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Quakes Offseason Prospectus

Center Line’s own Colin Etnire checks in with another column, this time with his offseason blueprint for the Quakes.

MLS: Western Conference Knockout Round-San Jose Earthquakes at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Per my colleague Robert Jonas’s reporting, it appears that GM Jesse Fioranelli (and by extension, Chris Leitch) doesn’t see dramatic changes as necessary to improve the team next year. While that might disappoint some fans, given the historically-bad goal differential and numerous humiliating road losses, I actually think his instinct is on the money: there is a solid core on the roster, and I think it is more than possible that an offseason of getting healthy and solidifying Leitch’s tactical ideas, plus a bit of roster tinkering, is all that it will take to improve the team’s performances.

Working from that prognosis, then, here are my top general priorities in terms of roster-building going into the offseason:

  1. Resolve Simon Dawkins’ spot on the roster
  2. Sign a starting-quality left back
  3. Beyond the "core," get younger, deeper, and more domestic

A fourth priority that I included in earlier drafts of this article, re-signing Anibal Godoy, appears to already have been accomplished, per this report from Joel Soria.

If you’re so inclined, I’d recommend my now-famous spreadsheet that I maintain with as much contractual, salary, and roster rule information as I can find on the Quakes roster to get an idea of what the playing field looks like as they go into these decisions. The quick summary if you aren’t a spreadsheet person: the Quakes are way out over their tips in terms of international players, and aren’t way over the cap (but don’t have a lot of space under it either, even with the planned departures). In particular, they under-utilize the deeper parts of their roster that can only be occupied by younger players such as homegrowns, Generation Adidas, and under-24 minimum-contract guys.

With all that being said, let’s get into the different mechanisms Jesse Fioranelli has available to him to achieve my three stated goals, and how I see them shaking out:

Extending, Retaining, or Releasing Current Players

As I stated before, the Anibal Godoy situation appears to have already been resolved, which is an immense relief. While he has never been particularly consistent, he’s the team's best player when he’s on his form, and can completely run a game. Although I was arguing more than a year ago that they needed to extend him as soon as possible rather than let his contract run out, it is possible the principles for the deal were already in place, and they were waiting for the 2018 Targeted Allocation Money in order to construct him an offer that reflects his value (likely about twice his current salary).

A few of the situations on this list are straightforward calls: Cordell Cato and David Bingham are gone whether you like it or not. Darwin Ceren and Fatai Alashe, although sometimes lightning rods for fan criticism, are good values, domestic players, and MLS-starting quality, so they’re no-brainers to retain. Ditto Matt Bersano and Lindo Mfeka, who had strong seasons in Reno and are on minimum deals. A few of the determinations will strictly be medical: Marc Pelosi, Matheus Silva and Marvell Wynne won’t be back unless the team’s doctors think they’ll play meaningful, productive soccer in the near future.

Beyond that is a hair trickier. Quincy Amarikwa and Victor Bernardez are plausibly nice pieces on a roster, but for much lower salaries than they are currently on, so it’s purely a matter of negotiation. The economics on Danny Hoesen’s option to buy are unclear, but assuming the deal was a favorable one, I would bring him back, since he’s the team’s best pure striker. I’ve made no secret of my affection for Andres Imperiale, who is a great locker room presence and provides solid depth at a good value, but the international spot he occupies presents a real burden. Whether or not the club has managed to get him a green card yet, my sources indicate he has at least a verbal offer of an extension already. Kip Colvey was a nice find late in the draft, but he seems too far away from the first team to be renewed in San Jose (although Reno is an option).

I don’t actually know the contract status of Kofi Sarkodie or Shea Salinas. They were each playing the first year of a new deal last year, and that could make 2018 either a guaranteed or non-guaranteed year. I think both of them would be fantastic second-choice fullbacks on either side for about 30% less than their current salaries, and would bring them back under those circumstances. However, I just can’t say what the team’s negotiating position looks like, so we’ll have to trust Fioranelli to make the right call here.

Navigate the Drafts

What is an MLS offseason without an absurd number of drafts?

This year, with the entrance of LAFC, there will be an expansion draft from which San Jose must identify players to protect. Last season, each team was granted 11 protections beyond automatically-protected homegrown and Generation Adidas players. Assuming the number is the same this year, I’d personally protect Vako, Wondo, Cummings, Urena, Ceren, Hyka, Jungwirth, Hoesen, Godoy, Affolter, and Alashe, but that leaves Imperiale, Salinas, Sarkodie, Bernardez, Mfeka and Bersano exposed (assuming the team operates similar to my preferences in the previous section).

