With the exception of a magical (and improbable) run to the Supporter's Shield in 2012, the San Jose Earthquakes front office hasn't always managed to conjure much faith in its ability to assemble the on-field product since the franchise rebooted in 2008. Within the last year, however, the Quakes' braintrust has added two decision-makers (Dom Kinnear and Chris Leitch), moved to a much better facility, and spent a seven-figure sum on its academy, including the hiring of two new coaches with significant cachet.
While one season of good decisions rarely makes a franchise, two or three in a row can turn around decades of malpractice (see: the Golden State Warriors). As such, I wanted to evaluate the last year of personnel transactions for the club and see if the new faces made much of a difference. I graded each with an eye to how much they have already improved the team, how much they are likely to improve the team in the future, how well it fit into the broader project of franchise-building, and how much value was given up to acquire it (such as trade assets, allocation money, or space under the salary cap). A grade of "A" would be a home-run, providing the very highest value that could be squeezed out of the assets spent, the sort of decision that franchises are built around. A grade of "B" made the team better, but the value was more limited. A "C" is the sort of decision that fails to move the needle one way or the other. I'll reserve a "D" or "F" grade exclusively for transactions that made the team worse.
Without any further ado, here are my grades, starting with the all-important coaching hire, accompanied by brief justifications.
This is a home run, period. Kinnear is not only one of the most consistently successful coaches in MLS history, he's one with deep roots in the Bay Area and with this franchise in particular. Moreover, he's never relied upon high-priced imports to win, making him a good fit for a club of San Jose's stature. He's a no-nonsense and pragmatic manager who runs a disciplined, professional operation and keeps an even keel, all traits that tend to go under-appreciated by the clamoring masses. His tactics were flexible enough to accomodate massive personnel upheaval and ultimately settled into something that was both effective and pleasing on the eye: the flat 4-4-2 that followed Anibal Godoy's introduction to the team. Worth mentioning is Kinnear's heavy involvement in personnel decisions, which is part of why I rate him so highly. The transactions are so thoroughly different than the last few years that it's hard to imagine Kinnear's influence wasn't a major factor in them.
The results were unambiguous: the squad played better soccer, with better effort, and went from bottom-of-the-table to sticking in the playoff hunt in the loaded Western Conference until the very last day of the season. The team accumulated a staggering 17 more points than the previous campaign, and the underlying stats (particularly defensive) indicate the improvement was sustainable. A dismal losing streak over the summer and an ultimate failure to acheive the playoff dream put a damper on fan's affections for the man, but that's the sort of run that should've been expected from a team that was riding a 15-game winless streak before their spring renaissance. The real proof in the on-field pudding will come next year, but Kinnear's history reason enough for optimism.
Simply put, there was no better realistic option for the franchise, and they got their man.
This group of players made a staggering $1,011,848.06 in salary between them last season, yet only three of them are still playing soccer at a high level. Of those three (Harris, Hernandez, and Busch), none of them stood out in 2015 at the MLS level despite all being six-figure salaries. Hernandez endured a miserable season at the heart of a laughable NYCFC defense, Busch was a backup on a dismal Chicago Fire team, and Harris was just a role player on FC Dallas. When you clear out that much salary and roster space and give up so little on-field value, it's a huge boon to the project of improving a franchise.
These drafts rarely add any value to teams, and 2014 was no exception. Tyrpak was waived early after the Quakes kicked the tires on him, Gruenebaum retired rather than take a job as a backup, and Barrera signed a minimum contract. The Argentine winger showed real promise in his 2014 MLS season, but he made a relatively minor impact in 2015. He offered left-footed depth on the wing, may still come good, and was acquired with a meaningless draft pick for a salary that doesn't count against the cap. Then again, the Quakes could've nabbed talented Toronto FC youngster Marky Delgado with their dispersal draft pick, so there's some regret there.
At the time, this one looked like a savvy move. Sherrod had shown a lot of promise early in his first MLS season, Kinnear was well-positioned to evalute him, the team needed a target striker, and a second-round pick is a really minor asset. Unfortunately, Sherrod was also recovering from a torn ACL, and it's clear that he wasn't ready to make an impact in MLS after just a year of recovery, which is not uncommon for that particular injury. As such, signing young guys on minimum contracts who may end up contributing is never a bad decision, but it's not going to be a good one unless he shows a bit more in the future.
