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Complete interview: San Jose Earthquakes GM Jesse Fioranelli discusses decision to terminate head coach Dominic Kinnear

Fioranelli also discusses installing Chris Leitch as new head coach

Jesse Fioranelli discusses the termination of head coach Dominic Kinnear
Lyndsay Radnedge | Center Line Soccer

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A day after summoning head coach Dominic Kinnear and assistant coach John Spencer into his office and terminating them of their coaching duties, San Jose Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli held court with the media to discuss the decision.

With the Quakes coming off a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake on Saturday and moving into fifth place in the Western Conference — above the red postseason qualification line — the timing seemed curious, but Fioranelli said that he made the decision in the last two months that Kinnear would not have his contract renewed at the end of the season, and last week decided to fire him a the midway point of the season rather than wait for him to finish the campaign.

Fioranelli also took time to explain his action of implementing Chris Leitch — his technical director — as head coach and Alex Covelo — his director of methodology — as assistant coach, especially as neither has any experience coaching in MLS. The GM made it clear that the decisions have all been his alone, and that he is the man leading the new path the Quakes are following.

A full transcript of the media interview with Fioranelli is presented below:

What was the catalyst? Why now?

“Let’s put it this way. In the last two to three months, I matured a gut feeling as to where we stand as a club. When I realized that heading into the next season, we will not renew with Dominic Kinnear, I said to myself that we wouldn’t want to hold onto this for the remainder of the season. Especially also because I had a personal relationship that I very much appreciated in Dominic, and the respect I had in this relationship that would not have allowed me to want to go for another three months knowing we would have parted ways at the end of the season.”

When did you make the decision that he wasn’t going to come back next year?

“Last week.”

Can you go through the decision to bring in Chris Leitch as the new coach and not go through the traditional process of starting him off at an interim level and going through the vetting process for a permanent head coach?

“Chris Leitch is not just a bridge. He is part of the foundation of this club. Very similar to Dominic Kinnear who represents an important person as a player and a coach, Chris Leitch has represented the very same in the last years for this club. For that reason, we did not want someone to come from abroad and take over this team, but we wanted someone that cares, someone that knows the players, someone that knows the team, to take on this important next chapter. And because I trust Chris, and I also know Alex Covelo, I felt that despite the fact that it was going to be the most difficult situation and decision, I felt very confident that it was the right thing to do and the right moment as well.”

Was it always the play to move Covelo into a coaching position?

“So, Alex Covelo, he specialized in representing a club method and acting as a messenger of a method as to how we want to play, how we want to develop players, how we want to analyze. He did not come here to be a part of the coaching staff from day one. Like I said, it really matured inside of me, and realizing that we had the two best people in house that cared about the club, that knew the players, and complemented each other very well, not only because they speak more than one language, but they also understand players coming from different parts of the world, I said to myself, we all want to buy in to open this new chapter together.”

You didn’t know Chris when you came in, but he became your chief lieutenant, so you had to build a rapport. When did you see enough in this American player, having seen so many great European players, to trust him to run this team?

“That is a great question. You know, if you work day in and day out on complex problems -- looking at the game, looking at the players you have -- there is nothing better that can vet a person as you take important decisions for the club. Knowing that he has done so even prior to my arrival, just, over time, made me understand that as I was heading into this last week, that this was going to be the decision that felt absolutely the right one to take. I’m sure that, the both of them, whether it is Chris or Alex -- Alex is a person I have known now for several years, who had proposals from European clubs. He came in here with the very same determination as I had, namely to serve the club and to build certainty for the long term -- one player at a time and one challenge at a time.”

Was this decision about style or was it about results?

“That is a great question. During the last six months, you could have looked at the numbers, you could have looked at the stats and the comparisons compared to the last two years, and I thought that would have been unjust. I had to take something else that I felt was more important, and that is the sentiment that comes along with the numbers, the stats, and the comparisons. I will tell you, starting into this season, I was more optimistic than I was heading into the last two months. I realized that there was an opportunity, but at the same time, I realized that a chapter was going to come to an end anyway at the end of the season. And because I did not want to hold off, especially because Dominic is a person I respect, and the same with John [Spencer], we said, all right, this is what my job is. I would like to take a courageous move, just like I have seen the club now really take initiative and make investments that we all stand behind, to do that very same approach now.”

Do you think this team in underachieving given the talent level that it has?

“I think that we can achieve more.”

Where do you think this team should be in the standings given the talent level that is currently on the roster?

“I think the we have still a story to tell as to the young players that we have in the roster. I believe that we have still a story to tell as to how we want to present ourselves when we play away. I believe that we will want to mature a certainty as to our identity on the field, being versatile and reading the game, and the risks and the opportunities prior to our opponent. There are various aspects that I think fall all into one main aspect, and that is we want to mature a sense of certainty when we go onto the field and be able to impose our game on the long term and the more regular basis.”

And you didn’t see that under Dom?

“I saw that when I came in. I really wanted to give it the best shot that I could. I realized that in the last two seasons, he will also say to you he was not happy with the results. And as we were heading into these six months, I realized that the improvements and the efforts we had done were not leading to the results we were hoping for. Or at least that certainty we are aiming for.”

