we were good in and what we were not so good in. So, those two I can kind of mesh together. Good group of guys. I think 2002, the talent level was a lot better than it was in '94, but the cohesiveness was there in '94, and it was there in 2002.
Where we did not have that in '98, for all kinds of different reasons. I think we qualified fairly easy, but in the World Cup we weren't that cohesive group that I was used to in '94 and that I saw in 2002.
The part that meant the most in all three World Cups was in 2002, the opening game against Portugal, and Claudio [Reyna, the captain] was injured, and I was named captain to the team. That stood out the most of all.
FFT: 1994 was the first taste of the World Cup for a lot of Americans, and nobody was sure the U.S. would get out of its group. You did so through that victory over Colombia, and your goal was the difference. What do you remember about that goal, that game, and the aftermath with Andres Escobar's death?
ES: I remember that more than than the tournament itself.
That had to do with being young, and I don't want to say I didn't enjoy [the World Cup], because that's not it, but you're so focused on your own performance that you don't have time to look outside yourself and enjoy the moment that you're there. I was so focused on myself and the performance and not letting coaches, teammates and fans down that I can't even say that I know too much about anything in that tournament. I can't recall all of the moments.
And, obviously, what happened with Escobar, that does stand out, because that is something that happened later [in the tournament], and you think about a lot, that you're confronted with a lot, so there's a lot of time to think about that. That's never the way sports should end up, no matter where you are and how important games are. In the end, it's a game, and there should not be lives lost over an own goal, let me put it that way.
FFT: When all of that happened, you guys were at Stanford preparing for the round-of-16 game against Brazil. To hold the champions to a 1-0 result seemed to say a lot for that team and the three years of preparation under Bora Milutinovic.
ES: Yeah, except when you look at it and you analyze it, we didn't have many chances. Yes, it was only 1-0 against Brazil, they were playing with 10 men [after Leonardo's red card for the elbow into Tab Ramos' jaw] , but still it never really felt like in that game that we could really get a result, because they were just better than we were.
Even though it was close against the world champions in '94, that game was not something I could say, ‘Wow, we were really, really close,’ because it didn't feel that way on the field. At least not for me. Maybe others would disagree with that, but for me it never felt like we were really close. I never got a chance in that game. I ran around a lot, tried to help here and there, but never really got the chance to help the team in creating chances or scoring goals. Just a little bit the way the game felt as a whole.
FFT: The quarterfinal loss to Germany in 2002 had to feel very different, right?
ES: Yeah. I'd say when you talk about the differences in '94 and 2002, the part where it differs very much is that you can see between '94 and 2002 how far American soccer had come at that moment.
In '94, it was almost a counterattacking team, making sure we were close together [on the field] and that we fought for each other and that we grinded results out. In 2002, our playing level was so much different than in '94, and now we were actually going into games and keeping possession and had an idea about the way we wanted to create chances [and] not concede goals.