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In Nomine Dominic (An Elegy)

Whether or not Dominic Kinnear’s time had come, he deserves the respect of a final lament.

MLS: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Dominic Kinnear didn’t deserve this.

I don’t necessarily mean losing his job. He was on the hot seat for good reason. What I mean is that he didn’t deserve to lose his job in the middle of the season, in a position to meet his stated competitive objective, after a win, with fairly robust support in his locker room, without much ceremony, replaced with a profoundly inexperienced internal candidate who by his own admission wasn’t planning on ever being a coach until GM Jesse Fioranelli approached him about it “pretty recently.”

It could ultimately turn out to be the correct decision, and a laudable one, which I’ll get into later. But for now it hurts, and puzzles. And we should take some time to toast the man.

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Kinnear, born in Glasgow, raised right here in the Bay Area, has been carrying water for the broader American soccer project his entire life. He hit the half-century mark for national team caps and played in the pre-MLS hodgepodge, including for the venerable San Francisco Blackhawks. Once MLS began just a bit over 20 years ago, he was a part of the founding side in San Jose that ushered in our modern era. He joined the staff of that very organization in 2001 as an assistant and helped them to two MLS cups before taking over the head job himself. What followed in 2005 was one of the league’s all-time greatest coaching achievements: a Supporters’ Shield with a still-standing record point haul, after the legendary Landon Donovan left for Los Angeles.

After the acrimonious relocation of the club to Houston, Kinnear dutifully followed, and delivered consecutive MLS cups upon arrival, building an MLS dynasty unfueled by megabucks. While the performances came back to earth in the late-aughts, he rekindled the magic en route to back-to-back MLS cup final runs in 2011 and 2012, with teams that played more beautiful football than fans sometimes remember, as argued by Matt Doyle. The next two years were comparatively underwhelming, and his old hometown club, the one he’d played for and coached to previous glory, badly needed a coach to right the ship. It was late 2014, and the dream reunion was finally announced.

While he struggled to make progress beyond his initial steps, it’s hard to argue he didn’t immediately and decisively improve the club upon arrival. Some positively dreadful players and contracts were shed, the defense tightened up, and an anvil-like double-digit winless streak was broken in just his second game, on the road, against a much-fancied edition of the Seattle Sounders. After cycling through playing the spare parts he found lying around the practice pitch (Adam Jahn? JJ Koval? Ty Harden?) and running through a bunch of formations, his final move (adding Anibal Godoy amidst massive fan blowback and switching to the flat 4-4-2) proved a masterstroke, ushering in a rip-roaring stretch run and putting them in a position to make the playoffs all the way to the final day of the season.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say “and that’s when the problems started,” since the lack of creativity and aesthetically unpleasing play was already there. But the defense was solid as a rock, marshaled by Clarence Goodson, and it was perfectly reasonable to argue at that point that a few choice attacking additions, combined with the return of still-mysterious DP Innocent, might allow them to finally cross the playoff barrier. Instead, it came off the rails. Injuries plagued the team, particularly a career-ender to Goodson, and the offense went from bad to worse. There was some visible unrest in the squad over the summer. Still only being a season and a half into his tenure and with undeniable headwinds, it was John Doyle’s head served on a platter to fans, not Kinnear’s. Once the playoffs were out of realistic reach, the team more or less flatlined down the stretch and found themselves fourth from bottom in the 20 team league.

2017 promised fixes for at least some of the headwinds he faced. There would be a pedigreed European (Fioranelli) building the roster, with a big spending injection, and a huge deadwood cast-off to help create room for a deeper, younger team. Their expected goals metric improved markedly, but statistical “luck” arrowed in the other direction. The result was where we stand today: in 5th place, after exactly half the season, with middling performances that demonstrated the same sclerotic offense despite the addition of three TAM-level attackers. After two disappointing seasons, that’s just not good enough to guarantee your continued employment as a professional manager.

But I can’t help but think about all the perfectly legitimate limitations he’s had to deal with. One DP spot is completely empty, and another is a player who has yet to be completely healthy this year (Simon Dawkins). There are four players and almost a million dollars in annual salary out on long term injury. For all the roster improvements, it’s hard to see any beyond Florian Jungwirth as a guy who could start for all 22 MLS teams. There was a massive turnover on the roster, with just 13 players under contract in December, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable for such a team to take a while to figure itself out. The luck factor mentioned above is arbitrary, and would be good for at least a few more points if it ever evens out. Surely fans wouldn’t be calling for his head if one of this season’s draws turned into a win and they were free and clear in second place?

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The problem with firing him in this manner is that he’s just simply a good guy, and one for whom the players had genuine, deeply-felt respect. It was clear from the day I began covering the Quakes (coincidentally exactly when Kinnear first manned the touchline for Quakes 2.0) that the players had far more respect for him than they did for his predecessor, Mark Watson. Goodson and Chris Wondolowski, in particular, seemed in lock-step with his personality, with a real reverence for his history. He was and is intense, even intimidating, but I never once saw him yell at a player in a way I considered disrespectful. In fact, I think a lot of his players liked him because he wasn’t soft on them, and pushed them hard. Pro athletes don’t like to be cuddled, but they do want to be respected.

Beneath his sometimes prickly Scottish exterior he’s actually warm and heartfelt. He was famous for trying to do what he could to “do right” by players who wanted to live somewhere else or get more playing time, including none other than a young Wondo.

He could be legitimately funny. After a game last year where the second half was markedly better than the first, I asked him whether he’d given his players the hairdryer treatment. He pointed at his bald head and said “Careful. You make hairdryer jokes and I might think you’re making fun of me.” He had a bit of Greg Popovich in him with media, making fun of questions he thought were stupid, but it seemed to come from a warmer, more good-natured place. He’s a man of no pretense at all.

