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Quakes Poor Season: Just A Lot of Guys Having Career Bad Years?

I was a little taken aback last week when John Doyle, the Earthquake's G.M. since the team rejoined MLS in 2008, told the Mercury News that the team might not be making substantial roster changes over the offseason. "Maybe in 2012 we had career years for a lot of guys. In 2014, we had career bad years for a lot of guys." Hmmm. The funny thing about the disastrous season we just went through is that it really wasn't such an anomaly after all. In fact, it was fairly representative of how the team has performed in the seven seasons since Lew Wolff's ownership group re-booted the franchise.

I'm not one of those haters who trolls the internet, clamoring for someone (anyone) to "fire Doyle!" As a season ticket holder and proud Quakes supporter, I've never had a particular axe to grind with ownership or the front office. I like to think I harbor relatively modest and realistic expectations for what a middle-market, small-budget team like San Jose can reasonably be expected to accomplish. Heck, I'd be satisfied if the Quakes made the playoffs more years than not and held their own against the bigger teams in the league most of the time. Of course winning a third star would be fantastic, but I realize that's probably not going to happen anytime soon. Recently, though, I've started to get the feeling that the folks who run the Earthquakes aren't even as ambitious as I am.

But maybe I'm just being paranoid. Or unreasonably pessimistic after a particularly poor season. So as a reality check, I went back to check the numbers and discovered that compared to other teams in the Western Conference, the Earthquakes have been doing even worse than I remembered! The table below shows next year's 2015 Western Conference teams ranked according to how each has performed on the field since 2008 when the Earthquakes rejoined the league (or for expansion teams, since the year it joined the league). To measure team performance, I looked at a team's average number of points per game, the percent of the time a team made the playoffs, the number of Supporter's Shields a team won, and the number of times a team made it through to an MLS Cup final. All these measures work slightly against expansion teams who generally struggle in their first year or two, but the Earthquakes (with seven seasons) are the oldest of these, followed by Seattle (six seasons), and then Portland and Vancouver (four seasons each).

Western Conference Team Performance Since 2008

Points Per Game

Made the Playoffs

Supporter's Shields Won

MLS Cup Final Appearances

Seattle Sounders FC

1.680

100.0%

1

0

LA Galaxy

1.654

85.7%

2

3

Real Salt Lake

1.582

100.0%

0

2

Sporting Kansas City

1.471

71.4%

0

1

Houston Dynamo

1.436

71.4%

0

2

FC Dallas

1.389

42.9%

0

1

Portland Timbers

1.339

25.0%

0

0

Colorado Rapids

1.301

42.9%

0

1

San Jose Earthquakes

1.296

28.6%

1

0

Vancouver Whitecaps

1.241

50.0%

0

0

Starting off with the average number of Points Per Game, we can see that San Jose ranks next to last with 1.296, just below Colorado, but above Vancouver. In only three of these seven seasons have the Earthquakes earned 1.5 points per game or higher, a number that usually guarantees a playoff spot. So it shouldn't be surprising that in terms of the percent of the time a team made the playoffs (given whatever playoff format was used in a given year), San Jose again ranks near the bottom, having made the playoffs just twice in seven years (28.6% of the time), only slightly better than Portland who has made it just once over four years (25%). The Earthquakes do stand out in the third measure, the number of Supporter's Shields won. The Quakes of course won this in 2012 (as Seattle did this year) while the Galaxy won it in both 2011 and 2010. Finally, in terms of MLS Cup Final appearances, six of the ten teams in the Western Conference have appeared at least one time, while the Quakes are one of four clubs (all expansion teams) who have not gone all the way to an MLS Cup Final during the past seven years.

Given such a meager record of accomplishment over all the years since this ownership and front office have called the shots, one would think now might be a good time to take stock and at least consider some new directions. One of the first places to look might be the composition of players on a team that earned just .88 points per game in 2014 and didn't win a single match out of its final 15. Team leaders like Chris Wondolowski and John Busch have pretty much said as much in comments to the press towards the close of the season. So that's why it was so dismaying to hear John Doyle pretend to explain it all away, as if everyone on the team just happened to be having a bad season all at the same time. That isn't nearly good enough and the record over seven seasons clearly indicates it hasn't been for a long time. I know President Dave Kaval has been very busy putting the finishing touches on the new stadium (with lots of Twitter and Vine posts to prove it), but it's been more than a little disappointing not to have heard a peep from him to the fans addressing the team's poor performance on the field or committing to do better. Where's the accountability in that or at least the acknowledgement that we have a problem?

The table above exposes the sizable gap that has opened up between the perennially successful Western Conference teams and those on the outside looking in. Seattle, LA Galaxy, RSL, Sporting KC, and Houston have all averaged over 1.4 points per game over seven seasons, and all have been to the playoffs more than 70% of the time. These franchises have three Supporter's Shields between them, and have occupied 8 of the 14 slots in the past seven MLS Cup Finals. Talk about elite. And what's really scary is that at least four of them give every indication of continuing this level of performance. LA, Seattle, RSL, and Kansas City all have dynamic and ambitious owners, highly regarded head coaches and front offices, seemingly inexhaustible financial resources, large and successful youth academies, not to mention energized fan bases with some of the highest average attendances in the league. In addition, LA, Seattle, and RSL will each field second teams in USL Pro next year, while Kansas City plans to follow the next year. Only Houston, who had a sub-par 2014 season, and who now faces uncertainty with its head coaching change, shows any sign of falling off. If any of the other Western Conference teams has hopes of making the playoffs in 2015 or beyond, it will need to dislodge one of these five, and that's a mighty big ask.

Firing Mark Watson and hiring Dominic Kinnear was a step in the right direction, but it will take a lot more than that for the Earthquakes to compete in this league. Many are beginning to ask themselves if ownership and management are really as committed to the team as its fans are. We'll all enjoy coming to the new stadium (finally), but what we'd really like is a team worth watching once we get there.

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