As Chris Leitch stepped inside the media scrum following his first training session as head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes, he brushed off the handshakes and congratulations and got right down to answering questions. Focused and on point -- traits he hope to bring to his new role with the Quakes -- Leitch made it clear what his mission statement was going to be heading into the second half of the MLS season.
“The goals are quite simple,” said Leitch. “They are all collective. First one is make the playoffs, the second one is we've got to make the playoffs, and the third one after that is we've got to make the playoffs. That’s the goal of this team. To say anything less would be to minimize that group in the locker room.”
Since the end of his playing career following the 2011 season -- he had an option to join the LA Galaxy, but he retired a Quake instead -- Leitch has been a part of the organization in a series of technical roles. In 2012, he started with the nascent Academy system, shepherding it through its early development. By 2015, Leitch moved up to the role of technical director, chief lieutenant to then general manager John Doyle, and last summer into Doyle’s role on an interim basis when the Quakes hall of famer was fired. When new GM Jesse Fioranelli arrived earlier this year, Leitch returned to his previous second in command position, quickly gaining the trust of his new boss. As such, it was an easy decision for Fioranelli to replace terminated head coach Dominic Kinnear with his confidant and right hand man.
“Chris Leitch is not just a bridge,” said Fioranelli. “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, 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.”
Echoing some of Fioranelli’s sentiments, Leitch was adamant that the roster had the talent to take San Jose to the MLS Cup playoffs. And while neither he nor his GM would explicitly say the team was underperforming, Leitch made it clear that the dismissal of Kinnear and the subsequent transition of power would not be used as an excuse by he or the players in moving forward.
“I’m really happy with this group of players that are on this team,” said Leitch. “I think this group is really focused on reaching its goals, and I don’t see anything getting in this team’s way.
“This is a damn good team, and I think it has a very good chance of reaching postseason play, not to mention the fact that we’re right in the middle of an Open Cup run as well.”
Kinnear’s firing, curious coming the day after a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake in MLS regular season play, came ahead of a week in which the Quakes have three games in seven days. First up is Wednesday’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup round of 16 match against the Seattle Sounders at Avaya Stadium, kickoff at 7:15 p.m. San Jose then hosts the Galaxy at Stanford on Saturday before traveling cross-country to face Atlanta United on Tuesday. If Leitch is going to institute broad changes in strategy and tactics, those moves are likely going to have to wait until next week.
“I told these guys that at first, I hope to concentrate on the basic stuff and get that right, so that’s what we are going to start with,” said Letich. “We’ve got some games coming up, and then we can talk about strategizing going forward.”
With a depleted roster due to injuries and international call-ups, Leitch won’t have a full complement of players to choose from against the Sounders. However, the new head coach does not want to dismiss the tournament out of hand, and, instead, recognizes the unique opportunity a successful run -- four more wins to the title -- would provide.
“The club’s goals are to win trophies,” said Leitch. “The U.S. Open Cup is one such possibility, so why the hell not.
“If you ask most teams, they will be trophy hunting, so I know this group is hungry to hoist some silverware for these fans. They are going to be competing for it.”
Forecasting what Leitch might bring to his new role of head coach in terms of style and tactics is difficult, but the games this week should provide some clues. Kinnear preached a very organized approach to the game -- “Eleven Playing As One” was a saying he was fond of and had it featured on the hallway outside the team’s locker room -- but this was often criticized as “boring.” Leitch wouldn’t distance himself from that ethos, but he did suggest that he would experiment with strategy and loosen the leash on his most creative players.
“I’m not going to sit here and admit that I am going to do every single thing right,” said Leitch. “Same thing with our players. We want them to make mistakes. We want them to dare to take risks, and with that there are going to be mistakes along the way and we have to be okay with that. Now, obviously, we have to do that in a certain way such that our objectives and our goals aren’t compromised by that.”
Does this signal the more “attractive” style of soccer that many Quakes fans crave? San Jose has the talent to impose its will on opponents, but it is not necessarily as easy as telling the players to “go get ‘em.” The Earthquakes are in fifth place at the midway point of the season; they will need to stay in the top six in the Western Conference to make the playoffs. It will be a balancing act for Leitch the get the most out of his players, but still keep them on track to make the postseason for the first time since 2012. He has the trust of Fioranelli, but he’ll also need the trust of the players.
“I expect a lot in the second part of the season,” said Leitch, “and I expect this team to reach its goals. And I know this team has lofty goals, rightfully so. Those goals include making the playoffs, and I am sure as hell going to stand side-by-side with them.”