He even had pretty decent Spanish, although for some reason he hesitated using it too much around media or fans. I’d regularly see him pulling over Muma Bernardez to the side of the practice pitch after a training and just checking in on how he was doing and feeling, all in his native tongue. You got the sense that the Latino players appreciated that.

The evidence for the esteem in which his players held him isn’t hard to come by. While players are taught not to publicly criticize the coach, in a league small as MLS, you get a bit more frankness than you would in, say, the NFL. Yet not once did I hear players complain about tactics or poor preparation. Even when results were dire, players stood by him. That’s remarkable. Several former players, not limited by San Jose’s media department, and with a very plausible bone to pick with Kinnear, chose his side over management: Jordan Stewart posted this sarcastic tweet mocking their decision-making, and Dan Gargan, Bryan Meredith, and Chad Barrett all chipped in “likes.” Former Kinnear player and current MLS media pundit Calen Carr rhetorically asked, “how do you think I feel about it?” before lauding him as one of the three greatest coaches in league history. Current players were understandably less vocal about it, but Anibal Godoy wasted little time thanking Kinnear for the confidence he displayed in him for the last two years.

The really affecting moment came this morning, however, with an uncharacteristically emotional Wondo acknowledging “I owe Dom where I am today” and walking out of his press availability after less than a minute rather than taking further questions. That’s coming from a guy who would routinely wait for reporters even if he was already showered and dressed and ready to leave after games because he knew we would want a quote from the captain. From a guy who didn’t duck reporters even after a Belgium game that was approximately the worst trauma an athlete can experience.

I’ll admit that it’s harder to hate people you’ve come to know at least a little bit, and that certainly applies here, but truly: I admired him. And if anything, I’d argue that if you respect someone more the more you know him, that’s probably a good sign.

He went well beyond his minimum press obligations, spending 10 or 15 minutes after training sessions shooting the breeze with just one or two of us and answering every single question we had. He knew our names, and on the few occasions I saw him outside of the Quakes complex, he always waved and said hi. It didn’t matter to him that he’d never heard of the organization next to my name on my press pass. He carried himself with a lot of maturity and wisdom, and it wasn’t putting on airs. He was actually remarkably humble, and I can’t recall any instances in which he really bragged about anything. He certainly never threw a player under the bus in public. I’ve gotten to ask questions at least a dozen or two away managers at press conferences, and even attended a few where legendary snake-charmer Jurgen Klinsmann was at the podium, and I can therefore say with at least some credibility that Kinnear was the best of the lot from a reporter’s perspective.

Dominic Kinnear the coach lost his job, but so did Dominic Kinnear the man. The man who always had his kids around when he could, and who clearly enjoyed being able to raise them back in a place he calls home. Fans might not care about that, but players do.

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I’m still unsure why it had to be now. It has the feel of a fit of madness, even if it ends up being the correct decision.

Clearly and unambiguously, it’s about much more than the last poor result or the exact place on the table. I give Fioranelli credit there, and he’s expressed as much: it was a feeling developed over a period of months that he didn’t have confidence in Kinnear to carry the project beyond the level he was already at. Even if he was a good coach, there was evidence he wasn’t the right coach for Fioranelli. The General Manager said that once he made the decision that Dom wasn’t the correct long-term solution, he decided to cut ties immediately rather than coasting through purgatory. Fair enough.

But wither Leitch-y? The process was mostly opaque, although it is clear from league and team sources that other candidates were considered for the post, and Leitch got it in his own right, no interim tag or “bridge” at all. That leaves us guessing about what exactly the 38-year-old with literally no high level coaching experience did to earn Fioranelli’s trust. My best guess is that Jesse saw in Chris a football-philosopher kindred spirit, one who has the same vision, details and day-to-day results be damned. In fairness, Kinnear was almost comically averse to talking about his “philosophy,” something that would undoubtedly rub a football purist the wrong way. From my very limited interactions with Leitch in my years covering the club, I would describe him as an ideas guy, obviously hardworking, with the intense, serious personality characteristic of most successful professional coaches. The only other real data point we have on him is that he rose rapidly within the organization, from academy director to technical director to interim GM to head coach in just two years. One can only assume that means he impressed each and every person he worked closely under.

There’s a possibility that Chris Leitch is a rare coaching talent just waiting to be tapped, and Fioranelli is precisely on-point making what would admittedly be a courageous move to put him in charge (“courageous,” of course, being the word he himself chose to use to describe it). It is indeed incredibly difficult to fire a head coach with mediocre-but-not-horrifying results and lots of popular support in the locker room, even if it’s deeply necessary, and I’ll be the first one acknowledging its brilliance if it works out. What comes to mind more than anything for me is when Mark Jackson, well liked in the locker room and putting together good-but-not-great teams, was fired in favor of first-time coach Steve Kerr. Sometimes you need to make a tough decision like that to push on.

But if it doesn’t work out, it’ll sting. It won’t go down well in the locker room in the short-term, period. And it won’t go down well in the fans seats either if the results don’t noticeably change. Continued stasis will only make the fans lose whatever faith they had left in their Front Office’s decision-making. The resentment will stew. And all the while, I’ll feel for Dom, the first and only Quakes coach I knew as a reporter, still just 49 years old, unexpectedly out in the wilderness for the first time in his coaching life.

When someone passes on, we mourn, even if it was their time. Join me, then, in mourning the loss of a Bay Area soccer legend. Here’s until next time, gaffer.