U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart and U.S. men’s national team general manager Brian McBride are leaving their positions, the federation announced on Thursday.
Their departures mean that U.S. Soccer now has vacancies at its three most important roles relating to the men’s team: sporting director, GM and head coach. Anthony Hudson is currently coaching the USMNT on an interim basis while the federation conducts its search for a full-time manager. Gregg Berhalter led the Americans to the round of 16 at the recently-completed World Cup, but his contract expired at the end of 2022.
U.S. Soccer hired an outside law firm in December to conduct an investigation into an incident in which Berhalter kicked his now-wife Rosalind while the two were dating in 1991. That investigation, which was prompted by the mother of USMNT attacker Gio Reyna telling Stewart about the incident, remains ongoing.
The federation said in its statement that the departures of Stewart and McBride had nothing to do with the investigation. U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone reiterated that stance in a conference call with reporters on Thursday morning. She added that Berhalter remains a candidate for the head coaching job. That decision, though, likely won’t be made until after the hire of a new sporting director, who will ultimately be responsible for appointing a new coach.
Stewart, who was reportedly under contract through 2026, is leaving to become director of football at Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. A member of the U.S. team at the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups, Stewart was born and raised in Holland, played there for the bulk of his club career and began his career as an executive there before moving to the U.S. to become sporting director of the Philadelphia Union in 2015. He was hired as USMNT GM in June 2018 and promoted to become the first sporting director in USSF history in July 2019. He’ll remain with the federation until Feb. 15.
Stewart’s wife and children have remained in Holland for the entire time he has been with U.S. Soccer. He cited a desire to be near his family as part of his reasoning for leaving USSF for PSV in the statement released by the federation on Thursday.
A source with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic that multiple Dutch clubs approached Stewart about coming on as an executive with them well before the start of the World Cup. The same source, who was not authorized to discuss details of Stewart’s exit, said that discussions between the 53-year-old and PSV began to heat up in mid-December, shortly after the U.S. lost to the Netherlands to fall out of the World Cup.
Two other sources said that Atlanta United interviewed Stewart prior to the start of the World Cup for their president and CEO position. Atlanta eventually hired former Seattle Sounders chief soccer officer Garth Lagerwey for that role.
McBride released a statement on Thursday in which he said that he came to the decision to leave the GM job in October. His last day in the role will be Jan. 31.
On one hand the vacancies may seem a bit daunting ahead of the 2026 World Cup, set to be co-hosted by the U.S., Mexico and Canada. On the other, it presents an exciting opportunity for U.S. Soccer to review the entire sporting department and analyze head coaching candidates (the federation has hired consulting firm Sportsology Group to lead the search for sporting director).
Understanding how the federation will proceed requires an understanding of the sporting director and GM roles, how Stewart and McBride handled their responsibilities and some of the internal dynamics of USSF. Here’s a look at where those things stand:
What do the roles of USSF sporting director and USMNT GM entail?
When Stewart was promoted from USMNT GM to the newly-created sporting director role in August 2019, U.S. Soccer’s press release said Stewart would “oversee U.S. Soccer’s entire sports performance department, including the men’s and women’s senior and youth national team programs, to create a more streamlined structure, align the overall technical approach and ensure greater communication and sharing of best practices within Federation programs.”
The role reported directly to the CEO and also oversaw other departments, including talent identification, high performance, analytics and extended national teams. It also included “influence on coaching education, referee training and club development” as part of a goal to enhance player development and “more clearly defined pathways through the national teams pyramid.”
The idea, then, is that the sporting director sets the “identity” of all the national teams — how they want to play and how best to achieve that style of play — and then manages the implementation of that vision. The most important responsibility, by far, is to hire the senior national team coaches charged with overseeing that style of play.
Hiring the men’s coach will come under even more scrutiny than normal in this cycle considering the drama involving Berhalter, winger Gio Reyna and Reyna’s parents, former U.S. World Cup captain Claudio and former U.S. international Danielle. There is significant public pressure against Berhalter because of the friction with the 20-year-old Reyna, who many hope will play a key role in the 2026 cycle and beyond. With high expectations for a young core of players based in Europe, including Reyna, Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah and Yunus Musah, there are also expectations to land the type of manager who can command respect from and maximize that talent.
There also needs to be a dose of realism. U.S. Soccer paid Berhalter $1.3 million in 2021, according to the federation’s most recent publicly-disclosed financial documents. That’s nowhere near the money paid to the top men’s coaches in the world, with the biggest names in the sport commanding from $10-20 million per year from their clubs. U.S. Soccer might not have the budget to attract a big name. It’s also worth noting that the USMNT doesn’t have many matches of great significance on the schedule between now and 2026. That could change if the team is granted entry into the 2024 Copa America, but, if it doesn’t, the light schedule could keep the brightest candidates out of reach.
At the more granular levels, some of the other areas under the sporting director are evolving. The federation’s role in youth development, for example, has changed dramatically over the past decade. U.S. Soccer used to run a youth national team residential development program in Bradenton, Fla. That shuttered in 2017. The federation oversaw the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, with the top youth clubs across the continent under their purview. That league folded in 2020. On the men’s side, much of youth development is now the responsibility of the professional leagues and its clubs. U.S. Soccer would still like to play a role in ensuring high standards in the youth system, but the main focus in the space is how to best utilize its youth national teams and camps to enhance player development in ways that set the senior national teams up for long-term success.
McBride’s role as general manager under Stewart was a bit less clear. The press release announcing his hire stated that he would help “oversee the development and management of the player pool, build and guide the culture within the men’s national team environment, manage relationships with clubs and represent the USMNT on the global stage.” In practice, sources said, that mostly meant managing relationships with the clubs of different men’s national team players. McBride also was responsible for leading the process of hiring youth national team coaches on the men’s side, though Stewart assisted in and approved all of those decisions.
