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Stewart good pick for U.S. general manager but how much can he do?

ESPN's Taylor Twellman sat down with former US men's international Earnie Stewart to discuss his new role, as he becomes the first-ever general manager of the national team.
New general manager Earnie Stewart met with Taylor Twellman to talk about the current state of the relationship between U.S. Soccer and MLS and whether the new USMNT head coach needs to be "MLS friendly."

The U.S. Soccer Federation made a smart hire on Wednesday, naming Earnie Stewart to be the first-ever GM of the U.S. men's national team. The question now is simple. Will he be given enough responsibility -- and the right responsibilities -- to make a real impact?

Given Stewart's expansive resume, it seems crazy to limit his influence. This is a man who is clearly devoted to the U.S. cause and has been successful in sporting director type roles. That latter assessment might elicit a few raised eyebrows from Philadelphia Union fans, where he had plenty of misses in terms of signings like Roland Alberg and Jay Simpson. But Stewart's stints with VVV Venlo, NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar had more outward success, and even the Union has lately had the look of a team that looks to be getting its act together.

So now the USSF has some real technical knowledge in its leadership ranks, which is no doubt a plus. That has been a significant deficiency and is borne out by the frequency with which coaches have been fired over the last several years. On the men's side alone, you have to go back to the 2010 cycle to find the last time the manager started the cycle and also finished it. Prior to that, you had to go back to the 1990 cycle to find the last time a U.S. manager didn't last the full four years. Stewart represents a bit of an insurance policy against such instability.

Stewart also has the requisite enthusiasm for the job, which couldn't be said about every MLS GM in the league who seemed to be a good candidate in their own right. He then spoke of collaboration more than once, and seems comfortable with that approach.

"I don't know many organizations where somebody can come in and just take whatever he wants," said Stewart during a conference call with reporters.

Actually, the USSF was precisely that organization during Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as manager and, for a time, as technical director, which didn't end well. The USSF insists that the collaborative nature of the GM position was created out of a belief that this is the best way to do things, and not out of a reaction to the Klinsmann years. That makes sense to a degree, but there is the danger of the pendulum swinging to far back in the other direction.

Stewart's wealth of experience as a general manager makes him a good fit for the new U.S. Soccer role but there are clear challenges ahead.
Stewart's wealth of experience as a general manager makes him a good fit for the new U.S. Soccer role but there are clear challenges ahead.

All of this brings us to Stewart's remit. One of his tasks will be to identify the team's style of play. The idea here is that a team's style shouldn't change every time the coach does, which is fair enough, but style of play is something that is usually the domain of a manager.

Would a Peter Vermes or a Gregg Berhalter (two likely candidates for the coaching job) be willing to cede that kind of control given that they are used to operating in environments where they have final say over all technical matters? Would any manager for that matter?

That depends on the definition of "style." Stewart insists that imposing broad style directives from above and leaving the fine details to the manager is a dynamic he's used to, though he declined to get into specifics of what stylistic attributes he's looking for.

"I think that's normal for clubs: they have a philosophy and they have a view of the style that they want to see," he said. "But a lot of times we mistake ourselves that the style is the same as a formation. The style goes more towards the values, what we want to see on the field from our players.

"Quite frankly, and I've done this for 15 years in this role, it's a discussion you have with head coaches... They have the autonomy within the style of play to play in different formations. And that is something that belongs to the head coach."

Stewart doesn't see the approach limiting the pool of managerial candidates, either.

"Everybody wants to work here. I see it as a great opportunity," said Stewart. "I don't think there are going to be many coaches that will say 'no' [to the job] because the U.S. has values in the way they want to step onto the field and what they want to see from their players, and that all of a sudden the job isn't interesting. I don't believe that at all.

"On the contrary, when you come with a plan, a lot of people will jump on board for that because there is a plan, there is a vision, and there is an identity of what we want to see on the field."

Where that style demarcation line between GM and manager is relevant because Stewart's top priority, in conjunction with the Board, is hiring a new head coach. Stewart won't officially begin his new job until Aug. 1 but said there is already a "wide" list of candidates -- some of them foreign -- but that a new coach wouldn't necessarily be in place by the time the September friendlies against Brazil and Mexico roll around.

"The friendlies aren't the most important. Making the right choice [for manager] is the most important thing," said Stewart. "It will be process over speed."

There have also been questions as to why Stewart's responsibilities don't extend down to the youth national teams but he seems to have no qualms about the job he's been given.

"I'm really comfortable with the autonomy that I have," he said.

Whether that approach will result in the kind of changes that the U.S. program needs is still an unknown, though it's worth remembering that this is a brand new position and the responsibilities will likely evolve over time. It's now up to Stewart to make it work.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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