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An interview with Earnie Stewart on youth development in American soccer

Stewart spoke with SB Nation right after the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Soccer confirmed that Earnie Stewart, former USMNT player and current Sporting Director at MLS’ Philadelphia Union, has finalized a deal to take on a newly created role as the general manager of the U.S. men’s national team. While there aren’t many details on what exactly the job’s responsibilities would be, Stu Holden reported last month night that, as he understands it, the GM will have hiring and firing power over the USMNT coach and will “drive culture of team’s day-to-day environment.”

In November, just after the USMNT had failed to qualify for the World Cup, I spoke with Stewart about the state of U.S. Soccer and youth development of this country. Based on his reported new role, we thought fans would want to read Stewart’s thoughts on the state of American soccer and how we can improve moving forward. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

SB Nation: What should US Soccer’s role be in youth development in this country? Should they be leading? Should clubs be leading? In a perfect world, how do you see that working?

Earnie Stewart: In a perfect world, everyone is working together. It’s about having a certain pyramid, and if you look at that, U.S. Soccer is at the top of that pyramid, and trying to make sure that there’s a structure in place that allows young American players to develop themselves. You know, I don’t want to speak for U.S. Soccer or for MLS or anything else, I can only speak about the Philadelphia Union, about how I and we do it here. But, once we have this pyramid in place, you have to work together to get there.

You guys have an infrastructure in place for youth players at Philadelphia, though it’s once they reach a certain age. There’s a debate in this country if we’re identifying players too late. Especially looking back at your experience with AZ, is that something clubs need to be doing better here? Is it even possible in a country of this size?

The more you can influence kids at a certain age, at a young age, the better prepped they will be for the future. I truly believe that. I think we live in a country where a lot of kids -- and this can be a positive, too -- but they play a lot of sports. But at one point you need to start specializing. In my view, that needs to be around 12 years old. And once that happens, and you have an infrastructure where you can do that, you’re going to be developing players at a better rate than we ever have in the past.

That is a part that we have tried to do. Before I was here, that was already taking place. There is an infrastructure, going from 12 to 18 years old, to USL, to our first team. But these things take time. You can’t just build this overnight, and all of a sudden we go from a structure where we had college being the scene, with the draft being the way you got players to play. Now all of a sudden these academies are rolling in, and we’re getting younger at that time, we can influence players longer, and I’m pretty sure the product that will come out of there will be a lot better.

That in the United States right now, I mean, it’s very young, the academy structure. Where I was at AZ, before I got there, they started implementing more like the Ajax style, making sure they invested really young, making sure the players came in at a certain age, even earlier there, starting at 6, 7, 8 years old, and then building them up towards the future. AZ did that as well. And when you look at their roster right now, and how many players 1) they have on their roster and 2) that are actually playing games as homegrown or club-trained as they say in Europe, I mean that’s a great deal. Is the water different in Holland than it is in the United States? I don’t believe so. I think we all, as long as you focus on development, the United States has so many great aspects when it comes to possibilities, facilities, know-how, athletes that ... why can’t we develop those players that Holland or Germany or any of these other countries have developed? I really believe in that.

That’s the structure that’s been put in place here [at Philadelphia] before, and now we’re trying to build and build and make it better all the time.

Can it work like that in this country? That holistic, take a kid at 6 years old and guide him all the way through his teen years approach?

I don’t see why not. I think it’s a cultural thing, at the same time. There’s an American idea about sports, and that’s the part … I say this with all due respect in the world, but American football is only played in the United States, so we don’t have to compete with the entire world. So no matter what structure you put in place for American football here in the United States, everyone is going to adhere to those rules. There’s no transfer system where you can sell players to Australia or to England, or they can come and take your players, because this is where that sport is played. So no matter if you’re the Philadelphia Eagles, or the Los Angeles Rams, you have the same rules.

Now, our structure is a little bit different, where we have our set rules in the United States but we also, there are different rules in different countries. I would say that China and the United States are the two places where people go scouting, and see, you know, it’s a numbers game. There are a lot of people that live in China and a lot of people and athletes that live in the United States. So it’s this Valhalla of a place where you can get really, really good athletes at a good price. And those are things that we have to take into account, so I don’t see why we in the United States shouldn’t be able to do that, understanding that there’s a different culture in the way the structure is and the way it’s set up.

The way our development academies are set up right now, do you believe that teams should have to win to keep their place as a DA, or is that stressing the wrong thing to the coaches.

I think winning at one point is important, because the closer you get to a first team, the expectations become different. At 12 years old, I don’t think it’s important at all. I think, up until, your 17s and 19s, that winning is something that comes along with it. Then all of a sudden, you start ramping it up, when they’re 17, when they’re 19, when they go to USL, because they have to get ready for the next phase of their career when they have to play under the spotlight, where people look at them and ask certain things of them.

But, like, for me, at 12 and 13 years old, it’s about the individual talent. If it’s important for him on a Saturday to play with the 15s instead of the 13s, because I know if he had played with the 13s he would have scored six goals, and would have been the hero of the game. We would have won. But it would have been better for his development if he were up playing with the 15s, against more resistance, against physically better players, because now we’re working on his cognitive side, on his decision-making under stress, I would always choose for that. And that sometimes means that you’re not going to win a game on a Saturday, but I try to say that over here, you know, the papers aren’t full of whether or not we lose with our 14s and 15s against a team. I don’t read that. So we shouldn’t stress on that.

