In the arms race that has broken out in MLS ahead of the league's twentieth season, it seemed that the San Jose Earthquakes had been left behind. With a new head coach in charge and an established general manager working overtime to help him build a new team, the club had spent most of the MLS offseason picking up spare parts after discarding old ones. Dominic Kinnear and John Doyle, responsible for remaking a roster that finished dead last in the Western Conference last year, were running seemingly running out of time to make a splashy signing.
They accomplished that goal big-time with the introduction of 25-year-old Swiss international striker Innocent Emeghara as the club's third Designated Player. Perhaps not a player with a marquee name, Emeghara marks the first significant signing of a rising international player since the Earthquakes returned to MLS in 2008.
"Today is a good day, a very good day," said Doyle, just minutes after concluding Emeghara's introductory press conference at the team's new Avaya Stadium.
Doyle stood watch on the entryway strip of lush green artificial grass that connects the team's locker room with the Avaya Stadium pitch. Signing a third DP to address the team's need for a speedy goalscorer was easier said than done, but it was a task that he welcomed.
"I think it's a thing where you're building, not just filling holes," said Doyle, "and I like building a lot better than filling holes. But you need a big commitment from ownership to build, and that commitment is there.
"He's the right age," continued Doyle. "It's not like he is 38 years old, where you're worried about his health in the twilight of his career. He's 25 years old, and he's played in top leagues around the world."
After turning professional as a teenager, the Nigerian born but Swiss raised Emeghara played for three Swiss clubs over the first five years of his career. While a member of the Swiss U-21 national team, he parlayed his success into a move to France and Ligue 1 side FC Lorient. His trajectory continued skyward with appearances for the full Swiss national team and a high-profile move to Italy's Serie A and time with Siena and Livorno. A brief sojourn with Azerbaijan Premier League club Qarabag marked his last European stop before signing with San Jose.
"I flew to Zurich to meet him, and spoke to him, and sat down and I showed him everything about Major League Soccer and what the league's about," said Doyle. "I just got a good feeling that he was a player that wanted to come to us. It wasn't about the end of his career, and he just wanted one more payday. He wants to come and work hard and be successful."
Emeghara himself saw the potential of MLS to become a world football leader in the near future, and he was sold on the idea of being part of that escalation. And while it is hard to see it as a rebirth for Emeghara -- he is only 25 years old -- the opportunity to come to America was definitely a new beginning for the Swiss striker.
"This was not an easy decision for me to take," said Emeghara from the press room podium, flanked on both sides by Doyle and Kinnear, "but after all of the possibilities that I had, I made this decision because, for me, it is very important to be in a place that I feel at home. I feel very, very happy to be here So that I can improve in my career and I can bring the success that I like also. I am looking forward and I am very motivated to join this team. I'm looking forward in the days ahead to help the team the best I can."
Priority number one following the 2014 season was to improve the overall pace of the Starting XI, and the recent pick-ups of midfielders Sanna Nyassi and Leandro Barrera, as well as veteran defender Marvell Wynne, certainly helped with that goal. Still, the signing of Emeghara is certainly the most high-profile pacy purchase made by the Quakes this offseason, and the roster is pretty much set for the 2015 campaign.
"Not only do we have a track team out there," said Kinnear on the new acquisitions, "but we have some good soccer players who on any given day can give teams problems with their pace. When you looked around, it had a little bit more on the outside, the outside back and outside midfielder position, and I always think that a center forward leading the line, whether it be with one or playing with two, a guy that can get behind the defense and cause trouble that way, is always important.
"He fills a position of need for us," continued Kinnear. "He's a forward with good pace, and if you look at his highlight film from over the years, he's not running away from boys, he's running away from grown men. We are very happy to have him here."
Kinnear had said as recently as a week ago, the team was looking at a vast number of possibilities when it came to the team's desired third DP signing, and he had his coaching staff working for countless hours sifting through the information on each candidate. The Earthquakes had tapped into the network of league scouts in their search for an impact signing, and Emeghara was a player that fit the bill for what Doyle and Kinnear wanted.
"There are scouts within the league that try to help teams find players," explained Kinnear. "The ones with the league, they blanket you and ask you what you are looking for, besides what is going on with our own scouting. The profile we were looking for was a forward with pace, and Innocent's name came across, along with many others, so we did our due diligence as far as scouting goes, and the one thing we all said when we were watching the games of his was that this guy's going to help us.
