With the start of on-field preparations less than a day away, San Jose Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear took time out of his busy schedule to touch on a variety of subjects in this interview with Center Line Soccer.
In Part One, Kinnear focused on the thinking and execution that went into building the roster ahead of the start of preseason camp. He went through the Quakes' to-do list, as well as discussed the rationale behind some of his MLS SuperDraft selections.
And on the same day that players were reporting to San Jose for their physicals, Kinnear shed some light on the big question marks on the roster -- the health of Innocent and Jordan Stewart, as well as the status of Steven Lenhart and Leandro Barrera.
In Part Two of our exclusive conversation with Kinnear, the head coach shares his thoughts on the Earthquakes Academy, the club's partnership with USL affiliate Sacramento Republic FC, the most important quality required of a successful MLS coach, and some of his own coaching philosophy.
The Earthquakes preseason is underway, and the team's 2016 MLS regular season opener is only six weeks away, so please enjoy this insight into the man that will look to bring the Quakes back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, Dominic Kinnear.
Center Line Soccer: One of the more impressive moves I thought the club made last year was bringing aboard Paul Holocher as the lead Earthquakes Academy coach. You and he go way back to the days of the San Francisco Blackhawks...
Dominic Kinnear: "That was our first time working together, playing with the Blackhawks."
Center Line Soccer: ...and now you are both working together again. How important was this move by the club and how do you envision Paul, Chris Leitch [technical director] and yourself integrating the program from the Academy through to the first team?
Kinnear: "I think it is important that your head academy guy, and Chris Leitch falls into this category as well, has played professional soccer, specifically American soccer. They know the situations that young players go through. Paul played college soccer at Santa Clara [University], so he knows that system. He coached at UC Santa Cruz before moving on to Cal Poly, so understands the challenges of recruiting, as well as what it takes to look for young players through connections with club soccer. It's good to have him here.
"If you look at his record through the years and the way he wants his teams play, you can see foremost that he is a teacher, which is a good thing. He knows what these players are going through and what they need to go through to get to college and improve their game or, say, become a homegrown player for us. He's new to the professional game, but I've known him well and know that he has a deep love for the game. He's one of those guys that you can talk to about soccer and he won't go away because he wants to keep on talking!
"I know hiring him was a good move. He knows the Bay Area, and he loves the Bay Area as well. And having Chris move up to technical director, a guy that has been with the club a while, has taken the courses that MLS requires for academy coaching, but he also is getting more experience dealing with the salary cap and league roster rules. Chris is an intelligent guy and, along with Paul, is dedicated to making the club better, which is excellent."
Center Line Soccer: In a conversation with team president Dave Kaval during the off-season, he spoke about the increased investment in the Earthquakes Academy and its place in the club's hierarchy of teams. What role, if any, do you play in watching and evaluating the kids that may one day earn homegrown player contracts?
Kinnear: "For me, my focus and job title are as head coach of the first team. It's a job that is Monday through Friday, as well as Saturdays and Sundays. I do keep in touch with the Academy through their results. This Wednesday we will be playing them at Avaya, which will be a great thing, a learning experience for the Academy players. It will give them a chance to be close to the first team. But as far as my inclusion into anything that is going on with the Academy, I am not there."
Center Line Soccer: As you know, MLS has placed a heavy emphasis on its relationship with the USL, and many clubs have begun teams in that division as a bridge between their academies and the first team. The Quakes don't appear to be in a rush to start their own team in that league, so the organization has had Sacramento Republic FC as its USL affiliate the past couple of years. There didn't seem to be a lot of partnership between the two clubs last season...
Kinnear: "No, there wasn't"
Center Line Soccer: ...How do you see the USL affiliate program working for the Earthquakes specifically, and is there a benefit to it?
Kinnear: "Yes, I think there is, but last year was tough. With the injuries we had and with our crazy schedule, we did not have a ton of opportunity to use it. Only near the end of the year were we able to send Tommy Thompson and JJ Koval and Mark Sherrod to play a few games. There was never a point where we said ‘We are not sending you guys, it is simply that we can't. We don't have the numbers right now since we are dealing with injuries.'
"You do want to be able to send your guys away to gain experience. In the past, I have sent players out on loan, and I certainly see it as a benefit. You are playing and not just practicing, you get to play in front of people, in front of fans, and there is more on the line than just practicing.
"We are hoping this year that we can be, I wouldn't say just a better partner, but an easier partner to work with because we have players we are willing to send there. Last year it had nothing to do with anything other than we didn't have the space to do it. I remember at one point last season we struggled to have enough players for our bench, to fill out the game day roster. I think we had two goalkeepers on the bench for one game, that was tough.
