When news broke Sunday afternoon that the San Jose Earthquakes had fired head coach Dominic Kinnear, it came as a shock to most. After all, the Quakes had beaten Real Salt Lake rather handily the night before, and the team had moved up to fifth place in the Western Conference. With the win, Kinnear pushed his third-best in MLS history total to 166, behind only Sigi Schmid (228) and Bruce Arena (202), and San Jose reaches the midpoint of the season with everything to play for in what should be an exciting postseason chase.
But a week earlier, general manager Jesse Fioranelli had already made the decision to relieve Kinnear, as well as trusted assistant John Spencer, of his coaching duties. And in the month before that, the GM had concluded that Kinnear wouldn’t have his contract renewed at the end of the season, no matter the final results. The legendary coach was a dead man walking, even if no one knew it.
To be sure, the Earthquakes are not exactly tearing it up this season. They have only one point more after 17 games then they did at that point last year, 23 compared to 22. Go back to Kinnear’s first year back in charge of San Jose, 2015, and the total shows a midseason highwater mark of 25. Given that historically 50 points in a season is usually enough to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs, these Quakes are leaving no margin for error and run the risk of missing out on the postseason for a fifth straight season.
But the players, week in and week out, defended the results and stated that the team was better than it has ever been under Kinnear. Still many fans were not satisfied, and the crowds at Avaya Stadium appeared to slowly dwindle. The Quakes lost only once in nine games in the first half of the season at Avaya, but they weren’t often enough inspiring passion from the crowds. Fioranelli must have witnessed this, and so following three months of solid support for Kinnear’s sideline management and leadership to start the year, a seed was planted in his mind that a coaching change needed to be made.
And then Sunday arrived. Fioranelli summoned Kinnear and Spencer to his office for a morning meeting, and he summarily fired them. He then placed his trust in Chris Leitch and Alex Covelo, San Jose’s technical director and director of methodology respectively, to be the new leaders of the team. “Win and you’re in” would not be the sporting adage that would define Kinnear’s weekend.
It was the players that learned the news soon after, and for many, the suddenness of the moment left them in shock. Monday morning, Kinnear and Spencer visiting the locker room and said their goodbyes to the players and staff. Hours later the players were on the training field, getting their orders from the new men in charge, Leitch and Covelo. It was business-as-usual, especially with three games coming up in the next eight days, but it was also something completely different.
“Still swirling, whirling,” said team captain Chris Wondolowski. “Yeah, I didn’t see it coming. I thought it was a bit interesting, and I owe Dom [for] where I am today. My head is spinning, so it’s definitely tough.”
Overcome by the moment, and a follow-up question that asked whether he believed the Quakes had underachieved to that point of the season, Wondolowski cut the interview short and, visibly shaken emotionally, excused himself from the training pitch and retreated to the locker room. He was not the only one that felt bad to see Kinnear sacked.
“It came as a surprise to us,” said Shea Salinas. “My first reaction is sadness for Dom and John. They loved this club, they loved our team, they wanted us to win, and they were doing everything in their power to do so. It’s important to remember that these guys poured every ounce of energy into this team, so it’s sad that it’s done.”
The very first draft pick of the Earthquakes upon the club’s return to MLS ahead of the 2008 season, Salinas has seen a lot of the ups and downs in San Jose, as well as with the other teams he has featured for in his professional career. He is no stranger to the realities of the business, but he still feels for those affected when changes are made.
“Unfortunately, this is my fourth coaching change in the middle of the season in my 10-year career, so it’s happened a lot more than I’d like it to,” said Salinas. “I hate saying that it is part of the job because that sounds insensitive. These are people that love this club and worked very hard for it, and, unfortunately, that is the direction that our upper management decided to go, and we have to get on board.
“Our job does not change,” the midfielder continued. “We need to go out there and win games. And just like Dom wanted the best for the club, so does Jesse and upper management. They are doing everything in their power for us to be successful as well.”
Some of those moves occurred even before the start of the season, as Fioranelli and Leitch took advantage of increased Targeted Allocation Money resources to add MLS newcomers forwards Danny Hoesen and Marco Urena, midfielder Jahmir Hyka, and defender Florian Jungwirth to the roster. The injection of foreign talent breathed new life into the team, but under Kinnear’s leadership they still could only manage 18 goals in 17 games.
“On the one side, from the standings, we are very good in the race,” said Jungwirth. “Now we are fifth, just two points from second. That’s a good position, but we all expected more of ourselves to get better results and more points.
“A big goal was to dominate games, especially with ball position. At home, we have shown that a lot of times, but especially on the road we expect more. We are not happy with the things we have achieved up to now. From the standings, we have want we want, but I think we can do a lot better.”
The new players, like Jungwirth, found their feet quickly in MLS, but the production was not always there. Wondolowski leads the team in goals with six, while the quartet combined has just nine. Fioranelli stated that it wasn’t about the numbers that got Kinnear fired, but it is hard to completely reconcile that assessment, something Jungwirth echoed in looking forward to Quakes life after Kinnear.
“We were inconsistent, especially when we win here against Portland 3-0, play amazing, and six days later go to Colorado and get busted,” said Jungwirth. “That is not the way how it should be. It is important as a group now that we use this as a signal to be more strong and develop a new mentality that we have this will to win, especially on the road.
“I hope everyone uses this to reflect on his own play the first half of the season. Everyone knows he can do better.”