By Ridge Mahoney
For more than four decades, John Doyle has been synonymous with soccer in Northern California.
His dismissal as Quakes’ general manager Monday won’t sever ties that go back as far as he does. Raised in Fremont, where he formed a childhood friendship with a Glaswegian immigrant named Dominic Kinnear, Doyle played college ball at the University of San Francisco and as a player, assistant coach, broadcaster and executive spent more than two decades employed by local teams.
He is the director of coaches for the Mustang Soccer League and runs John Doyle Soccer Camps, so his presence in the local soccer community will persist. Yet there’s no doubt that with this change a new era has begun.
Doyle, 50, was hired as GM in October, 2007, to implement the rebirth of the MLS Quakes, who had been moved to Houston by Anschutz Entertainment Group after the 2005 season. Since his hiring, the team has moved from Buck Shaw Stadium, a converted baseball facility now used by the University of Santa Clara men’s and women’s soccer teams, to state-of-the-art Avaya Stadium. Avaya boasts amazing sightlines from every seat and a vast outdoor bar situated underneath a giant video board, and has already hosted an MLS All-Star Game as well as the U.S. women’s national team and international matches.
But Quakes 2.0 hasn’t been able to get it right on the field, and the main constant during that time – through the regimes of head coaches Frank Yallop, Mark Watson, and Kinnear – has been Doyle. Only twice – in 2010 and 2012 – have the Quakes made the playoffs, and a string of player signings tilted heavily toward the ineffective finally took their toll on Doyle.
Too many foreign player acquisitions have fizzled out, such as those of midfielder Matias Perez Garcia – touted upon his arrival in July 2014 as the No. 10 the team so desperately needed and traded last week to Orlando City – and forward Innocent Emeghara, one of several plagued by injuries almost from the get-go.
Innocent is the team’s highest paid player at $1.3 million in total compensation this season. For this, the Quakes have received one goal in 13 appearances since January, 2015. This spotty track record with Designated Players, aside from local stalwart Chris Wondolowski, is all to familiar to Quakes fans.
The team’s first DP, Geovanni, arrived in August 2010, registered one goal and one assist in 12 games, and departed after San Jose declined the option on his contract. He’s not the only clunker.
Fans remember fondly the first “big” foreign signing, English forward Darren Huckerby, who arrived with a history of physical problems, one of which – a painful hip ailment -- eventually forced him to retire. His boisterous persona and rugged physical play endeared him to the Quakes faithful, as did his production (nine goals, six assists in 28 appearances in 2008 and 2009). Successors to "Hucks" have seldom measured up, on and off the field.
Running down the entire list of hits and misses in the player market would be a tedious if fascinating project, but the team’s record (95 wins, 103 losses, 88 ties) says plenty. And the team’s troubles can’t be attributed solely to Doyle; the coaching staff is ultimately responsible for assembling the roster and extracting success out of it.
To this end, in his comments explaining the decision to dismiss Doyle team president David Kaval passed the ball directly to Kinnear and his assistants: Steve Ralston, Ian Russell, and goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley. “I don't think we are getting the most out of our players,” Kaval said. “We have to put together the type of braintrust that will help achieve that. Hopefully, this type of shake-up will get us better results.”
Recent results speeded up the Doyle departure, none more so than a 2-1 loss at Avaya Stadium Aug. 19. While scuffling along at the bottom of the Western Conference, the Dynamo -- coached by a former Kinnear assistant, Wade Barrett – knocked off the Quakes, 2-1. That result stands as Houston’s only victory in its last nine games.
San Jose followed up with a 0-0 tie against New England last Wednesday at Avaya and a dreary 2-0 defeat in Columbus on Saturday. In three must-win games – two of them at home -- against teams out of the playoff tiers, the Quakes managed just one goal and one point. Starting keeper David Bingham suffered a back injury against the Crew as well.
To replace Doyle, the Quakes have promoted technical director Chris Leitch, a former Columbus/MetroStars/Red Bulls defender who finished his playing career with the club and started his executive life as technical director of its development academy in January 2012. A year ago, he took on duties as TD for the entire organization.
Despite its gleaming new house and highly regarded development programs, San Jose has not only failed to keep pace in the Western Conference with the big-spending Galaxy and Sounders, is has lost ground to more modest operations such as FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and Portland. The latter two teams have won MLS Cup titles since San Jose’s return to MLS in 2008 and FCD is a model example of how to meld player development with first-team operations successfully.
Three years ago, Yallop -- head coach of the 2001 and 2003 championship games who returned in 2008 -- departed after a dispute with management and was replaced by Watson. In that dispute, Kaval basically chose between Doyle and Yallop, since they had reached an impasse regarding player signings and how to run the team. Starting in 2014, Kaval worked to lure Kinnear back to Northern California; he’d been an assistant to Yallop on the 2001 and 2003 teams preceding the move to Houston, where as head coach he captured back-to-back league crowns in 2006 and 2007.
The team’s lackluster displays in August have revived a segment of the fan base disgruntled with the play as well as results under Kinnear’s tenure. Those fans see regression: a solid 13-13-8 showing last year, a dismal mark of 7-8-11 with just eight games to go. Wondolowski's nine goals are three times as many for any other player and the team's scoring rate of a goal per game ranks last in the league.
Fans feared the worst last Wednesday after Simon Dawkins, lured back on a DP contract after impressing as a Spurs loanee in 2011 and 2012, bolted to the byline in the 21st minute and delivered a cross to Wondolowski that had “GOAL!” written all over it.
Instead, Wondo’s header bounced just wide of the post and seldom did San Jose threaten after that. Boos rained down on the Quakes players and coaches as they left the field. While the Revs celebrated a rare shutout and road point, the home team hurried to escape its quietly ominous locker room.
On Monday, fell the first repercussions of many failures. No one has more Quakes back story than John Doyle, but what unfolds next is all that matters.