"We are going up there to play them again this preseason, which for me shows the relationship that we have. I like going up there; it's a great challenge to play them. They are a great team and have a great organization behind them. They are hungry for more. But last year, the partnership didn't work out because the bodies weren't healthy enough."
Center Line Soccer: And factoring in the limited size of the MLS roster (28 players) and number of healthy players you had, would you say that sending players to an affiliate would have been counterproductive instead of beneficial at that point?
Kinnear: "You are exactly right. Sometimes the team wants that player, with their game on a Sunday, no later than Tuesday, and you can't always commit a player or players so early in the week because someone else is questionable for the weekend. It doesn't make sense to send anyone. The good thing is that we are close enough to Sacramento that that could happen later in the week, but I totally understand their point of view that they want players ahead of the weekend and not just showing up on Saturday. They want harmony in their squad. I also know they understand our situation, where we can't just send players from here because I might have only 15 guys for training. It just doesn't make sense."
Center Line Soccer: Turning away from the Earthquakes, the roster, the Academy, etc., let's talk a little more directly about you, your coaching philosophy...
Kinnear: "So this is going to be the boring part of the interview for everyone, I'd imagine (chuckles)."
Center Line Soccer: Well let's hope readers are still tuning in at this point! You mentioned earlier the example of how Paul Holocher is very familiar with the American soccer system. Do you feel that American-born or American-raised is a strong qualification for head coaches in MLS?
Kinnear: "Yes. This league is like no other, and I think it is important to have coaches that have played in the league, who spent time as assistant coaches. Only a couple of guys come to mind over the years that have successfully come directly from playing to being a head coach. One is Peter Vermes, who began as an interim coach and then became a head coach, and the other is Jason Kreis, who came straight from playing. There have been some other guys out there, of course, and there are a few that were involved with academies, like Oscar Pareja with the national team before Dallas.
"So, yes, I 100% believe that, and it has nothing to do with patriotism or bias. I just think in terms of knowledge of the game, it is important to have Americans that have played in the league to be coaches, whether on your bench as an assistant or as head coach. This league -- and think to what we talked about with TAM and other salary issues -- is evolving and growing, the rules are constantly changing, so I think to have someone involved who has been in our game for a while is so important.
"He needs to know the travel, know the weather, know the referees -- Steven Gerrard said it best about last year, ‘I was not prepared for what came upon me these last four months.' Now that is a guy who is a world-known player, just imagine if he came in to coach how completely different it would have been for him.
"I think someone who has been involved with MLS, and I know Oscar Pareja is not American but has been in the league for well over 10 years, needs to be in these roles. Someone who can relate to the players and shares the same characteristics, has knowledge of the college system, but most importantly has knowledge of MLS.
"You can look at European coaches who go to England, which is the league I follow most, they will always have a British assistant coach on their bench, and I think that is so helpful. Remember that when Jose Morinho had his first stint at Chelsea, he had Steve Clarke, who was an ex-Chelsea player, as his assistant. It's so important, like it is in golf to have that home course knowledge, to know what to expect in the future. For guys to succeed, it should not be a requirement, as that is a bit biased, but to have that MLS background on your resume is more than important."
Center Line Soccer: I might add Jesse Marsch, Ben Olsen, Jay Heaps to that list as guys that have gone directly into coaching from the playing careers and had some successful seasons. Even Caleb Porter, who coached the Timbers to the MLS Cup championship this year, played for a time in the league.
Kinnear: "That's right. You know, Caleb Porter was a teammate of mine in Tampa Bay, and broke in the with Clash. When you look at it, Caleb spent years sending players on to MLS, he had a great program at Akron as we know, and a wonderful year last year. But I'm sure he would tell you that in his first year coaching in MLS, he learned a lot of things along the way that he wasn't expecting. To have a good understanding of the league and the players, and Caleb has surrounded himself over the years with players he has coached before, was a smart thing to do."
Center Line Soccer: Speaking of a player that you had coached before back in Houston, Chris Wondolowski. Your star forward spent time last week in New York as part of the league's preseason media days, where he sat down for an interview with ESPNFC.com in which he was asked what it was about you that he most appreciated and how important it was to have you as coach of the Earthquakes. Without hesitation, he described you as one of the best coaches in the league. This is a sentiment that other players, past and present, have expressed about you. What would you describe are the qualities you have that are indispensable to your success in MLS?
Kinnear: "Wow, you really want me to talk about myself, don't you."
