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Stewart will face challenges as U.S. Soccer general manager, but there's reason for optimism

To the surprise of nobody, Earnie Stewart is officially the first general manager in the 105-year history of the U.S. men’s national team.

The move had been expected following reports in recent weeks by Yahoo Sports and others, rendering U.S. Soccer’s formal announcement Wednesday rather anticlimactic. Make no mistake, though: The appointment of the three-time U.S. World Cup veteran is a pivotal moment for the organization and in particular the men’s senior program, which is still reeling from its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Legitimate concerns remain about how much power Stewart will have. Several other MLS club executives reportedly determined that they would rather stay in their current roles than pursue  the U.S. GM job, at least as it’s currently defined. And those worries weren’t exactly dispelled by the federation’s chief sport development officer Nico Romeijn, one of six people on the committee the USSF tasked to find the GM, during a presentation he made to reporters before the USMNT’s 3-0 friendly win over Bolivia in Chester, Pennsylvania.

One of the main responsibilities of the position, which was created after the qualifying debacle, is to hire and fire the head coach. But Stewart won’t have unilateral authority. He’s expected to be a team player, and any decision he makes will still require approval by the federation’s board of directors, even if it’s mere formality.

Stewart understands what he’s getting into.

“I don’t know many organizations where somebody can come in and just [do] whatever he wants,” he said on a conference call. “I’m a person who’s always been known to collaborate. In the interview process, U.S. Soccer had questions for me, but I also had questions for U.S. Soccer … I’m really comfortable with the autonomy I have.”

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There’s little question that Stewart is qualified. He might not speak Spanish, which would’ve been considered a plus. He doesn’t love the spotlight, and this is high-profile gig. But Stewart checks just about every other box.

He’s played in Europe and in MLS. He’s served as a technical executive for multiple Dutch clubs plus the Philadelphia Union, where he’ll remain as sporting director until his new role with the U.S. begins on Aug. 1. He also knows what it means to represent the national team.

“I played with a lot of pride and passion for the United States,” he told U.S. Soccer’s website. “It was something dear to my heart and it’s gotten me to a place where I am right now. That’s what I expect of our players.”

That passion wasn’t always evident during the last World Cup qualifying cycle, which ended with the Americans squandering a trip to the sport’s marquee event for the first time in 32 years.

If there is one major knock on Stewart it’s the Union’s lack of success during his tenure there. Philadelphia made the playoffs just once in his three seasons at the helm. It lost that lone postseason match, in 2016. But the Union also have a well-earned reputation as one of the most frugal clubs in MLS, which is probably part of the reason Stewart was willing to walk away and the likes of Atlanta United VP Carlos Bocanegra, Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey and New York City sporting director Claudio Reyna apparently were not. (Bocanegra, who captained the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup, instead co-chaired the six-person search committee that recommended Stewart’s hiring.)

“Earnie has a strong character and good experience dealing with owners and board of directors,” LAFC assistant coach Mike Sorber, a former U.S. teammate who also worked with Stewart in Philadelphia, told Yahoo. “His biggest challenge will be dealing with the political landscape of U.S. Soccer.”

It won’t be the only one.

Changing what had become a toxic locker room culture and rebooting the never-say-die attitude that for decades helped American teams punch above their weight at international tournaments is high on the priority list, too.

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“We might not win all the time, but it certainly can never be that when we step off the field, people can say we didn’t fight for it,” Stewart said.

Before anything else, he’ll have to pick a head coach.

It’s too early to say who that will be, or even if Stewart will favor a fellow American or someone from overseas. He said Wednesday that he’s already compiled a “wide” list of candidates, and won’t be limited by geography. He gets along well with Columbus Crew boss Gregg Berhalter. And he’ll work closely with another ex-teammate and potential contender for the senior team job in U.S. youth technical director Tab Ramos. There will be no shortage of other options.

“Everybody wants to work here,” Stewart said, adding that he doesn’t see settling on a style of play before making the coaching hire, which he claims to have despite providing few details, as a deterrent to managers who might arrive with their own ideas. “I think when you come with a plan, a lot of people will jump on board for that because there is a plan, there is an identity of what we want to see.”

The GM job is supposed to be a long-term appointment spanning multiple World Cup cycles, and Stewart will move to Chicago in the coming weeks. He’ll be given ample time to make his mark on the program. What he won’t get are guarantees.

“We were very up front and very direct that we do believe in the long term,” USSF CEO Dan Flynn said Wednesday. “At the same time, we need to see progress between now and 2022.”

Stewart then jumped in.

“It’s about results, simple as that,” he said. “I understand that. That’s no different than anywhere else where I’ve worked.”

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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