San Jose selects Marvell Wynne in the 2nd Rd of the Re-entry Draft (Grade: A-)
The second round of the re-entry draft allows for contract re-negotiation, which was key in this particular pickup. San Jose had endured a miserable time at right-back since the departure of Steven Beitashour, and Wynne completely fixed the problem. Throughout the year, he was a lock-down defender and brought immense stability to a highly successful back line. In the early parts of the year, his pace bombing forward created attacking space that opened up a sometimes-stilted attack. While limited on-the-ball, and not of ideal height, his athleticism, veteran defending instincts, and strength led to an excellent performance all season. The only real limitation on the grade, for me, is the fact that for his salary (roughly 185k a year), you expect a player who is a staple in your starting XI.
San Jose selects Sanna Nyassi in the 2nd Rd of the Re-entry Draft (Grade: B-)
Getting two assets out of the re-entry draft is insane, by the way. Almost no other club got anything of note with their picks, yet San Jose managed to get two guys who played major minutes for them. That in and of itself is worthy of two positive grades. Nyassi was a stalwart at right wing to start the season, putting in some maddeningly inconsistent performances that were frequently anonymous but occasionally spectacular. His pace, alone, appeared to affect the shape of opposing defenses; his pressing and chemistry with Marvell Wynne were both positives, too. That being said, he's also a six-figure player who couldn't find much game time late in the season, arguably behind Cordell Cato in the pecking order.
San Jose selects Fatai Alashe, Keasel Broome, and Chimdum Mez in the MLS Superdraft (Grade: A)
The grade is an A on the basis of taking Alashe with the number four overall pick alone. Not only was he runner-up for MLS Rookie of the Year, the Quakes managed to snag four years of him at an insanely cheap price. He's already one of the better defensive midfielders in MLS, shutting down all sorts of opposing #10s and shielding a sometimes-patchwork back line. His game on the ball was more erratic, but that is understandable for a 21-year-old who spent four seasons at the NCAA level. He's a franchise building-block, and the Quakes managed to snag one of just two of those available in the draft with the #4 pick. That gets you an A in and of itself.
The other picks almost don't matter, coming in a part of the draft where few players even make MLS rosters. There are always occasional gems (say, Dominic Badji this year for example), but you can never count on finding them. The Quakes passed up on Ramon Martin del Campo due to his guaranteed contract, which is perfectly defensible.
Cronin is a perfectly good MLS player, but he's on a fairly big contract, he's not as good as Alashe as a defensive midfielder, he's older, and the Quakes managed to snag what apparently was a fairly large amount of allocation money in exchange. Those funds, plus the salary space, allowed for quite a few of the subsequent transactions. He also didn't seem to be a particularly good fit at his position under Kinnear, who seems to prefer athletic #6s (like Ricardo Clark) to the "tidy" type (like Cronin). All in all, a valuable move that made the team better, even though they did give up a productive player to get it.
San Jose signs Innocent Emeghara to a DP contract (Grade: Incomplete)
Could it be any other grade? The Nigeria-born Swiss international forward may be the fastest player on the team and has technical ability that would fit right in to a European first-division team. He's just 25, with high-level club and international experience, and he was willing to commit the majority of his prime to an MLS team. His upside looks like Obafembi Martins, the kind of forward who breaks opposing game plans and opens up the field for other players. All of that is worth getting excited about. That being said, when you're paying a million dollars a year for a footballer, it's disconcerting when it's been a year and you still have no idea how close to that upside he is.
After an injury-limited preseason that prevented him from finding chemistry with his teammates, he had an up-and-down two month run that included a goal-of-the-season contender against Seattle amidst frustratingly anonymous and individualistic performances. He started out on the left wing and looked mostly ineffectual, although in his last healthy days with the team he looked to have found a place at the top of the formation. Then he was out for the year with a knee injury. With that short of a track record to grade on, I can't in good conscience evaluate him as-is. There was enough reason to be hopeful, but it'll require a fairly strong recovery and increased trust in his teammates to to fulfill his promise.
