Commentary

Quakes' Kinnear swept out by new wave as much as poor results

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

Let’s get the personal stuff out of the way first.

I’ve known Dominic Kinnear for about three decades and while watching him play for various teams such as the minor-league San Francisco Bay Blackhawks as well as in MLS with Colorado, San Jose, and Tampa Bay, I had the considerable pleasure of bumping into his late father, Hugh Sr., occasionally at games and events prior to his passing in May, 2005.

"Hughie" loved the game and loved life and many people felt the same way about him.  I regard Dominic Kinnear highly as a coach and a man and accept as fair, for the most part, criticisms of his record during the past few seasons.

After guiding Houston to MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007 in its first two seasons after moving from San Jose, and losing to the Galaxy in the 2011 and 2012 title games, Kinnear and the Dynamo fell short of the playoffs in 2014 after squeezing into the Knockout Round the previous year.

He rejoined the reconstituted Quakes prior to the 2015 season, to be reunited with childhood friend and former teammate John Doyle, who had ridden through his own rocky period as general manager. Since the team’s rebirth in 2008, it had reached the playoffs only twice, and its best season as Supporters’ Shield winner in 2012 ended in the worst possible manner: first-round playoff elimination by the Galaxy, which went on to capture the title.

Midway through the 2013 season, management dismissed head coach Frank Yallop after he’d clashed with Doyle and hired former assistant Mark Watson to replace him. But still the team struggled and late in the 2014 campaign as rumors of Kinnear’s impending arrival grew stronger, Watson was fired by then-team president Dave Kaval.

So taking over a team in turmoil mitigated the allure of returning to his roots in Northern California, where he’d lived since age 3 after Hugh Sr. moved the family from Glasgow and soon founded Fremont Celtic, named in honor of his beloved Glasgow club. In their youth, many Kinnears played for Celtic, as did Doyle. The reunion of childhood friends didn’t change the team’s fortunes. San Jose missed the playoffs again in 2015 and regressed last year; its points total dropped from 47 to 38, and before the 2016 season ended Doyle had been dismissed by Kaval.

A wave of signings using Targeted Allocation Money and the hiring of Jesse Fioranelli as general manager after a long and far-flung search of candidates in the U.S. and abroad placed Kinnear and his coaching staff on high alert. Fioranelli’s background as an agent and soccer-statistics devotee clearly indicated the team’s future direction with former defender Chris Leitch having been installed as technical director in August 2015.

When Doyle was dismissed last August, Leitch served as interim GM as Kaval concluded the hunt that led to Fioranelli. This season Kinnear took on the challenge of melding the skills of newcomers Danny Hoesen, Marco Urena, Florian Jungwirth, and Jahmir Hyka with holdovers that -- Chris Wondolowski and centerback Victor Bernardez being exceptions -- weren’t rated among the elite of MLS.

The back line had been decimated by the retirement of former U.S. centerback Clarence Goodson last year and the sidelining of defender Marvell Wynne due to heart irregularities this season, yet the addition of Bundesliga veteran Jungwirth brought a bit more savvy that showed promise of meshing with the newcomers as well as a midfield core of Panamanian international Anibal Godoy and young American Fatai Alashe. The team had signed Cal product Nick Lima as a Homegrown Player in December and he stepped right into the starting lineup.

For the work-in-progress, results were mixed. A 4-2 home loss to the Galaxy in May glaringly showcased the gap between the squads, yet other results were sufficient to keep them near or in a playoff slot. But in the view of Fioranelli, further change was needed. The process was either taking too long or not sufficiently streamlined. After a 2-1 defeat of Real Salt Lake Saturday raised the record to 6-6-5, Kinnear and Spencer were summoned to the team offices and dismissed.

“I think that we can achieve more,” said Fioranelli Monday during a press gathering. “I think 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.

I must admit Fioranelli's words leave me in the dark as their exact meaning but it’s vividly clear he’s got a much different idea of what the team should be than did Kinnear. From other comments, he’s also convinced that the short-term answer is Leitch, who has been appointed head coach despite a resume void of any relevant experience in that department.

“Chris Leitch is not just a bridge,” said Fioranelli. “He is part of the foundation of this club. Very to Dominic Kinnear who represents an important person as a player and a coach, Chris Leitch 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.”

To me that says Leitch will be retained when a long-term head coach is hired during the offseason, maybe one with ties to Europe, a la Fioranelli. In any case, Leitch’s league experience as a player and executive as well as head coach will land a significant role in whatever the team does going forward.

A few weeks ago, former Arsenal and Aston Villa executive Tom Fox came aboard as team president to replace Kaval, named in November as president of the Oakland A’s, whose ownership group also owns the Quakes.

The team also dismissed assistant coach Spencer, who joined the organization six months ago. Retained were goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley and assistant coach Steve Ralston, who will be joined on the bench by Alex Covelo, hired by the team in April as its director of methodology.

Covelo, a native of Barcelona, holds a UEFA A coaching license, speaks Spanish and Catalan and Italian, and according to the Quakes’ press release announcing his hire, has experience using SmartCoach software.