Center Line Soccer: I warned you that I was going to ask these questions...
Kinnear: "Well, I find that I am my least favorite subject to talk about, but it is nice when I hear that people think that way. And it's great that Chris -- and let's be honest, Chris could have said I was not the best coach for him since early in his career he was not seeing as much playing time as he desired -- shared that.
"As we discussed earlier when we were talking about drafting a goalkeeper, I don't believe in mind games with players. I think that they are just a waste of time. I try to be as honest as I can to the players 100% of the time. Frank Yallop, who I learned a lot from in my first three years being an assistant coach, taught me to keep it straight with the players. And if you can add to that expectations, as well as the harsh realities, you gain their respect.
"I can look at everyone and say I have never lied to them and I respect what they do. I've always tried to make sure they had time away from the game to keep them hungry throughout the year, through good times and bad. For me, if you step on the field, do your job, you can go home and know you are a good person.
"And I've been lucky at times through the years. I've had some great teams and some great times and I've been around a lot of good people. The one thing I have always tried to do is have a good staff around me, which has been very helpful. But it can simply come down to a few words, something Frank shared with me and would always say, ‘Players don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.' I care about them and I care about the team a lot. Not to the point that I would want to be sneaky because that is the worst you can be."
Center Line Soccer: Frank Yallop always did say things as they were, and I know that was always appreciated. He also seemed to be a coach that did not look at raw numbers too much when he evaluated players, preferring to watch them play to learn how good they could be. Would you say that part of being a successful coach is having those instincts to be able to assess players and put together a really good team?
Kinnear: "Maybe so, but I will say that the coach that has the best players will normally win the most. Sometimes you need a little luck along the way too. I felt that in Frank's time with San Jose, and carrying over to my time here and in Houston, those were great years. And what was the secret? I had a great team. We had that long winning streak with Houston and people were saying it was because of the humidity, which perhaps played a part in it, but it didn't take away from the fact that we had a good team. If you have guys like Brian Mullan, Brian Ching, Dwayne De Rosario, Brad Davis, Pat Onstad, Joe Cannon, Landon Donovan, you've got a great chance of winning. And I don't care where you are at or who you are playing, you have a great chance.
"Sure, there are times when you have to know how to put people in the right situations, and maybe some help and luck along the way like when we got Dwayne De Rosario, but still the players have to perform. And I think when you have the better players, you have the better chance to win. Roster building is certainly tough in this league, and that's why I think that stability is so important, keeping the roster together, especially when you have a hint of success that you feel can get better. I still say that if you have a great team and you treat the players right and make them want to play for each other, it goes a long way to a coach's success."
Center Line Soccer: It could be argued that going from six wins in 2014 to 13 wins last season was a hint of success for the Earthquakes, though it was still not enough to make the postseason. For you personally, though it was for two different clubs, how hard was it to miss the MLS playoffs for the second straight year, after having so much success before that, and what motivation does that provide you going into the 2016 season?
Kinnear: "Two years ago in Houston, we weren't really in the running, let's be honest. So that was a huge disappointment because we didn't have a chance late in the season. Last year it came down to the last game, and, yes, we needed some other things to go our way, but we didn't help ourselves. The one thing I asked the guys starting in the preseason and beyond was be competitive in every game. And I think we did that, bar one, the game in LA when they ran us off the field at a time they were doing that to a lot of other teams as well.
"You can look at last season, we started okay but then had a rough patch through the ‘J' months, and then we caught some good form and some great results late in the season. I look at the additions that we made that afforded us that good run, and I look at the additions we've made on top of that in the off-season, and I know we are in a better spot.
"The reality is that every team is trying to get better. Kansas City just added Brad Davis. Jordan Morris made the decision to sign with Seattle. We can't just expect we will automatically improve on 13 wins. 14 wins could have possibly gotten us into the playoffs last year. We had that one run at home late when we lost two and tied one after we were leading in all three games. Looking back at it, that killed me that we didn't help ourselves. Maybe a couple of results go our way and we are in the playoffs.
"We did have some positives, yes, but I watched the playoffs, and they were exciting, but it felt like we were missing the party. It's like you walk in the door and the party is over. Your stomach feels hollow. It's certainly a motivation for this year because I love being in the second part of the season, it's such a great thing to a part of the playoffs. It ramps up at that time, and we were close. I plan to wake up tomorrow morning to start the preseason with that as our goal, to be better than we were last year."
Missed Part One of our conversation with Dominic Kinnear? You can read how the Quakes head coach went about building the 2016 roster here.