Just a month removed from making the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since 2012, the San Jose Earthquakes are set to replace head coach Chris Leitch after less than six months on the job.
According to a report in Expressen, Swedish coach Mikael Stahre has resigned his post at BK Häcken, which finished fourth in the Swedish top division last season, with an eye towards taking the same role with the Quakes. Sources confirmed to both ESPNFC.com and SBIsoccer.com earlier today that San Jose will make the move official in the next few days.
Stahre, 42 years old, has been a head coach for 10 years, mostly in his native Sweden, with one year appointments in both Greece and China bolstering his resume. His team at BK Häcken featured a 4-3-3 formation, and the coach has developed a reputation for playing a higher tempo style of soccer.
The fate of Leitch is not understood at this time, but he very well could continue in his role as the Earthquakes’ Technical Director, a position he held concurrently with that of head coach since the firing of Dominic Kinnear back in June.
Following the end of the Quakes season, a lopsided 5-0 loss at Vancouver in the MLS Cup playoffs knockout round, Leitch and general manager Jesse Fioranelli sat down with a small group of reporters to discuss the past, present, and future of the club. Notably, at the time, Fioranelli wouldn’t directly answer the question as to whether Leitch would be San Jose’s head coach in 2018.
“I don’t want to in any way, shape, or form allude that there is a question mark behind things,” said Fioranelli, “but at the same time, I do want to raise the fact that we believe in the process, we believe that it is early now right after the season, and that Chris and I, we are going to do what is right together to take on 2018, making steps forward.”
Fioranelli joined the organization as GM in January, taking over for interim GM Leitch and quickly putting his stamp on the club. He and Leitch, then back as the full-time technical director, quickly found a common ground in their approach and vision for the Earthquakes.
“When I got to work with Chris, I realized very quickly he cared, and how aligned we were in wanting to create a very solid perspective,” said Fioranelli. “And before I had already arrived, Chris has already been a critical part, whether that was on the youth development front, but then also in putting the club in a position so that whatever has come since I have come has been able to give the responses they have done, as positives and negatives.”
Leitch, with experience as both a player and executive in MLS, helped Fioranelli understand the complexity of the rules and regulations regarding the building of an MLS roster. The league veteran was impressed with how the newcomer quickly adjusted to the curiosities that define MLS.
“Jesse’s relatively new here, but I’ve watched him spend every day going through the nooks and crannies of how this very complicated league works,” said Leitch. “[When] you talk about me understanding the league and the rules, I’m going to him and asking him, what’s going on here, what’s happening in this component, and how is the league going to change. And the second you think you understand the rules and how the league works is the second the league changes and has a new subset of rules. Jesse’s very much been a part of all the high-level conversations that go into the overall strategic planning we have put into place. We still talk about all of these components, just like we do with the whole entire staff -- this is why I love this organization, because everyone pulls weight here. Everyone kind of does their role, plus maybe a tad bit of someone else’s to help out here and there. I may rely on [Jesse] for things you don’t even know, and vice versa. That’s a good feeling about the club: no matter where you are with it, you feel like you’re a big part of moving it in a different direction.”
“Absolutely,” added Fioranelli. “In fact, when I came here, the first six months that was a big part of what we discussed day in and day out. We have, in the meantime, been able to create processes inside of the club and work with people that are specialized in this realm that used to work with Chris as well.”
Leitch’s appointment as head coach back in June did not contain the obligatory “interim” lable that mid-season hiring typically have assigned. Instead, Fioranelli gave his full backing to the rookie head coach, while also nuturing the partnershipo they had developed together prior to then.
“When we decided that Chris was going to take over the head coaching role, we purposely said that we didn’t want him to step away from his technical director role,” said Fioranelli. “He was, in fact, working in both roles as technical director and head coach. And this head coaching role that he has now had for the last six months was purposely done in such a manner that we defined it not as an interim situation, but one that we said we wanted to see how the story unfolds until the end of the season, giving full support to Chris. Now that we have come to an end, we want to admit to the fact that in the next two to three weeks we are going to be sitting down and evaluating how we can best move forward as a club and the way we have started, building one piece at a time.”
Given that those comments were made almost a month ago, it would appear that the two to three weeks of evaluation ended with Fioranelli and Leitch bringing in a more experienced head coach to lead the first team in 2018. Stahre, while not a household name, does have more pedigree in the role than Leitch.
“There are things that we also have to bear into consideration knowing where we want to go in the next three years,” said Fioranelli, “and having just concluded the first season, we don’t want to underestimate the value of trying to build more certainty and the process that goes into it. But we don’t underestimate the joy and relief we felt from an entire city that has the playoffs for the first time in many years. We also don’t underestimate that the club is more important than the people, but in order for the club to be strong, there have to be processes, there has to be buy-in, there has to be humility and a lot of hunger. And so, that’s where we are confident heading into 2018. We are going to add one more step in that direction.”
That the Quakes GM made it clear then that the club is more important than the people that run it may have played a factor in making the change at head coach. Leitch did many things well in his half-season in charge, but the team suffered mightily on the road, something that Fioranellu cited as troublesome and not to be repeated next year.
“There are all sorts of questions the are presented right now,” said Fioranelli, “The most important being how we can become more competitive, how can we become less volatile on the road, and how can we put ourselves in a position so that the team feels that we listen to them carefully so that it can express itself with renewed confidence in 2018.”
“There were some ups and some downs, 100%, and you can’t say much more than that at times,” added Leitch. “We learned some really good things along the course of it, both good and bad, about ourselves. The team learned from certain things throughout this year and are going to be able to build on those moving forward no matter what, and also knows where there’s some areas to improve on for sure.”
“This is not a matter of us speaking about the possibility that things are going to change,” added Fioranelli, “but much more laying emphasis on the fact that we have just come off a four to five month period where we have had important messages being sent our way at home and away and doing the right thing, namely to sit down over the course of the next two or three weeks to draw conclusions from them and how we can improve as a team, the roster. We are sitting down together today as two people that have always put the club ahead of ourselves.”
What seems most likely moving forward is that Leitch will stay on with the Earthquakes, back in his full-time role of technical director. He and Fioranelli have developed a solid partnership in navigating the nuances of the MLS roster rules and regulations, and the pair have a genuine respect for each other.