U.S. Soccer’s steady march through sclerotic mediocrity continued apace today when American soccer’s governing body announced the hiring of Earnie Stewart as the new USMNT general manager. What the position of “general manager” even entails for the national team and whether Stewart will be any good at it are anyone’s guess, but it seems safe to assume America’s soccer trajectory is as horizontal today as it was yesterday.
Looking at this through the most forgiving lens possible, Stewart seems like a perfectly decent hire. The former USMNT staple had a long playing career primarily spent over in his native Holland. (Stewart’s mother is Dutch and his father is an American air force member stationed overseas). After retiring, Stewart headed up a few different Dutch clubs’ front offices as the sporting director of Eredivisie teams like NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar. Stewart spent the last few years as the sporting director of MLS’s Philadelphia Union, where he hasn’t overseen any success of note but has probably done decently considering the Union’s limited budget and ambition. Overall it’s a commendable resumé for a presumably important position in U.S. Soccer.
The problem with Stewart getting the USMNT GM gig doesn’t have much to do with Stewart; it’s about the GM position itself. New U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro proposed the two new GM positions, one each for the men’s and women’s national teams, back when he won the election in February. Since then, there’s yet to be any clear explanation of what exactly a GM is supposed to do, other than lead the search for and oversee the national team manager’s job.
U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn—there are so many random titles and positions in U.S. Soccer that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who and who does what—will be the man Stewart and the yet-to-be-hired USWNT GM answer to. Flynn has spoken about the GM as being the one with “overall responsibility for the technical side of the senior team,” the person who presides over the “management of the day-to-day environment” of the national team, and with “monitoring the player pool and the integration of new players.” If reading those vague words has left you with even less of an idea about what the GM is actually tasked with doing, you’re not alone.
Update: U.S. Soccer reached out with an article they posted on their site after Stewart was hired that further details his responsibilities. The concrete duties seem mostly related to the hiring and assessing the performance of the USMNT manager. Though there remain more vague descriptions like “Creating the environment—both day-to-day and long-term—for the Head Coach and the Men’s National Team to succeed” and “Ensuring that U.S. Soccer’s Style of Play, Team Tactical Principles, and Key Qualities are being implemented within the Men’s National Team.”
Nobody seems to know what exactly these GMs will do or how their responsibilities fit alongside the responsibilities of the national team managers and the CEO and the youth development set-ups (over which the GM has no real authority, it’s been explained) and the president and all the other middle managers in the byzantine bureaucratic web Cordeiro is weaving. Our fear after Cordeiro won the presidency was that his vision for U.S. Soccer was a technocratic one short on big ideas and structure-shifting change and long on idle hierarchies and incrementalism. There’s nothing about Stewart’s hiring that assuages those concerns, and in fact at least one statement of his, about whether the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup evinced a systemic flaw in American soccer or a temporary one, calls into question if Stewart even comprehends the real problems at all:
“I think it’s a failure of a cycle. It obviously hurts, but I don’t think it has anything to do with systems. I think it has more to do with the period that you’re in. Unfortunately, we were on the bad side of that cycle, but now there’s a new cycle coming along. There’s a new player pool coming along. There’s a lot of talent in the United States and it’s something that we have to look after and make sure that they reach the highest of their potential. Being able to be there for them, facilitate them in that, is the most important job for us.”
Stewart may or may not have good ideas about how to finally realize this country’s dormant potential in men’s soccer, that much is almost impossible to tell. What’s more concerning is that it doesn’t even seem like he or anyone in his position would have any power to implement meaningful changes in the first place. The men’s team might’ve just gotten its new general manager, and will soon have a new head coach, but it’s harder than ever to know who’s actually in charge of any of this.