The next draft is the re-allocation draft, which is approximately as close to free agency as most MLS players ever get. Sometimes useful parts are picked up here (Maxi Urruti went to Dallas first overall in one, Marvell Wynne landed in San Jose via the second round), but it’s not something to generally be relied upon for major contributors. Certainly Fioranelli will scout the available list, and it’s possible a nice depth signing will come from it, but most likely this draft won’t add anyone to San Jose’s roster.

Finally, the SuperDraft. The Quakes have drafted brilliantly over the last three years, netting Jackson Yueill, Andrew Tarbell, and Fatai Alashe, despite never having a top-3 pick. This year, they’re all the way down in 12th, which is generally below the part of the draft that difference-makers are reliably found. I haven’t followed college soccer as closely this season as the last few, but my general impression is this draft will be weaker and thinner than the two that preceded it, making it even less likely that San Jose will strike gold in the middle of the first round. Regardless, expect the Quakes to opt for talent over need, and don’t expect that selectee to play much for the first team in 2018.

Add to the Homegrown Pipeline

Numerous media sources indicate the Quakes intend to make at least one homegrown signing this offseason, such as MLS's Matt Doyle. The universe of potential homegrowns is relatively small, as shown above, but even smaller once you consider where they are in their career arc: only Josh Morton and Bryce Clark are graduating this cycle, so for anyone beyond them you’d have to be so confident in their ability to make an impact in the first team that both parties agree it’s best to forego school.

If it was up to me, I’d send out offers to Marcinkowski and Morton. With David Bingham leaving, there’s room for Marcinkowski on the roster, and he’s a serious talent. He probably isn’t ready to start in MLS right away, but with Bersano and Tarbell, he wouldn’t need to be. Morton is a center-back with good ball-playing skills and solid decision-making, but he’s a bit small for the pro level, has a bit of a history with concussions, and appeared to plateau in college.

I actually could see Bryce Clark as a dark-horse signee. He would probably play fullback at the pro level, which is a position of need for San Jose. He currently plays midfield for the highly-rated Mustangs, but has never been at the top of scouts’ lists when it came to identifying future San Jose homegrowns.

None of this is to say that I think this is what the Front Office will do, rather just to express how I might approach it. I’m as in the dark as the rest of you about what the club’s strategy here is.

See What Might Lie in Reno

One thing that caught my eye from the Leitch/Fioranelli post-season media roundtable is the repeated explicit mentions of Reno as a venue for signings. Previously, it hadn’t been on my radar, because I hadn’t heard any feedback that a Reno player not on a first-team contract (like Bersano and Mfeka) appeared likely to be able to step up a level. Since I don’t follow the feeder team all that closely, I asked Andre Martins (@SJEarthquakesBR), my favorite amateur scout on Quakes twitter, for some thoughts on what kinds of names Fioranelli might have been thinking of when repeating his interest in Reno prospects.

The first group Martins reported to me about were a slew of fullbacks, an unambiguous need for the first team. From Martins: "Nick von Niederhausern played in Switzerland, Jesse Fioranelli's home country, and already trained with the first team as LB. This might indicate the team is interested, although I don't think he's good enough for MLS. Similarly, Kip Colvey had good moments but was pretty much average most matches, and only ended up making 10 starts on the year. Thomas Jangijian barely played for Reno but the few minutes he played for SJ during the friendly against Frankfurt made me interested on him. However, I think it's unlikely he's ready to make the leap."

The next group Martins reported to me about was the midfielders. Per Martins: "Chris Wehan was the top assistor in USL and even scored some goals. He looks ready for MLS in terms of quality but he's a rookie in USL and just 23 years old, so he might not be ready. I'd say he's in the top five most likely candidates to make the leap. I don't believe Luis Felipe to be ready, but I read Bruno Costa likes him very much, and he has already trained with SJ, so his signing is a possibility. The Frenchman Antoine Hoppenot was Reno's second top scorer. However, in my opinion, his skillset doesn't offer much that Shea Salinas's doesn't as a traditional wide player with a high work rate. However, few weeks ago when I tweeted some stats from Reno, I noticed that Fioranelli exclusively liked the ones about Hoppenot, so that may be a sign that he's interested in him."