Is this shake-up a risk for a team that is in fifth place and right in the playoff hunt, and now you have an unproven coach replacing a legendary coach?

“Let me just put it this way, I think that knowing MLS has also had other coaches that had little experience in the top league here in the United States, I can tell you having worked with Chris, and knowing what he stands for in the game, that he is absolutely equipped to take on this challenge. He’s also going to be pairing up with a sparring partner [Covelo] that understands a lot about football and has been a part of important clubs in Europe that will complement him very well in his message to the Hispanic players as well. So all in all, considering the fact that even moreso these two guys know the players, know this team, and care very much, I can tell you I feel absolutely confident that this was the right decision and the moment to do it.”

Will Chris continue in his role as technical director, or will he just be the head coach now?

“What we want to do is that the first team represents a model with which the remaining entire club can identify with. It shouldn’t say two different languages. And for that reason, it is all the more important that what we have started since the beginning of this season will represent also the example that we want to set for the entire club.”

What was the length of Chris’s contract?

“As to the contract details, I don’t want to enter into any details.”

What other names were considered for the job in addition to Chris?

“To be frank, in the last months, there have been considerations that I have made, talks that I have held, many coaches have been proposed. I didn’t want to get to any concrete considerations because I had to have myself be certain that this was the right move at the right time. And so I had it grow on me to the point that I came to realize that this was the right decision to take.”

When did the idea of Chris Leitch becoming head coach materialize, and bigger picture, is this part of strategy to build succession from within the organization?

“Absolutely, and that is one of the main considerations of this decision. We would like every single player to have a perspective, if he plays, let’s say, in U-15, that he has the opportunity to play in the first team one day. This part of the country is one of the most talent rich in the U.S., and the same applies to our coaches. The best clubs in Europe, the ones that really have an identity, the ones that really strive for a different definition of success, namely the one with which is not only one game based or results based, but really represents a model in which people -- whether that’s a player, a coach, a fan -- can identify with that has very much to do with why we wanted to choose Chris Leitch, because he represents that. He cares about this club, and so yes, the succession, or the perspective, let’s put it that way, was a very important consideration in making this decision.”

When did you tell Chris? What was the process?

“I can’t really speak about specifics right now, but all I can tell you is that the moment that I confronted Chris, he did not hesitate a moment and he had not been waiting for this either. I can just tell you that when you are working day in and day out on several different important areas, you grow a certainty as to how you see the game, how you would like to develop the game, how you would like to see the players confront situations on the field, how we want to communicate. And on so many different levels it felt like, how could we, right now, introduce a foreign body into this team if you are speaking to the person that has been doing this for several years and cares about the club.”

Did the signing of Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili have anything to do with the timing of the decision?


Was there any consideration in delaying the decision until after what is going to be the biggest week of the season with a U.S. Open Cup elimination game and an important rivalry game at Stanford?

“No, because I didn’t want to delay the decision. And I said to myself, and we said to ourselves, that regardless of the outcome game [against Real Salt Lake], we were going to feel, or I was going to feel unsatisfied with holding off on this decision. I have to say, ironically, the win we had seen last weekend, is supposed to be considered in two ways a positive aspect. The first one is, if we would have lost, Dominic, we would have terminated the relationship with him. It would have passed judgement on him that he does not deserve. Secondly, if we would have lost, we would have said, we would like to hire Chris Leitch and Alex Covelo, what kind of message would we have sent. It would have sent a message as if we want to react to a loss, which is not the case. This is more than just about the game. This is really about a club that for several years been on track in one direction and is starting to make decisions to help direct it in a direction where we can be in control of our own fate.”

You said you made the decision to terminate Dom last week, but you also stated that you have been looking at coaches for the last month or so. Could you please clarify the process you followed in deciding on a new head coach?

“Sure, I can explain it to you. What I would like to say is that we have been proposed several coaches in the last two months.”

Did you seek them out or did they seek you out?

“No they were proposing themselves to us, and that’s the difference.”

When you joined the organization, you stated that you would take time to listen to all stakeholders. We’ve seen a decrease in the number of season ticket holders and week to week the stadium looks less than full. Was part of this decision a response to the apparent fan unrest to the direction of the club?

“This decision had nothing to do with season ticket holders. On the contrary, we are reaching out to them as we speak to explain them this decision and why we feel confident about it. It had nothing to do with Vako as well joining us next week. In line with what I said initially, This decision was more about just numbers, this was really about a decision that matured within us, and as we were realizing that we wanted to change paths, we said ‘Let’s do this, with conviction.’ And so, yes, that was the main reason.”

Was this your decision alone?

“Yes, absolutely. I would like to add I did it because I think it is important. I did consult with the board and with the owner once I had come to this conclusion, and wanted to receive their support. But this was my decision, and in the end, I felt support, and I feel also that we are seeing this in the investments not only in finances but in resources and plans that we have, and new announcements that we will be doing, not only on the player side, as to signs that we would like to grow together.”