The San Jose Earthquakes were not good in 2014. No one will argue that. On defense, they surrendered the most shots in MLS, and if not for the heroics of goalkeeper Jon Busch, would have challenged the franchise record for goals allowed in a season. On offense, things were not much better, as their shots created numbers were almost a league-worst.
The failings on both side of the ball culminated in a soul-draining 15 game winless streak to close out the season -- a string of futility that marked a new low in the history of Earthquakes soccer. The team had lost its way and a reboot was in order.
Enter Dominic Kinnear -- the only coach the Houston Dynamo had ever known, but whose roots were still planted in the Bay Area -- a lifeline to a more successful era of soccer in San Jose.
"He brings the same values and morals that have always made him successful, and he's brought them back here," said Chris Wondolowski, the last link to that previous era from 2001 to 2005. "The Earthquakes always emulated his style, his stance, and we maybe lost that over the last year or two, but I think that we are finding it again."
Kinnear was brought in to replace Mark Watson, who had earned the job after guiding the Quakes to the brink of the playoffs in 2013 after the abrupt midseason departure of longtime coach Frank Yallop, but oversaw the worst season in franchise history in 2014. A fractured roster and lose of confidence by the players conspired to make Watson a dead man walking before summer had turned to fall. Kinnear was lured away from Houston, and with two weeks left in the season, Watson was out.
The coaching change was but one shift away from the 2014 season, as some long term San Jose tenures came to an end. Jason Hernandez, picked in the 2007 Expansion Draft, was picked up by New York City FC via the same process. Sam Cronin, a mainstay in the midfield for Yallop and Watson, was traded to Colorado. Busch, the one player that comported himself well in a season to forget, was released and signed with the Chicago Fire. And Watson, who coached his last game in a midweek friendly against CDS Vida, landed on his feet as an assistant coach with Orlando City SC.
The 2015 San Jose Earthquakes were going to be Kinnear's, and not one player one the roster was above review.
"You have to earn your spot," said Wondolowski, "You have to earn your keep here. It's something we take pride in here. It doesn't matter who you are, what you have done, it's what you are doing right now, day in and day out at practice. That's been his message."
Kinnear's resume speaks for itself -- two MLS Cup championships as a head coach and two as an assistant, six total MLS Cup appearances, and one Supporters Shield -- so it was not long before the Quakes players rallied around their new leader and listened to his message respectfully, taking in the lessons of the charismatic 47-year-old.
"If you get to know me, you'll understand one thing," said Kinnear, explaining his personal philosophy and expectations. "If I'm out here or if I'm in that stadium, the one thing I want the guys to do is to win. Everyone says the same thing, don't get me wrong, it's not something different from one coach to the next, but you want the guys to have the attitude that when they step on the field, they play to win. It may not go your way, but as long as you have the attitude and everyone is looking in the same direction, it gives you a better chance of doing that."
The Earthquakes will begin the 2015 season in a brand new facility, Avaya Stadium, and Kinnear asked that in the tunnel leading from the locker room to the field a simple message be painted on the wall: Eleven Playing as One. It was an ethos that Yallop established when he took over the Quakes in 2001 and one that Kinnear carried with him to Houston and now back to San Jose.
"It's not just game day, it's also practice days," said Kinnear. "You want the guys for two hours, or however long training is, to always be thinking the same. Once one guys stops thinking as the others, there's hesitation in what you are trying to provide to one another.
"So, I've always liked that saying, it goes back to someone that I've worked with before that always said that, because if the eleven are playing as one, they are all moving as one, they are always thinking as one, and their goals are always the same."
The message also resonates with Wondolowski, who by all accounts is the hardest working player on the roster, and one that is as likely to be seen banging in goals on the offensive side of the ball as he is tracking back to create turnovers on defense.
"It means a lot," said Wondolowski. "I've always been a strong believer that no one is above the team, and if you have eleven working as one, it can be a dangerous team. I think we can beat anybody when we do those things. It's not easy to do that though, and so that is something we are really working on."
With less than two weeks to go until the Earthquakes season opener in Texas against FC Dallas, the pieces are falling into place this preseason. The mentality is strong and the will to win has been reinstalled. Perhaps, with a solid start against FC Dallas, the Quakes can put 2014 behind them and start a new kind of streak -- a winning streak.