Finally, Martins gave me the low down on the one potential striker: "Up top, there's Dane Kelly, the 25-year-old Jamaican. He's the most likely MLS signing, and he might have a green card too. He's already the top scorer in USL history. He's far better than Adam Jahn, who was with the club not so long ago."

As for the two on first-team contracts, Martins reports that both Bersano and Mfeka (whom he described as the team's most talented player by a distance) had very strong seasons, although cautions that Mfeka has some real progress to make in his fitness levels before he would become a major contributor (he was subbed off in 14 of his 22 starts). I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit more of either of them in San Jose in 2018, but only as depth/rotation options.

Selectively Utilize the Foreign Transfer Market

As mentioned above, the roster is a full three foreign players above its limit barring some immigration luck, which is simply untenable in MLS given how much those extra slots cost to acquire. Really, San Jose should not be employing non-domestic players who aren’t part of the core of the team. However, there are two potential parts of the core that would make sense for a foreign player: left-back and one of the DP slots.

That DP spot, of course, is currently occupied by Simon Dawkins, who is under guaranteed contract for a third season next year (add it to the list of poorly-negotiated contracts by John Doyle). When playing in his favored roles in 2016, he was one of the team’s best players, but in 2017, he took half the season to work through injuries, and never earned playing time in the second half. Given that, it’s hard to imagine that either party would want to see him back in San Jose in 2018, but it’s also difficult to imagine how they could offload his sizeable contract from the books. A buyout may or may not help the team generate all the space they desire, and wouldn’t make sense anyway unless they had immediate plans to fill the spot with a better DP. It’s possible, for example, that such a player wouldn’t be available until the summer transfer window. Either way, it’s a bad, painful situation for the club and a player who I like quite a lot on a personal level and clearly had a strong desire to play out his career in San Jose. I’m hoping it is resolved amicably for all involved.

If that spot becomes available, whenever it does, I strongly advocate (as I have for years now) that the spot be filled with a creative attacking midfielder. Creators are a rare commodity, a perfect use of a DP slot, and they would allow the Quakes quite a lot more flexibility in terms of tactical setups. One of the things that most troubled me about the 2017 edition of the Quakes was that down the stretch, up to 4 true forwards (Hoesen, Urena, Wondolowski, and Vako) would play on the field at the same time. The effect, combined with Lima’s injury that left the team will no quality fullbacks, was an incredibly flimsy midfield that struggled to hold onto the ball, interconnect, react decisively to ball-loss, or defend the middle of the park. Many of the goals in those humiliating away blowouts started with breakdowns higher up the pitch than just the back line, which tells me that the problems aren't exclusively in defense or in goal. For me, adding another quality midfielder would work wonders in terms of solidifying the whole team. The trick, of course, is finding the next Mauro Diaz or Nicolas Lodeiro: every team wants to do it, but only a small handful can.

The last clear hole in the "core" of the team is at left back. Shea Salinas is a truly ideal locker-room presence and longtime Quakes servant who it would be nice to keep around in any circumstances, but he showed that he could effectively deputize at left back if needed. That’s great. But the lack of a quality true left-back was glaring all season. It negatively impacted the defense, certainly, but it also presented real limits on the offensive end. Having a left-footer who is both a confident defender and can push the ball up the field would be a total game-changer, and would be the only place in the starting XI where it would be relatively easy to procure an obvious upgrade. Not to mention the fact that beyond Salinas, there is no one else to cover the position without forcing Lima to switch over, simply moving the depth problem over to the other side. Unfortunately, finding a reasonably-priced, starting-quality left back is almost certainly only possible via the international market, which will worsen that foreign slot problem, but will be a good use of one given the potential value.

Final Thoughts

If you want an idea about what the result would look like, I have a speculative "sandbox" version of my spreadsheet for the 2018 season here.

There are other mechanisms that I did not cover, such as domestic transfers, that are a bit harder to predict and weren’t emphasized by club staff. There are also potential realms of concern, such as center-back play, that other writers may think of as a personnel/roster issue, rather than a tactical/health issue, as I do.

However, I generally think the club will err on the side of stability after the significant upheaval of the first 6 months of the Fioranelli era, and I have some cautious optimism about what the "second chapter in a long book," to use Fioranelli’s phrase, looks like. But the honeymoon period is decidedly over, and the decisions made over the next few months will set into motion the performances that will determine whether we ever get to see a Chapter 3.