After crashing out of the playoffs in record fashion, the San Jose Earthquakes could be forgiven for hiding away and licking their wounds in isolation. After all, the 5-0 drubbing they took against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the knockout round of the MLS Cup playoffs was a bittersweet ending to the club’s first postseason foray in five years, especially coming just three days after they miraculously scored in stoppage time against Minnesota to claim the sixth spot in the Western Conference.
So it was with some surprise that general manager Jesse Fioranelli and head coach Chris Leitch invited members of the local media to join them at Avaya Stadium for an informal roundtable earlier this week, welcoming all lines of questions, and shedding some light on what to expect to the start of an offseason that could be still measured in hours.
Fioranelli, who joined the Earthquakes front office back in January and has methodically learned all he could about the club and its ambitions, was pleased with the progress the team made in an up and down 2017 campaign, and he forecast an even better 2018 season. Leitch, who assumed the head coaching duties midway through the year when legendary leader Dominic Kinnear was fired, looked at ease sitting next to his boss, and projected a feeling of confidence that his own skills would continue to improve. Both let it be known that their work to get ready for next year had already begun in earnest.
“Building on the core and putting the team in a position so we can draw from even more talent, quality, and character next season,” said Fioranelli on his first priority. “We want to reinforce every line inside of our roster and have a very balanced approach as to where we draw this talent from, whether it comes from abroad, it comes from Reno, it comes from homegrowns.”
The rookie GM, who had no experience with Major League Soccer, but had Leitch as his Technical Director and adviser from the very beginning, then revealed that he was already in contact with some of the players he hoped to add to the team in the coming months.
“Yes. Just like this past January or the summer, now too and maybe all the more, we want to be ready with at least 90% of the roster by the time we start the preseason,” said Fioranelli. “We’ve done a lot of scouting, and we are in a very good position to make those signings in the next two months. One at a time, and very, very carefully. And as much as we care about the signings, we care about integration of the players so that we head into the new season with even more confidence.”
The entire technical staff of the Earthquakes will be busy this offseason, what with the various player acquisition mechanisms available to them just within the league — the Re-Entry and college drafts for example — as well as having to deal with an expansion draft with the entry of Los Angeles Football Club, or LAFC, ahead of next season. Blowing up the roster and starting from scratch is not their plan. Instead, it is building off of the core, a group of players Fioranelli would not identify by name, but inferred were those that were getting playing time by season’s end.
“The core is difficult to measure, but what I can tell you is that there were several players throughout the season gave Chris and me certainties on the various positions,” said Fioranelli. “We don’t want to add just to add, we would like to add because we believe that we have a solid roster that we can build from. For that reason, whether it is experience, whether it is young players, we would like to make sure we have a solid mix of talent that we can draw from in the various positions on the field. We want to be very balanced, but at the same time lay a lot of emphasis on taking another step forward in building an even more competitive team.”
Players like goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, who had hernia surgery this week, but will be recovered well before the start of preseason, and Chris Wondolowski, who is now only 12 goals away from surpassing Landon Donovan as the leading scorer in MLS history, are certain to be back. Designated player Vako and club defender of the year Florian Jungwirth too are part of the plans. And young stars like Nick Lima, Tommy Thompson, and Jackson Yueill are all but assured of prominent roles in 2018.
“You could go position by position and have this conversation about who you are going to bring in and who is this position or that,” said Leitch. “As we look at it, we have good players in positions all over the field. The reinforcement on every line will be just that: examining who’s out there, what our needs are, and who fits in with this overall group.”
While the contract status of each player on the current roster is not completely known, there are some players that are big question marks to return next year. Designated player Simon Dawkins, one of the most expensive players on the roster according to salary numbers made public by the MLS Players’ Union, barely saw the field in the second half of the season. Cordell Cato and David Bingham, often starters for Kinnear, were permanent fixtures on the bench for Leitch. Their fates for 2018 are a lot less clear.
“To be frank, I don’t want to name any players names for the simple reason that this is still part of the evaluation process that I care very much about and so does Chris,” said Fioranelli. “We will be analyzing in more depth each and every single position that we have inside of the roster. We do have a feeling that when we do talk about core, it is a foundation and certainties on which we can fall back onto.
“It is a fact that this season we have given every player a chance to play. There have been different formations. And at the same time, throughout a 10 month period, each and every single player had a chance to demonstrate his qualities. So want we want to do is to just make sure that from defense, from midfield, from the attacking positions, that we will add more competition inside of the team because we believe we have important quality to draw from. At this point, it would not be right to draw any conclusions about the specific names of the players.”
