San Jose Earthquakes' barren spell has clock ticking on coach Dominic Kinnear
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As San Jose Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli sits down in his chair, it's clear he hasn't quite settled into his new digs at Avaya Stadium.
The pictures adorning the wall and desk in his office belong to the previous occupant, Dave Kaval. While remaining the Quakes' team president, Kaval has moved up the 880 freeway to Oakland, where he's taken on the same role with the Oakland A's of Major League Baseball.
The state of Fioranelli's office -- which he's occupied a little over a month -- is an apt metaphor for the Quakes' current condition. Change is in the air. It has to be, as San Jose has failed to make the playoffs in each of the past four years, two of which came under the stewardship of manager Dominic Kinnear.
The barren spell has put considerable pressure on Kinnear, whose résumé contains two MLS Cups and two other MLS Cup final appearances with the Houston Dynamo. There was also a Supporters' Shield that was won with an earlier incarnation of the Quakes back in 2005, but the clock is ticking for him, and he knows it.
Rare are the managers who have been given another year after missing the postseason in the first two. There have been instances when that patience has paid off, such as in 2008, when Sigi Schmid led the Columbus Crew to an MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield double after missing the playoffs the previous two years. But the odds of Kinnear surviving a third season outside the playoff places seem long indeed.
"I feel pressure, mostly from myself; I'm very competitive," Kinnear said from the media room at Avaya Stadium. "The first year coming in here, we wanted to improve the team, which I think we did. The second year we took a step backwards, which for me was a huge disappointment.
"Defensively, we were strong. The team spirit and that aspect was wonderful. But on the other side of it, there's run of play, there's dead-ball situations, there's taking advantage of mistakes. We were on the bottom end of that in all three. I know the stats."
Fioranelli has a background in analytics, forged from his time in the sporting direction unit of Serie A side AS Roma. It's one that will see him rely heavily on technology and, in particular, video analysis, but he realizes that a methodology combined with a human investment in what he calls a "redirection of the scouting effort" needs to be put in place first.
Since Fioranelli was hired, five new players have been signed from foreign clubs, with two others added via the draft and homegrown player pipelines. He has high hopes for forwards Danny Hoesen and Marco Urena, as well as wide midfielder Jahmir Hyka. Fioranelli points out that all of the new players have a common thread: All are under 30 and can play multiple positions. And he insists this is just the beginning.
"We have a strong feeling of where we are and where we want to be," Fioranelli said. "I see we have more versatility in attack, which is one of the key points we wanted to address. I think on defense we have also another exciting signing with Florian Jungwirth.
"I feel like we're heading in the right direction. What I like very much during preseason is that the head is in the right place, so I'm confident, though not overly confident. There will be bumps down the road. I'm also aware there is a lot of work to be done."
Fioranelli later added: "One thing that I think we will realize over the course of the season is that these are players that wanted to come here. I don't want to make comparisons to the past, but I know certain players that have been here, and that was something I really cared about. So they know why they're here, and we know why they're here as well."
That takes time. Fioranelli senses the impatience of the Quakes' fan base but is committed to taking a practical approach to solving the club's problems. He is on record as saying that the kind of designated player signing that would create some buzz won't happen until this summer, at the earliest.
"Certainly, we don't want to arrive in June or July and do last-minute deals," he said. "We have already started in understanding what our needs could be, and I think that the first two months of the season are going to give us further certainty in terms of the exact profile of the player we are looking for. The summer is going to give us the opportunity to attack the market and attack the league for a critical three, four months in which we will want to have that extra push. But now we have created a foundation, and that's what I really wanted."
It is the first step in what San Jose hopes will be a reversal of its on-field fortunes. Off the field, there is plenty to admire about the Quakes. Avaya Stadium, a venue that seemed like it would never be built, came online in 2015, providing the team with the kind of financial foundation needed to compete with the rest of the league.
But on the field, this is a side that in recent years has lost its way. Since the "Goonies" campaign of 2012, one that saw San Jose win the Supporters' Shield, the team has missed the MLS playoffs four seasons running. With the possible exception of 2013, there has been the sense that San Jose finished about as expected, a stinging indictment of the talent level.
That run ultimately cost former GM John Doyle his job last summer and set the stage for Fioranelli's hiring.
Kinnear has heard the "boring" tag that has been thrown at the team by Kaval himself, as well as the questions about his coaching acumen. But the reality remains that coaching can do only so much to overcome a lack of production, especially in the DP range.
It is in this area that San Jose has fallen well short. Nigeria-born Switzerland international forward Innocent didn't recover from the knee injury he sustained in 2015. Matias Perez Garcia never caught fire, no matter how he was deployed, and after being in and out of the lineup in 2016, he was eventually shipped to Orlando. Simon Dawkins' return to San Jose last season didn't see him match the heights he reached in 2012. (Mainstay Chris Wondolowski didn't qualify as a DP last year.)
It is in this area that Fioranelli will need to have an impact, but for now, Kinnear will need to make do with targeted-allocation-money players like Hyka who have been acquired. It seems a stretch to think that it will be enough in a Western Conference where the teams always seem to get better.
For now, both manager and GM are saying all the right things in terms of working together, though it's the early days. Both acknowledge that they are getting to know each other.
When asked whether Kinnear was on the proverbial hot seat, Fioranelli said, "Hot seat or no hot seat, I can tell you that we are heading into the season with confidence and with trust. That's all that I care about. For me, it's obvious, we're all measured by our results. I am, the players are, everyone is. But one thing I can tell you is that I'm not thinking about any hypotheticals or possibilities six months, one year down the road. What I'm thinking about is going into this season with our heads up high, working together, everybody engaged, whether it's a young American or an old Latino-American or a European."
As for Kinnear, he's optimistic about the team that has been put together. Of course, he has little choice, but he has his reasons.
"We're more well-rounded. I think we'll have better attacking options from out wide," he said. "I really like the Hyka guy. I think he's going to be a good player for us, he's a bit direct, a bit crafty. I think he'll compliment Simon Dawkins, Shea Salinas and Tommy Thompson very well. I think the forwards, having a new attitude with Chris Wondolowski, Urena and Hoesen, it will be a more determined group."
In order to reach the postseason, it will need to be that and more.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.