One source familiar with the workings of the USSF sporting department said that they felt there were redundancies between McBride, Stewart and Berhalter. If the next sporting director plays as active a role on the men’s side as Stewart and the next head coach is as hands-on administratively as Berhalter, there might not be a need for a GM on the men’s side. Parlow Cone said on Thursday that the federation would review whether they need to hire a replacement as GM for McBride.
That doesn’t mean there’s a structural change coming on the women’s side, however, where Kate Markgraf serves as GM and Vlatko Andonovski is head coach. Both Parlow Cone and USSF CEO JT Batson expressed confidence in Markgraf and Andonovski during their news conference on Thursday, with Parlow Cone saying that the federation feels they have “the best team in place” as the USWNT heads into the World Cup in New Zealand and Australia this summer.
A source familiar with both the men’s and women’s setups said that there are significant operational differences between the two programs, both in terms of how they exist within the broader context of the sport and with how duties have overlapped between their respective GMs and head coaches. Those differences, the source said, would support keeping a USWNT GM in place even if the federation opts to not replace McBride. If U.S. Soccer does go that route, it will be interesting to see how they position the asymmetry of the men’s and women’s setups. It could even set up a reality where Markgraf is given full reign over the women’s program, a new hire is handed full control of the men’s setup and a third individual handles some of the other more administrative elements of the job.
“We’re going to evaluate the entire sporting department and that includes the GM role,” Parlow Cone said. “And as I said before, we’re not dead set on having the exact same structure on the men’s side as we do have on the women’s side.”
Who are some candidates for U.S. Soccer sporting director?
Given the realities of the role, U.S. Soccer should be looking for sporting director candidates who have successfully instituted and developed an identity at previous stops, whether with a club team or with another federation. They don’t necessarily have to implement a consistent style across different national teams, but they should have an idea of their desired principles of play at all levels and hire coaches based on those principles. Good candidates should also have the ability to successfully liaise with foreign federations, confederations and clubs, be able to assist in recruitment of dual nationals and make sure that their own staff are working in ways that allow for best implementation of their overall vision. Stewart, multiple sources said, did a good job in those areas.
As the job is currently constituted, the position requires the ability to do all of that for both the men’s and women’s programs. That could, of course, theoretically change if U.S. Soccer opts for the more drastic structural overhaul mentioned earlier
The federation also needs candidates willing to take the role within U.S. Soccer’s salary range. Stewart made $800,000 in the 2021 fiscal year, according to the federation’s documents. That number would be on the higher end of the salary scale for MLS GMs. According to the same U.S. Soccer filing, Markgraf made $500,000 and McBride made $338,000 in the 2021 fiscal year.
It will be interesting to see if the Reyna-Berhalter imbroglio impacts the hiring of a sporting director. McBride, Stewart, Berhalter and Claudio Reyna were all national team teammates from the same era. One of the criticisms of U.S. Soccer in the wake of the scandal has been that the closeness of those individuals allowed the drama around the program to form more easily. That could impact whether U.S. Soccer looks to a domestic candidate versus a candidate from outside the normal American soccer channels.
Sportsology, the consulting firm that U.S. Soccer hired to help with the search, has been very active in MLS front office hires in recent years — not always with success. Among their recommended hires in those past jobs are former FC Cincinnati sporting director Gerard Nijkamp, Chicago Fire sporting director Georg Heitz and former president Ishwara Glassman Chrein, Inter Miami’s former sporting director Paul McDonough and San Jose’s sporting director Chris Leitch. They also helped place Lagerwey at Atlanta and are consulting with expansion side St. Louis City SC.
Some of the domestic candidates that might make sense for the sporting director role include Sporting KC coach and sporting director Peter Vermes, Columbus Crew president Tim Bezbatchenko, MLS senior vice president Ali Curtis and Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra. Bocanegra has come under heavy criticism by fans in Atlanta for his management of that club’s roster in recent years, but he’s a former USMNT captain, previously sat on the U.S. Soccer board of directors and was also a part of the board of the United Bid Committee for the 2026 World Cup.
Other names from outside of MLS worth mentioning include Dane Murphy, an American who found success in front office roles at Barnsley and Nottingham Forest in England; Dennis te Kloese led Feyenoord to the UEFA Conference League final last year and to the top of the Eredivisie table this season, and was previously Mexico’s sporting director; and Oliver Bierhoff, who was recently fired as sporting director of Germany.
How will this affect the search for the USMNT head coach?
In a word? Significantly.
The sporting director will be the person charged with hiring the head coach. Until a sporting director is in place, USSF will not move forward with appointing a new manager of the USMNT. According to Parlow Cone, the entire process will likely take months. She said Thursday that she’d like to have a new sporting director in place by the time the World Cup kicks off on July 20 in Oceania and a USMNT head coach hired by the end of the summer.
That means that Hudson, the former Berhalter assistant who is leading the USMNT on an interim basis, could remain in charge for the final two CONCACAF Nations League group stage matches in March, a potential appearance in the Nations League final four in June and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June and July.
The timeline could conceivably create some headaches for the federation. If a high-profile coach becomes available sometime in the next few months, it’s unlikely that U.S. Soccer will be able to move quickly to hire them. And while Parlow Cone said Berhalter remains a candidate for the position, other job opportunities could conceivably open up for Berhalter during this potentially months-long process to hire a sporting director and coach.
All of that makes it important for the federation to move as fast as possible to hire a sporting director. With a home World Cup looming in 2026, it’s critical that U.S. Soccer gets the USMNT coaching hire correct. Stewart and McBride leaving wasn’t their choice, but they can’t afford to lose out on an intriguing candidate who might come on and then move off the job market before they hire a new sporting director.
(Photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
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