But, I mean, success is important to stress as well, because for kids themselves, they have to have success at times. To give you an example, we had a young player play up last season, because that was better for him, but there he hit a certain period where all of a sudden his confidence went down a little bit, so we had him play again with his age group to be successful, and then feel confident about himself again. These are all discussions that you have to have in the big picture of “what’s best for the talent and the individual at that moment,” and I almost want to say, and I don’t want to make this sound worse than it is, but winning comes second at that moment. Gradually, when they get to 17s and 19s and Bethlehem Steel, we incorporate that part of winning that becomes important as well.

What’s the process for you as a club, when identifying a player who’s 14 or 15 years old to guiding them to a first team appearance? Is it working? What do you feel that the club needs to do better in that process?

So, I guess, in everything you need to be better. One part that needs to be good would be the scouting process. Not saying that we’re doing a bad job at that, at all, but I would even want to make sure that we have a sort of pyramid here in Pennsylvania where Philadelphia Union is seen as the MLS club, the place to be, and that there’s a pyramid of clubs down where you get this natural stream of talent, where we’re all making ourselves better. I do believe the best, with the best, playing against the best, will get the best out of kids. Apart from the training situation, as long as we can create a situation in Pennsylvania where we actually have that all the time, I do think we’re going to be in a very good place.

That’s part of that whole scouting process. Making sure that we’re getting better players that come in when they’re 12, 13, 14 years old. The output will be higher at that time. Concentrating on that part of it, making sure that everybody in the region raises their level, will ultimately raise the level of everything we do here.

Have you thought about, in a city like Philadelphia, building soccer fields that are available for public use, in the hopes that it’s going to create a culture there where more and more kids will start playing, if only because there are fields around and available?

Yeah. I mean, I think this was something that was done in Iceland. In Iceland and Reykjavik they put fields everywhere and that sparked the interest in soccer. This was years back. More kids playing on the street, making the sport more visible. Yeah, this was something that we spoken about, but that also comes with, the club where we’re at, we have to make sure the choices that we make that they’re the right ones. We have to prioritize things right now. Once we get to a situation where we can start thinking of those things, with the inner cities, making sure that there are fields where kids can play. In Chester, you know, I know it happens already, our foundation does great work with that. But it’s not like they’re coming out of the ground in tens every year, so it is something that is thought about, but it’s not something that goes as quickly as we’d all hope for.

There is a lot of discussion right now with college soccer, and the way the NCAA has it set up, how kids aren’t playing year-round, it’s being demonized a little bit. With the size of our country and the lack of scouts, could college not be a chance to identify talent that blooms late? Maybe not for the Christian Pulisics of the world but for guys who might round out a pro team?

Oh yeah. I think that’s a part of our culture. Like it or dislike it, that’s a part of who we are in the United States. So, yes, I do … when these academy kids keep coming through, and the academies are becoming larger, and there’s more investment put into these, I think that the chance of going through college and then making it to a professional league are going to become slimmer and slimmer and slimmer. Not saying that it’s not possible at all, because there’s one thing that you know, and not every kid … some are really late bloomers.

But you do see that if we’re going in the right direction, and the academies are getting better and better, the influence that you have over someone from the time they’re 18 years old until they’re 22 in your academy, might be different from what a college might have. Looking at the season that they have, and the amount of games they play, what they do when the season is over, I think that there’s a big difference in what we can give our kids in training and games in an academy. So yeah … it could be that you have some late bloomers, but I think we’ll probably see that number is going to become lower and lower. But that’s if the academies keep developing at the rate that they are now.

Is U.S. Soccer in a crisis right now?

What is a crisis? I think, every country goes through a phase where you need to reset yourself. Holland went through that phase. Italy is going through that phase right now. There’s a moment that you don’t qualify for a certain tournament, and you need time to reflect on what’s happened in the past, and then make it better for the future. I wouldn’t want to call it a crisis, I mean, as far as I know, we’re all going to get up tomorrow and go to work again. So, I don’t want to make it worse than it is. Did it hurt really, really bad that we didn’t make the World Cup? Yeah, I was sick for days, and also trying to think my thing: How can I help?

Unfortunately this sort of thing is a part of soccer that happens. I still think that we have very talented players. I think we have a lot of athletes. Are we there yet to become world champions? No, I don’t think that. But I do think the future is bright for the United States for a very young sport, with MLS where it’s come from since ‘96 to where it is right now and the development that it has gone through. The player pool has become larger. I wouldn’t want to speak of it as a crisis. But it is a moment, again, that when you don’t qualify, you look back and see where you can improve, and level set yourself and become better from there.

Maybe if we had qualified, a lot of these discussions wouldn’t be going on right now, because if you have a little bit of success, things stay the same. Maybe this is even -- as hard as this is to say because we aren’t going to be at the World Cup in June and July, and, excuse my language, but it sucks. But maybe this is a chance to do one step back, and then take three steps forward.