Fioranelli reiterated that he and Leitch want to take the next couple of weeks to complete their evaluations before making any announcements. They did, over the weekend following the loss to Vancouver, sit down with each player individually. These exit interviews, commonplace at the end of every season, often include a discussion of whether or not a player will continue with the team. However, that was apparently not always the case this time around.
“We had meetings with every player,” said Leitch. “General meetings thanking them for their contributions this year and outlining what we have been saying that we are examining everything. Jesse is, obviously, going to look at all the components and bring that strategic plan forward. I had time to listen to those guys as well and their thoughts and feelings after falling a lit short against Vancouver. It’s really important to be open minded and listen to your players as well, and get their recaps on the season.”
Leitch, who served as technical director for the Earthquakes under previous general manager John Doyle, and as interim GM when Doyle was fired late in the 2016 season and before Fioranelli came aboard earlier this year, knows these players very well, and in many cases was instrumental in getting them to San Jose in the first place. He wouldn’t dwell on which players would continue with the team and which would not. He, instead, used the exit interviews as a platform to get everyone on the same page going into the postseason.
“It gave us a chance to go over the individual strengths and weaknesses of each player, as well as their exit physicals, to get an overall composition of what they have going on and set up their physical goals for this offseason,” said Leitch.
Meanwhile, below Fioranelli’s office, where the media roundtable was taking place, could be heard numerous players busily working away in the weight and training room. From the vantage of the GM’s office could be seen Thompson dribbling back and forth the length of the training field pitch, breaking a sweat in the heat of the Bay Area’s autumn sun. The coach fidgeted a bit as he continued, definitely transported to the groups of guys he wanted to be with.
“It’s a long offseason in Major League Soccer. As far as trainings, we would have liked to have trainings, but per player rules and regulations, we cannot,” said Leitch. “It’s astounding to me some of the rules we have in this league that prevent some of these players from continuing their development in the next two months. But every player, it is a professional group here, so we have confidence in those players coming back in tip top shape. I’d love to be out there with them, to be honest, and have trainings, but we are not allowed.”
Fioranelli had his own take on the exit interviews. After all, he is the ultimate decision maker as to who stays and who goes. But he also was pleased by how the conversations went, and he was encouraged by those that asked to stay in San Jose and continue their personal workouts.
“What transpired from the conversations with the players was that a lot of them want to stay and get ready for next season,” said Fioranelli. “We are only a week removed from the last game we have played, and we have players still here training and working out. So, for us, that was something that we did not expect, but it makes us really happy moving into the next season.”
It could be said that they want to keep active during the two to three week evaluation period Fioranelli and Leitch indicated was happening. Perhaps to still be in view and in contact with the technical staff would be a sign of good faith that they were also aboard with the plan the pair was putting together. The chances that Fioranelli will move forward with wholesale changes to the roster seem very slim. He has brought in a lot of key starters in the last 10 months, and he hopes to build off of that group.
“I wouldn’t consider it more change. I would consider it putting ourselves in a position that our team will be more competitive next season,” said Fioranelli. “We like competition inside our locker room. We like the fact that players throughout the season increasingly stepped up and played an integral role in having an open communication with each other and realizing that at times it was necessary that we get to know each other a little better and confronted some of the challenges that we had to confront.”
One of the biggest challenges was the coaching change from Kinnear to Leitch in late June and the fractured locker room it created. The pair worked together at that point in guiding the team past that disruption and through the second half of the season. There were additional challenges posed by a summer long series of confidence sapping lopsided road defeats, compounded by a fair amount of tinkering with formations.
Quite simply, the players had to adjust to the demands of a new regime, and the new regime had to get the buy-in of the players — a situation that required patience on both sides. But a consistency began to develop in the squad, especially over the last few weeks of the season, and the character of player that Fioranelli and Leitch were looking for emerged.
“Whoever is going to join us will have to be a perfect fit,” said Fioranelli. “We are going to pay a lot of attention, not just on the position and the age and the technical skills, but we are going to be asking is this a player that is humble, is this a player that is hard-working, is this a player that will add to the very core I have referred to before.”
Leitch couldn’t agree more with his GM, and in his role as head coach as well as technical director — he never gave up the position he held before being installed as coach back in June — he was ready for the plan that would emerge from their two to three week evaluation period.
“The league is interesting in that there are a lot of components that go into the composition of the roster and the team, obviously, with the salary cap, the different rules and regulations pertaining to internationals and domestic players,” said Leitch. “There’s just a lot of that goes into it, and it’s tough to know at this point exactly how it’s going to go, but I will say that is going to be very thoughtful. It has been and it will continue to be in the time it takes to bring this forward.”