The grass of the Buck Shaw Stadium field was as lush and green as ever, the ever present Bay Area sunlight dancing on the bleachers in the background, and the blue and black clad players trained as they had on any previous Thursday ahead of a weekend home game. The scene was an all too familiar one from the many that have come before during the 2014 season. But with one significant difference.
Standing inside the center circle, barking out orders and guiding players into positions during short-field scrimmages, was not Mark Watson, not the coach that had been relieved of his duties the day before, not the man that had said his goodbyes to his former charges earlier that morning. Instead, it was the unassuming and long-time Earthquakes servant Ian Russell.
A member of the coaching staff since the club returned to MLS in 2008, Russell was named the interim head coach of the Earthquakes in the wake of the firing of Watson and the announcement that current Houston Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear would take over the same role in San Jose at the conclusion of the season. Russell did not look completely out of place at his station on the center line, but his mannerisms suggested that the role had come about unexpectedly.
"I'm excited for the opportunity to coach these two games," Russell told Center Line Soccer, as his first training session in charge came to a close. "Obviously, I don't completely like the circumstances, but I am really looking forward to the games and trying to get a couple wins."
And so began his first interview with the media since being handed the reigns to the team, a tinge of nervousness in his delivery. Seven years he has been a fixture on the sideline at Buck Shaw Stadium, but Saturday's game against the Vancouver Whitecaps will mark the first time he has led the team in front of its home fans, and it won't be under desirable circumstances.
"We haven't won in a long while."
The 2014 Earthquakes are dangerously close to finishing with their worst ever record in seventeen MLS seasons. Inheriting control of a team that is currently mired in a 13-game winless streak in league play, Russell will have two games as the decision maker to try to salvage something out of a lost year and avoid the franchise mark for futility. In both 2000 and 2009, the Quakes collected just seven wins; these Quakes have only six.
That 2000 season, when San Jose finished with only 29 points from 32 matches -- an identical total for the current Quakes -- also marked the rookie MLS season for Russell. A fifth-round selection in the 2000 MLS SuperDraft, the lightning-quick midfielder was a big part of the worst-to-first turnaround the following season, with newly installed head coach Frank Yallop in charge, as the Earthquakes won their first MLS Cup Championship. He won again in 2003 and added a Supporters' Shield title in 2005. He faced adversity as well as welcomed accolades in his five year playing career with the Quakes.
In 2008, Yallop brought him back to San Jose and named him first assistant coach. He persevered during the club's expansion and sophomore seasons, both among the worst in franchise history, before helping the team reach the Conference Finals in 2010 and the club's second Supporters' Shield title in 2012. A step back in team form last year saw his mentor Yallop part ways with the Quakes, and this year his comrade Watson got the sack for an even more dismal performance.
"I've been a part of the highs and lows," recalled Russell. "The main thing you can do is never quit working. It can get ugly if you do. A lot of our guys are fighters, so that won't happen with this group. We've had some unfortunate luck this year, we've had a lot of injuries, and hopefully we can have a couple bounces go our way in these next couple games because it's been tough."
And not just tough on the field. Sure, Vancouver is desperately clinging to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference and season ending opponents Chivas USA may very well be playing their last match as a franchise before a possible seasons long hiatus, but the real competition is within the squad. Who on the roster and the remaining coaching staff will be invited back next season when Kinnear takes charge.
"The main thing is to get the guys ready to really work as hard as possible," said Russell as to what he can focus on when it could come as only natural for the team to simply play out the string. "For them, Dominic is going to be watching these games, so they are going to be under the microscope. There will be big decisions to make after the end of the season, and these guys have to put it all out there in these last two games and end this down streak."
And it won't just be the players that will be rated over the next two weekends. The 39-year old Russell also acknowledged that his own tenure with the organization, second only on the soccer operations side to general manager John Doyle, was also under scrutiny. If the team is listless in two games to complete the season, he would bear as much culpability as the players in the club's terrible finish.
"I just want to make sure the guys are extremely prepared," said Russell. "That they know exactly what they are supposed to do, that they have a clear game plan. I want them ready to go from the opening whistle and prepared to go 90. I need to make sure that happens."
Will it be two and through for the interim head coach, or can an inspired performance by his Quakes under his leadership save his job. Russell will certainly not go down without a fight, and neither will his team, not if he can help it.