In one fell swoop Thursday morning, U.S. Soccer announced a reset for its men's national team program. That's what Earnie Stewart's departure as sporting director represents. Stewart, a former U.S. international, accepted a similar role to return to the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven, leaving U.S. Soccer with a void atop its technical operation.
Whether that's a good or bad thing can ultimately only be judged in time, but what it means in the short term is that the men's national team -- already without a permanent head coach -- will enter its most consequential World Cup cycle of all time without a firm direction for the foreseeable future.
With former coach Gregg Berhalter out of contract in the wake of an admission of a domestic violence incident involving his now-wife in 1991, the USMNT had already entered somewhat of a stationary period with interim coach Anthony Hudson. However, so long as Stewart was in place, it reasoned that the vision for how the team would play under its next coach would likely continue in a similar vein to how it did under Berhalter. Without Stewart, everything appears back on the table.
"Obviously, this isn't the process that we chose to go down," U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said. "We're hopeful that we can fill these two positions [sporting director and head coach] by the end of the summer so that the men's team has plenty of time in preparation for the World Cup leading up to '26."
The circumstances are much different, but this means for the second consecutive World Cup cycle, the men's team will be guided by an interim coach for an extended period. Parlow Cone and USSF CEO JT Batson said that while they will both be heavily involved in the process to select the next coach, that decision won't come until after a new sporting director is hired.
With the timeline Parlow Cone laid out, Hudson is now expected to guide the team at this summer's Gold Cup, representing a missed opportunity to have the next permanent coach lead a group of first-choice players at a major tournament. It's not necessarily a massive problem -- there are several much more important variables that will play a role in the team's success at the 2026 World Cup -- but it is a setback that guarantees a continued state of flux.
There are plenty of examples of teams that have brought on a coach later in a cycle and performed well at the World Cup -- Morocco in Qatar, for example -- but without a qualification process as a host nation, the U.S. was already going to be limited in how many opportunities it had in official competition. Friday's announcement that 2024 Copa America will be held in the U.S. -- bringing South America's premier competition and big sides like Argentina and Brazil stateside -- adds another a big chance to for the USMNT to prove itself, but it is still far from ideal.
To be clear, there will be a new coach. That's common sense at this point, despite Parlow Cone's reluctance to admit so publicly. Her statement Thursday that Berhalter remains a candidate comes across as lip service at the behest of legal counsel. The idea that a new decision-maker would come in and re-hire a coach who has been out in the cold for several months after a domestic violence allegation, along with messy personal drama involving the coach and one of the team's brightest stars is an outlandish possibility.
Brian McBride's exit as U.S. men's team general manager, which has previously been reported by ESPN, was also announced Thursday, but his role and influence in the decision-making hierarchy was never well explained. That it remains unclear if his job will even exist as the USSF evolves speaks to how valuable it was.
Perhaps the most interesting forward-looking part of what U.S. Soccer made public Thursday was that it retained the Sportsology Group to consult on its search for a sporting director. Sportsology's chief executive is founder Mike Forde, who from 2007 to '13 was the director of football operations at Chelsea and is well-connected across Europe. Sportsology has been contracted by several professional teams across various sports in the United States and Europe for strategic and operational support.
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Forde was reportedly involved with Manchester United's process that led to the appointment of Erik ten Hag and helped connect multiple Major League Soccer teams with European executives. "We interviewed a few search firms as well as firms that do the type of work Sportsology does. We went with Sportsology because we thought they were the best group to help us navigate the situation that we're in now," Parlow Cone said. "We want do a full review of our sporting department, and at the same time need to work towards hiring a sporting director and, in parallel, moving the search forward on our men's national team coach."
If Forde and Sportsology's track record is replicated, it seems likely that U.S. Soccer winds up with a European sporting director. Perhaps that's exactly what U.S. Soccer needs. Not necessarily a European sporting director, but someone without a lifetime of ties to American soccer. Fresh ideas and an outsider's perspective have the potential to unlock the incredible potential the current group of players has.