San Jose signs free agent Paulo Renato (Grade: D+)
For me, this is the only transaction on the year that was arguably a mistake. When you sign a free agent at around $100k a year, you expect them to make the bench in front of the 18-year-old kid with no professional experience when the back line is decimated at the end of the year. While there was some positive feedback about him in the pre-season, I was always a bit perplexed that a player who spent a career bouncing around the Portugese second and third divisions was tipped to turn into an impact player in MLS. After a few servicable performances as a depth player early on in the season, he turned in a few dreadful ones through the middle, culminating in an apocalypse against the Vancouver Whitecaps. From there on, he never once made the gameday 18, healthy or not. He never appeared to have a bad attitude about it, but when you use that much of your cap to sign a player who helped so little, it can only be considered to have made the team worse.
This trade came out of the blue and turned out to be a stroke of genius. I liked the trade then, and I like it even more now. The Quakes gave up a role player in an area of strength (defense), plus a small amount of cap space, in exchange for a starting-caliber striker, which amounts to a steal. Amarikwa is also a perfect fit in San Jose: a physical striker with an attitude that has above-average pace and finishing. Oh yeah, and he has roots in the club and the region. He was pretty much the only bright spot on the team over that dismal summer stretch, and was an indispensable upgrade over the likes of Adam Jahn and Mark Sherrod up top once the summer transfer window closed and the team got back (closer) to full strength. He's of the team's five most valuable players already.
San Jose signs Matheus Silva off of waivers (Grade: Incomplete)
So little was given up for the 18-year-old (a minimum contract and a near-worthless waiver draft pick) that it'll be a no-brainer "B" or "A" if he ever sees meaningful playing time in MLS. For now, however, all we have to go on is two appearances in the friendlies against Manchester United and Club America, in which he demonstrated composure against fully-grown pros. He's 6'2", well built, has all the skill with the ball at his feet that you'd expect from a formal futsal stud, and came from a powerhouse high school program (Monteverde Academy) via Brazil. Whether he ends up a defensive midfielder or a center-back, he's an exciting prospect and well worth the price of a flier.
San Jose acquires Marc Pelosi via allocation order (Grade: B+)
His signing was a bit of a saga, with a Quakes training stint after his release from Liverpool quietly extending beyond its original schedule, and the front office downplaying rumors of a potential signing. In the end, they got an excellent deal by signing a US Youth National Team staple and Premier League academy product to a minimum contract. Oh yeah, and he grew up just a short drive away from Avaya stadium. While they did give up the top spot in the allocation order to acquire him, that was the last time the order was utilized, so it came at no opportunity cost.
It took a while for Pelosi to make much of an impression. He seemed a step slow in his first few appearances, and while his work rate and physicality was always high, it wasn't always clear that he knew what to do with his talents on the pitch. I actually think his reputation amongst fans suffered since they saw a smaller, pedigreed player and assumed he was a technical wizard: a finesse player who would be a creator and attacker. It turns out, he's an all-action enforcer through the middle of the park who grew into his game as the season wore on with ever more frequent moments of technical grace. By the end of the season, he was a suitable backup starter, if not quite a major difference-maker. If the 21-year-old takes a big step forward in the off-season after his first run in a professional team, a B+ could look insulting before next year is out.
San Jose signs Anibal Godoy from Budapest Honved (Grade: A)
While the details of the trasnfer arrangement are still unclear (I think it's possible a transfer fee was involved, but that has never been made public), it truly doesn't matter: this was the transaction that altered the course of the season for the Quakes. Godoy is almost an ideal MLS player: just below the DP threshold, seasoned by Central American club and international football, with equal parts on-the-ball composure and defensive solidity. He's an underrated athlete with an imposing, if wiry, frame.
The buzz around the franchise when he was signed was that he would bring "solidity" to the midfield, and boy did he ever. Not only did he form a defensively imposing pairing with Fatai Alashe, his head-up passing was very effective at connecting the ball from back to front, and turned Shaun Francis from a player fighting for his place in the league into a serviceable left back. Both factors also massively freed up the wingers and strikers to be more offensively oriented, which unlocked a previously sclerotic Quakes attack. It genuinely felt like he was the missing ingredient they needed all along, and at an affordable price, and just 25 years old, he'll be a cornerstone of the next two years.
A lot of As and Bs, a few Cs, and just one miss. That's a sterling record. The team will face some major decisions in the coming years, such as how to replace its aging defenders and its most popular player, Chris Wondolowski. What this year shows, however, is that after years of middling decisions, this Front Office has earned a bit of trust back from the fanbase. With Dominic Kinnear, Chris Leitch, and brand new facilities to leverage, that's no accident. Check back 365 days from now and see if it continues.