The news of Frank Yallop's departure from the San Jose Earthquakes came as a complete shock - out of the blue (and black) last Friday afternoon. My own first response was denial: that tweet can't be right, therefore I shall make a cup of tea. A quick confirmation from my usual sources propelled me straight into anger: a coach of Frank Yallop's stature deserved better, and, to add insult to injury, dismissed just one win shy of 100 with the Earthquakes. Unable to negotiate my way out of disappointment, I quickly fell into a depression, wondering how and why this could have happened mid-season. I finally accepted the truth: I would, for the first time as a fan, be following the San Jose Earthquakes without Frank Yallop at the helm. I'm disappointed and will miss Frank - a straightforward, direct man on and off the field.
Sure, Yallop's style of play has been getting criticism from many fans around Buck Shaw stadium this season - though the route one lobs and head tennis became suddenly irrelevant in 2012 as the Earthquakes strolled towards the Supporters' Shield with a franchise record 72 goals. Yallop made best use of the team he had, fashioned the idiomatic silk purse out of the league's fourth lowest paid roster in 2012, only to be tossed aside in 2013 (mutually - cough). Yes, the results are not being reproduced this season, but Yallop began this season using a roster without Simon Dawkins, with several early season injuries, multiple suspensions and international absences.
Just how did the Earthquakes front office and its head coach get to the point where their individual visions could not be reconciled going into the second half of the season? By all accounts, three men went into a regularly scheduled meeting to review the season to date - Dave Kaval (Stanford MBA and club president), John Doyle (former Quakes player and current GM) and Coach Yallop. Yallop came out with a pink slip, after what has been described by Kaval as a "collective ‘aha' moment" when consensus among the three participants dictated that the coach's departure was the only way forward for the Earthquakes.
There are scant details (if any) available to explain how they arrived at such a dramatic conclusion during a single meeting. Let's assume that each participant was disappointed by the season so far, but why in the space of a few months, has the 2012 MLS Coach of the Year felt the need to depart (mutually - cough) after five years at the helm? Presumably there were two agendas that could not be aligned, and Yallop's own agenda was far enough apart that his immediate departure was the only option. One inference has been that player spending was at the root - for example, Dawkins is now available, but a substantial transfer fee would still be required; a fee that will not be forthcoming.
Either Yallop truly went into the meeting with no expectation of being released, or if he did hold any reservations about his own future, they were kept well away from the clubhouse, as evidenced by the apparent shock of the players at the announcement of his departure. Chris Wondolowski used such words such as "disgusted" and "gutted"; "The players love him that's for sure," the forward said in the San Jose Mercury News: "Literally no one saw this coming". Yallop has always been considered a players' coach; he was well-liked and respected by his squad - Alan Gordon had high praise for his manager "I wouldn't want to play for anybody but Frank. He's great in every way". Even Yallop's replacement, Mark Watson was caught off guard: "...it really was a surprise. It was just a meeting between Frank and the club, and at the end they decided to mutually part ways. It was very sudden and a surprise for everyone."
Given the loss of Yallop was unexpected by Kaval, and that Yallop acolyte Mark Watson was hastily appointed interim manager, the resulting front office moves come across as a fumble. Nothing smacks of uncertainty like the moniker "interim manager"; just ask any Blackburn Rovers fan. When I began to consider the current state of the club I had my own "uh-oh moment": the new stadium construction is dragging along, and when you're busy trying to sell 18,000 season tickets; a poorly performing team doesn't augment your marketing strategy.
Yes, any coach's perception comes from a different angle than that of the front office - insufficient player investment sounds to him like of a lack of support for his plans for success. Since their return to San Jose in 2008, the Earthquakes have maintained one of the lowest payrolls in MLS; the team's $3.21M 2012 payroll was less than the salary of Robbie Keane ($3.41M) who singlehandedly dispatched the Quakes from the playoffs.
On the other side of the coin, the Earthquakes front office is responsible for a massive investment in their new stadium, and perhaps unwilling to add to their financial burden with high cost signings. So, it's easy to imagine a conflict among the meeting's participants in reconciling the business of soccer with success on the pitch; I guess that depends on balancing the needs of a football club with those of a successful property development. Frank Yallop walked away because the options presented to him did not meet his requirements - does this make decision to separate ways truly "mutual"? We may never know the full scope of the decision making, but Yallop's strategy obviously did not fly with the front office.
Eventually, we will see whether this "mutual parting of the ways" (hey - my cough is better!) will improve the current Earthquakes performance. However, scientific studies have shown that mid-season coaching changes have no effect on subsequent performance of a team, and from which we can infer that the 2013 season is unlikely to be resurrected.
Going forward (with the intriguing possibility of an alternative to the 4-4 2) I wonder if Watson will command the same respect in the dressing room. Maybe the managerial move will shake up the players' complacency. We'll learn more about Mark Watson, the manager and his style, as the season progresses, but he has his work cut out to save this season and make the playoffs with only half of the games remaining. As he takes over the reins, he has three years of experience and familiarity with the squad on his side, and while his first head coaching experience will be a challenge, he is ready to face it: "...first off I know [our goal] is to make the playoffs this year. It is pretty cut and dried. We've dug ourselves a hole, but there are a lot of games to play and as a coaching staff we have a lot of belief and a lot of confidence that we can meet that goal this season."
Many Quakes fans now have what they longed for: a Yallop-free squad that, in their eyes, will surely now play like Barcelona, and come good to win the 2013 MLS Cup in elegant tiqui-taca style. But, be careful what you wish for. The last job that Yallop left vacant was filled at the LA Galaxy by Ruud Gullit - a coach who tried to make Alan Gordon play like Paul Scholes. Gullit lasted less than a year.
Fasten up your scarves tightly - from where I sit in the bleachers, this unexpected turbulence might make for a bumpy, and interesting ride.