On the morning of the first day marking the official start to the 2016 MLS preseason, San Jose Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear shared his thoughts on a wide variety of topics with Center Line Soccer in this exclusive Q&A.
In part one of that conversation, Kinnear went into the specifics that went into shaping the team's roster ahead of the 2016 regular season. Kinnear detailed the to-do list that he, general manager John Doyle, and technical director Chris Leitch, followed after a season in which the Quakes narrowly missed out on the MLS Cup playoffs. He also discussed the current status of some returning players, including the big question marks on the roster.
Part two of our interview will focus more on how the first team interacts with the Academy teams, what is in store for the Quakes partnership with USL affiliate Sacramento Republic FC, and what intangibles Kinnear believes are required for a coach to be successful in MLS.
Center Line Soccer: Thanks for taking time here at the start of the preseason to talk about how the team is doing, six weeks out from the start of the 2016 MLS season.
Dominic Kinnear: "It should be good. I'm looking forward to it."
Center Line Soccer: Now that the off-season is over, what are your reflections looking back at the preparations made to this point, and did you make the headway you expected on what had to be a significant to-do list?
Kinnear: "The first item on the to-do list, when I look back at it, was to look at our roster at the end of the season, looking at the contract situations of some players, and putting together the players that we wanted to bring back and the players that we were not going to bring back.
"The one player that stood out was Quincy Amarikwa, who was out of contract, and he became priority number one. We wanted to re-sign him. We thought he was a good pick-up in the summer and a really good addition to the team. We felt he has more to offer us. We looked at it then as if the season was to start today -- what would be our starting line-up. And with Innocent still coming back from injury, Quincy became our priority to sign. He expressed his interest in returning, and we were able to complete the process to bring him back.
"The next from there was looking for something in midfield -- a goalscorer from midfield -- and so we talked about Simon Dawkins. It was a conversation that we had quite a few times over the year, and we expressed an interest to him to see if he wanted to return, and he expressed an interest in returning. He was popular with the fans, he was popular in the locker room, and he was also productive on the field. We felt that signing a goalscoring midfielder would be helpful for us. It took longer than expected to sign him, especially since he was under contract at Derby, but with John [Doyle] going to meet him and us talking to him over the phone a couple of times, that he was a great fit for us going forward.
"The next item was looking at the free agent pool, and looking to see who could be a good fit for the team both on and off the field. I have had some interactions with Chad Barrett over the years. We went together on a Generation Adidas trip early on, and I've always said hello to him in passing since. I've always thought that he brought some good energy, which he showed last year in Seattle, and we feel he is a guy that can score anywhere between 5 and 10 goals for us, something that would be very helpful.
"We moved on to the draft and evaluated the college players that we thought would help, but looking at Quincy, Simon, and Chad, these are really good pick-ups."
Center Line Soccer: In conversations surrounding the signings of those three, as well as those that came via the MLS SuperDraft, you emphasized the words "cover" and "competition" as reasons for the selections and signings you've made in building the 2016 roster. Was that the primary philosophy you took to this point in identifying your 28-man roster?
Kinnear: "Not entirely. What I want to do, what my primary focus is, is to win. I thought that last year, going from 6 wins the season before -- not something that too many teams would find a challenge to surpass -- we had the roster that would do that. We finished with 13 wins last year, which was a big improvement, so now the pressure is on us to be more successful, and it's going to require a better squad. Going into the off-season, we focused on the players that will make us better.
"Yes, you always want competition and cover at every position -- every team tries to do that -- but in the end, you simply want to win games. When you look at this season, with Copa America and World Cup qualifiers, as well as the possibility of the Olympics, we had to make a deeper squad to deal with potential call-ups. In the meantime, it is always the first priority to put a squad on the field that is going to help us win games."
Center Line Soccer: Heading into the preseason, your officially listed roster is maxed out at 28 players, but that doesn't mean that there aren't some question marks on the list, and that some player movement is likely to occur before you are required to be roster compliant in March. What is the current status of two guys -- Steven Lenhart and Leandro Barrera -- that stand out as uncertainties to remain on the 2016 roster?
Kinnear: "We are certainly reevaluating Steven Lenhart, but I'd be very surprised to see him play for the Earthquakes in 2016. And as far as Leandro goes, we are exploring options with him, possibly outside of MLS. At the end of last season, he expressed a desire to get more playing time, which I totally understand. The likelihood of him coming back and playing for us in 2016 is not looking very good right now."
Center Line Soccer: From the MLS SuperDraft, the only player you selected that is guaranteed to be on the roster to start the season is goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, who comes with a Generation Adidas contract and won't count against the salary budget. It was a head-scratcher of a choice for some observers at the time, but upon reflection seems to be one that makes more sense, though some questions remain as to what role he will play on this team.