"With that, John had a real good conversation with him. It wasn't just one person saying 'Let's do this,' or, 'I want to do this.' We all felt comfortable with it, and the one thing we thought, 100%, was is this guy a position that we are looking at, and do we think this guy can help us and be successful in this league. And we all said 'Yes.'
"Innocent had opportunities as far back as last week to go somewhere else, so for him to pick San Jose and MLS over La Liga or a team in Germany, it's a risk on his part, but I think he understands our ambitions as a club and the ambitions of the league. He sees the growth of soccer in America, and he wants to be a part of it."
Doyle had to really sell the league and San Jose on the 25-year-old international forward, especially as MLS was not yet a widely regarded league by many in Europe. Emeghara, however, was ready for some stability in his career, and joining a team that was embarking on a new chapter in its existence, with a new stadium opening, dovetailed nicely with his own views of his future.
"That is part of the reason that I chose the club," said Emeghara, "because I don't want to move to another club again. In Europe, it is difficult when you are in a bad situation and move a lot. Yes, I have a lot of experience, but I take the good things from that. I am very happy to be here and to have a long-term contract again and to start a new chapter for me."
The extra work the Quakes staff put in on evaluating Emeghara and recommending him as the club's top target only served to make securing a deal a must-complete offseason item for Doyle. And the eight-year general manager delivered.
"The things we saw as a staff," said Doyle, "how he can get behind players. He's a good soccer player. It's not where he's a mindless guy who's fast. He's a good soccer player. Eight days ago he was playing against Man City and he was playing against Frankfurt, then you're watching the qualities that he has and for us that sealed it.
"He's gets the game of soccer. He's a good passer. His main role is to set up goals and score goals, and tear defenses apart, but he's a good soccer player. He gets how to play soccer. His technique is excellent. As an old central defender, I wouldn't want to play against him. He's that one, where it's a flick-on and you're looking and you're like, 'Oh no, I can't catch him.'
"As Dominic said, we all looked at what we needed, and we were all in agreement that this was the type of player that checks off all the boxes for us."
An added bonus comes with the timing of Emeghara's signing: prior to the start of the MLS season. The two Designated Players that the Quakes brought into MLS arrived in San Jose in midseason -- Geovanni in 2010 and Matias Perez Garcia last summer -- and they took time to get up to speed with the team and the league. That shouldn't be an issue for Emeghara, already in very good shape from his playing experience in Azerbaijan, and San Jose will be able to start the 2015 season with all roster parts in place.
"It helps when the guy can join you in preseason," said Kinnear. "Obviously, to meet the guys, to understand the way the team wants to play. For us, we want to get off to a good start this year, and you want to try to have the strongest squad possible. So that was the reason why the intensity of our search to get that third DP and the right type of player was kind of thrust upon us.
"Even saying to him today, 'How are you feeling, do you feel a bit tired? You can take a bit of time off at practice.' "No, I want to play.' So it shows the willingness he has to try to blend in with the team right away, and show his teammates that he cares to be here. So, I think the timing is wonderful because we still have about a month to five weeks left in the preseason and it gives him a good chance. Not about his fitness, but it's obviously about getting to know his teammates and getting to know a little bit about the league."
The Earthquakes spend the next week of preseason in Arizona, where they are scheduled to play friendlies against MLS sides Houston Dynamo, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Portland Timbers at Kino Sports Complex outside of Tucson -- three matches in which Kinnear plans to introduce Emeghara to the rigors of facing MLS competition. San Jose plays Colorado and LA in the coming weeks as well, two more chances for the Swiss striker to learn how to play with his new teammates, including fellow DP forward Chris Wondolowski.
Kinnear will hope to have everything figured out by the end of the Galaxy game on February 28, the inaugural match at Avaya Stadium, and that the pieces will be in place for the season opener a week later at FC Dallas. Emeghara has already learned that in MLS, a new season means new opportunities, and he is excited to give it a go.
"In MLS," said Emeghara, "every team can win everything."
With three DPs on the roster and a host of healthy veterans and youngsters ready to go, the Earthquakes will look to make 2015 a season of success.