By Kevin Kinkead
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- This might be the best signing in franchise history.
Earnie Stewart is the Philadelphia Union's very first "Sporting Director".
It took the team 11 months to make the hire, but they got it right in the end.
This is a former United States international midfielder who played in World Cups, won cups, and guided a European club to sustained success over the course of a half-decade.
Stewart will be tasked with overseeing all soccer operations, from first team player decisions to academy direction, youth development, and everything in between.
The Union have never had a dedicated, "general manager" type of executive but identified the need for the addition last November at a press conference called by chairman and majority owner Jay Sugarman.
Sugarman elaborated on the hire in a Monday conference call, explaining that the situation developed quickly.
"It's been very recent," Sugarman told reporters. "This came together literally in the last two weeks, in terms of people we really wanted to go after. We sort of brainstormed on the key criteria, what we wanted, and where we should find it. Those candidates who made their way to the final list, to me, we really went after hard. The timing here was relatively quick, surprisingly quick."
Stewart joins the Union from AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, where he held the post of "Director of Football" for the last six years.
He'll remain with AZ until January, but work ahead on critical Union decisions while wrapping up his duties overseas.
That's the tricky part. The franchise needs to install a staff for its new USL team and make player decisions starting right now, not in nine weeks.
"We support Earnie's plan to transition in a professional manner," Sugarman said. "That's the kind of person he is and that's the kind of person we want. But he also expressed to me his confidence that he can do that also be prepared for the decisions we need to make going into the 2016 season."
Stewart's Alkmaar made multiple trips to the UEFA Europa League and he oversaw talented players such as Adam Maher, Kolbein Sigthorsson, Dirk Marcellis, Roy Beerens, and U.S. International forward Aron Johansson.
He presided over Alkmaar when Jozy Altidore had the best spell of his career, scoring more than 35 goals in two years under the tutelage of manager Gertjan Verbeek.
Many of those players were sold to bigger clubs, but the pipeline of talent continued to feed young, quality players into the system. AZ was known for it's Dutch-style 4-3-3 with up-tempo movement and an attacking mindset. There was an identity and a focus, which is something that's been lacking in Chester for some time now.
"We feel pretty strongly that needed a real, firm direction, just in terms of playing philosophy and how we were going to go about a competitive edge," Sugarman explained. "What I saw at AZ was that they really had a strong track record of finding players that fit a system, and we're counting on him to do the same here. I think we have room to elevate the quality of our scouting, our recruiting, and our player development across the board. What he's able to do and what he has been doing seem to be a really good fit with how we wanted to approach the role."
But don't expect the money situation to change. The addition of Stewart won't magically bolster the bank account. The club will still shy away from big name signings and aging European stars. They'll continue to employ a style of "Moneyball", this time with top-down cohesion and a sporting director with plenty of experience in that department.
Stewart presided over AZ when the club's budget was slashed several years ago. He found players in different ways, looking through the youth ranks and taking in castoffs from other clubs.
"I'm sure you know, (former Oakland Athletics GM) Billy Beane is actually an advisor to AZ," Sugarman said. "Philosophically, I think the club very much believes that you don't need to spend the most money to be a solid, competitive, and winning team. They've seen great success. They're by no means a low-budget team, but they're not at the top of the category with an Ajax or a PSV either. My view is, we're going to spend money. When we have a plan we believe in and players we know are going to fit our system well, there is going to be resources for Earnie and the team to go after them. We've been missing a bit of the process and the method to make sure that when we make those commitments, that they are the right commitments for our team."
This summer, the team was close to a seven-figure move for U.S. international midfield Alejandro Bedoya. The move sputtered out in the end, but it would have been the Union's record signing in terms of dollar amounts.
"I don't think we disagree in terms of, you spend when it's right to spend," Sugarman continued. "We are not going to be the highest spending club in the league, but the resources are there for the right moves. I think he looked at our infrastructure, what we've done with the academy and what we've done with the training complex and the new annex and USL, I think he sees all the pieces. I think he was a bit surprised when he saw the level of commitment we've made at the lower levels. I think he understands we're prepared to make commitments at the most senior levels once we have the right process, the right structure, and the right system in place."
The duties of the sporting director had been shared between the technical staff and front office since the firing of manager Peter Nowak in 2012. In addition to his coaching responsibilities, Nowak also held the role of "Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations" from the start of the 2011 season. Nowak, along with scouting and player development executive Diego Gutierrez, made all player-personnel decisions.
Former CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz became more involved with player-personnel during the tenures of John Hackworth and Jim Curtin. Sakiewicz, however, publicly denied that claim and reiterated that he never signed or traded a player in the history of the franchise.
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