Kinnear: "We in no way picked him to trade him. I knew the questions were coming after the draft, especially because no one was going to be able to see what we were thinking. We look at the roster everyday. We have to look at the budget everyday. Going into that draft, we liked some players, as did everyone else, and looking at the players that were getting picked before we were selecting, we were trying to move. Every team would same the same.
"There were teams we found out later that were trying to move up to take our spot, specifically to take Andrew. It's kind of funny, people don't say too much before the draft, but afterwards will tell you what was going on. It's like a poker game that has spilled over into the parking lot, and people share their aims and ambitions.
"So looking at the roster, selecting Andrew in no way an indication that we have lost confidence in David Bingham. It is not the case at all. David had a great season for us last year, and will have an even better season for us this year. But looking where we were at, looking at the number of senior roster spots, the money available, it made total sense to go with a GA signing and look at a guy that we thought was first off, a very intelligent kid, and second, can step right in and play in MLS, which was important to us.
"As I said, we found out a lot of teams came to us trying to trade for him. And in some ways that caught us by surprise, but it did confirm that we had made a good selection. I'm sure you saw Robb Heineman [Sporting Kansas City's CEO] tweet out that he saw Andrew as a 10-year ‘keeper in this league. We had a good conversation with Peter Vermes [SKC head coach] about Andrew at that time, but that was all. We definitely feel justified in our selection.
"You never know what's going to happen with David Bingham. He could be at the U.S. national team camp right now, and I can't tell you one way or the other, impressing the coaching staff there to where he may be brought in more often in the future. So for us, I felt that last year I did not feel confident that if David went away, we had two guys ready to go. I like Bryan Meredith, but we need to prepare for the worst, and Andrew is a good selection for that.
"I totally understand that for those on the outside looking in it was a surprise, but for those of us on the inside looking in, it made perfect sense for us."
Center Line Soccer: Back to the roster as a whole, two players that are question marks to start the season, for different reasons than Lenhart and Barrera, are Innocent and Jordan Stewart, who both are dealing with rehabilitations following season-ending injuries. What can be said about those two and their status to start the preseason?
Kinnear: "We are having our entrance physicals today, and I will get a full report from our trainer afterwards as to all the guys. I can assure you this that both will not be ready to play on the first day of preseason tomorrow. I can't give an exact time frame, but I hope they can join us on the field, and this is speculation right now, sometime after our training time in Arizona [February 10]."
Center Line Soccer: In any conversation involving roster building, the topic of what is commonly called the "salary cap" can dominate the discussion. How has the introduction and expansion of the Targeted Allocation Money system -- money that can be used to buy down Designated Player contracts as well as sign overseas talent -- factored into what the roster will look like to start the 2016 season?
Kinnear: "I think it has helped, obviously. I'm not sure that without TAM we would have been able to bring in Simon Dawkins. We do have our DPs in order, and that money does allow us to move around some of the salary dedicated to those guys, to move it here and there. The league has put TAM out there so that inside of looking at the $300K player, let's go for the $600-800K player. They believe, and I agree, that that will bring in a better quality player. With TAM, teams can go out there, and even with three DPs, and have a little more leverage and a little more room to get that higher value player.
"It will certainly help us, especially as you look around the league and see some teams that spend a lot of money -- some big, big contracts are out there -- but not all teams are going to do that. In order for us to keep pace, we need that money to help get that next player that is not a $5-6 million player, but like I said, in the range that we know can be a very productive player in MLS."
Center Line Soccer: It strikes me that TAM provides the perfect opportunity to sign players that might not necessarily be household names, but, like Anibal Godoy last summer, provide proven upgrades to the roster.
Kinnear: "Yeah, he was a great pick-up for us. There's no question about it. I laugh looking back at it, because I remember the complaints that were signing another defensive midfielder when we already had a couple. We did have our eye on the future, and knowing that some players were probably not going to come back that played in that position, he made sense. To be honest, we didn't know how much he would change our season last year -- he makes players around him better, and that's a very important trait to have from that position.
"Again, Godoy for me was a great pick-up, and John Doyle deserves a lot of credit for making that happen. He worked tirelessly on that to get it done before the summer transfer window closed. And to have Godoy come right in and get some games with us came at a critical time. He fits that mold of a player you want to get with TAM -- he has international experience and he has the proven ability to make the players around him better.
"When you watch video of him play, you can see his on-field leadership. Quite simply, he can play. He's calm under pressure, a good passer, able to beat pressure with his strength and passing ability. He even scored a couple of goals for us. For Panama, he's not really a threat to score goals, but he showed us he knows how to get into good spots. He had a good understanding with Fatai Alashe and Marc Pelosi as to when to get forward and when to stay. His maturity on the field -- he's only 25 right now -- makes it easier for his teammates to read him."
Click here to read Part two of our conversation with Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear.