WORLD CUP '94 / 7 DAYS AND COUNTING : Just Ernie : Dutch-American Achieves Identity as U.S. Striker

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As promised, Ernie Stewart has arrived, punctually, to retrieve a reporter from the central train station on a misty fall day. Negotiating the narrow streets with expert speed, Stewart drives to the grounds of his soccer team, Willem II, then ushers his guest through a maze of dark rooms and corridors leading out to the green field.

A groundsman shouts hello.

This is Stewart's home, but it isn't. When he returns the man's greeting in Dutch, he's not speaking his native tongue. The next time he leaves the country, he may use either his Dutch or his American passport. He speaks of having an American family and a Dutch family.

Stewart, 25, has always been a man in the middle, caught between two cultures. Perhaps that's why, when he's playing as the lone striker on the U.S. World Cup team, he's so comfortable. There's no tugging one way or another, no conflict. He's alone and he can establish his own identity. Just Ernie.

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A mixed-race child is fortunate to grow up in the Netherlands, where tolerance is bred into the national character. Stewart's American father, a senior master sergeant in the Air Force, met and married his Dutch wife, Annemein, and the couple was never bothered by comments about race or Ernie Sr.'s military status.

The couple created a home environment that meshed American and Dutch cultures, and Ernie Jr. grew up going to English-language schools and playing American sports such as softball and baseball.

"I wasn't picked on in school, maybe because I was so good in sports," Stewart said. "Everything I got in my hands or touched with my feet, I could do right away, instantly."

"Maybe because of that, I got a little more respect from the kids. I didn't start soccer until I was 11 years old. For the Dutch, that's real late."

That was when Stewart left the American school and started attending Dutch school. His new friends played soccer, so Stewart did, too. He took to the sport immediately and progressed through the Dutch youth system at twice the normal speed. By 17, Stewart was asked to join the reserve team for a professional club.

The experience was not a good one, except for what Stewart learned through assimilation. He knew right away that the club wasn't right for him, and made the remarkable decision to leave the pros and return to his amateur club for another year.

Just as he had done in the youth ranks, Stewart rose quickly. His name and exceptional speed came to the attention of VVV in Venlo, where he played for a year, starting on the reserve team.

A year later he moved to his present club, Willem II. The club is not one of the Dutch league's best, nor is it among the worst, and both the club and Stewart got comfortable right away as he scored 17 goals in his first season.

Stewart said he likes to keep busy, but his schedule for the next few years went well beyond that. He decided to go to an intensive school to get a degree in physical education. To combine school and professional soccer is normally unheard of. But Stewart's parents acted as a voice in the back of his head, asking: "What happens if you get injured and can't play? How will you support yourself?"

The conflicting demands were difficult. Stewart lived on campus and went to classes from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Then he took a train to practice, which ran from 4:40 to 6:30 p.m. Often, he fell asleep while riding the train home.

"I really wanted to make that school, that was my dream," Stewart said. "That was everything to me. (But) I didn't want to sit on the bench. I started getting burned out. My coach told me to take a rest. It was to wake me up. At that time, I went on to the field as if it was my work, as if it was my job. I didn't have any fun, everything was school. It exhausted me. It was too tough at that time.

"But I finished my school, I never gave up on my school. There was a time when I thought, 'What do I do? Do I go for soccer and try to earn a living there? Or do I try to keep my soccer and try to go to school with it?' I chose for the last one, with my parents. I'm thankful to them for telling me to prepare a career to fall back on."

His career was a curious thing. No sooner did Stewart make the starting lineup than a new coach was hired, and Stewart found himself back with the reserve team. In his three years with Willem II, there have been three coaches.

Despite breaking his left foot before the start of 1992-93 competition, Stewart managed to score eight goals that season and eight goals last season.

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While the U.S. team was qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, a coach told Stewart to write a letter to the U.S. Soccer Federation, letting them know he was an American. He got called up for one game, against Poland in Portugal, and that was it. Stewart said, in retrospect, it was naive to think that he might make the team, since no one had been paying attention to him before.

His first sustained chance came last summer in the U.S. Cup. After his injury and disappointing club season, Stewart's performance was heartening: He set up a goal in the U.S. victory over England and scored against Germany.

"After all that had happened that season, it was a turning point for me," he said. "After that, I said to myself, 'I'm not going to think about last season or the seasons before that. I'm going to start all over and see where I end up.' I'd say the U.S. Cup was a turning point on that.

"It wasn't that I ever gave up on what I could do, but in that U.S. Cup, everything worked out for me again. When you finally see that everything you know you are capable of doing is coming back to you, it's a beautiful thing."

Stewart's father saw him play for the American team for the first time during the U.S. Cup. It was his father's family in Texas that made Stewart feel at home when he visited at 15. Stewart said he was amazed to see a house fill up with boisterous aunts and uncles and cousins, and the table suddenly fill with food. When he has been with the U.S. team, playing anywhere near them, his Texas relatives have often driven through the night to see him.

Not so his Dutch relatives, whose reserve, he said, prevents them from expressing their feelibngs about him.

Stewart, predictably, is an amalgam of both. He's naturally reserved and quiet, but when drawn out, he's as loud as any typical American.

"I never look back and I never look too much in advance," he said. "I live day to day and see what happens. I am optimistic. I just hope everything works out the way it's working out right now. If that happens, I could look at a sunny future."

World Cup

Player at a Glance

Name: Ernie Stewart.

Born: March 28, 1969, Veghel, Netherlands.

Height: 5 feet 9.

Weight: 145 pounds.

Position: Striker.

Club: Willem II (Netherlands).

Debut with national team: Oct. 10, 1990.

Debut opponent: Poland.

Caps (international matches): 16.

Goals: 2.

Little-known fact: Has twice broken the same bone in his left foot.

Honors: Third in the Dutch league in scoring with 17 goals in 33 games in 1991. Third in scoring on his team in 1992.

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