“Chris is the ideal person to take this role for the Earthquakes at this time,” said Fioranelli. “He has a history with the club and has very good knowledge of our entire development pipeline from the youth teams, through PDL and USL up to the first team. He combines that with a shared vision for the club’s identity that we have been developing for the past months. Chris and Alex give us two very good soccer minds with a desire to make this club one of the best in MLS.”

So not only is the team relying more on metrics and statistical analysis in the boardroom and coaching offices, it will have disciples of same on the bench. Under Kinnear, metrics played a minor role in the player acquisition process, which on several occasions it must be said had brought in ballyhooed players destined to be disasters.

“The numbers might be great for an individual but he might not suit your system or style of football,” said Spencer after the Quakes beat San Francisco Deltas, 2-0, two weeks ago in the Open Cup. “It plays a small part but there are many parts to the engine or the jigsaw puzzle or whatever way you want to describe it.

“I’d rather look at a player in games. But the problem is in our country, being so far away, if you’re trying to scout a player in Europe it’s very difficult to go over and watch a guy play 15 or 20 games, so we’ve got to rely on services like Wyscout and the Internet. But there’s nothing better than seeing ‘em, because stats can’t measure courage, quality, the type of character the player is.”

If that sounds a lot like the words of Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni -- who played with Spencer in Colorado -- when he declared “the stats will lose to the human spirit every day of the week,” it shows a wide divide between advocates of a new wave and graduates of the old school.

For the sake of continuity moving Leitch into his current position makes sense, and vaporizes the specter of Fioranelli having to jettison Kinnear at the end of the season, which would have been nettlesome in case of a solid finish and playoff qualification. Successful or not, and despite the impending arrival of Designated Player Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, Kinnear had to go.

“In the last two to three months,” said Fioranelli, “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.”

Rather than give Kinnear the chance to prove him wrong, Fioranelli took action, which is his prerogative. In a better world, Kinnear stays on until his team is eliminated from playoff contention or when its postseason run ends, and then Fioranelli makes the change anyway, having spent several months quietly researching potential replacements.

Since returning to San Jose, Kinnear had compiled a record of 27-31-27 in league play. He leaves with exactly one-half of the season completed and 23 points in 17 games, which would project to a season of 46 points (in 34 games).

Last year, 46 points was just enough for RSL to sneak into the playoffs last year as the sixth-place team, and based on its display Saturday in San Jose, RSL -- which fired Jeff Cassar three games into the season and replaced him with Mike Petke -- is the team beset by problems.

Yet in his statements Fioranelli implied he didn't see Kinnear as a long-time asset for a club intent on finding and forging a new identity. In that light, the move was inevitable, and he chose sooner rather than later.

In a team statement announcing the change, Kinnear said, “I would like to thank the ownership group for giving me the opportunity to coach the club. I want to thank my staff for all their hard work and I wish the players the best of luck going forward.”

Coaches with losing records get fired all the time and when a new regime comes in the ticking clock gets louder. Kinnear knew that as well as anyone yet in this case I have to believe he didn’t get a good bounce of the ball.
6 comments about "Quakes' Kinnear swept out by new wave as much as poor results".
  1. Vince Leone, June 27, 2017 at 11:42 p.m.

    The bottom line is that Dom gave little indication of being able to elevate the Quakes to another level, and Jesse was not hired to preserve the status quo. You can certainly debate the timing of Dom's firing, but as a season-ticket holder since 1997, I'm tired of waiting for the Quakes to show more ambition. If nothing else, the firing serves notice to everyone in the organization that the status quo is not good enough.

  2. John Mcdermott, June 28, 2017 at 8:23 a.m.

    Fioranelli sounds like the soccer's answer to Donald Trump. Results speak loudly, but Kinnear, and Doyle as well, are two good, solid guys who deserved better.

  3. Vince Leone, June 28, 2017 at 12:48 p.m.

    John: I agree that Kinnear and Doyle seem like first-rate people and should be treated respectfully, but it's the fans who deserve better. The Quakes have not been good enough for a long time.

  4. John Soares, June 28, 2017 at 1:29 p.m.

    I wish the quakes the best of luck. Kinnear is one of the top American coaches with a record to prove it. I'm not sure he was ever given the players to succeed and seems that the decision to fire him came long before yesterday. Fioranelli may be a whiz at creating a good team on paper...BUT, games are won on the field.

  5. Nick Daverese, June 28, 2017 at 2:49 p.m.

    You can't fire the team so it is easier to just fire the manager. Every manager knows that can happen if you don't win. I don't know anyone who has not been fired when you don't produce. I forgot Klinnesmann:) Even Comey got canned probably the first time anyone ever pushed the button on him. When your good chances are you will still land on your feet after a nice vacation. So take one don't go right back looking for another position.

  6. James Madison, June 28, 2017 at 7:41 p.m.

    Shedding Doyle made sense, even though he is a good guy. Shedding Kinnear after finally spending enough money to give him some credible players, but without giving him an opportunity to make use of them makes no sense. Fiorinelli's "gut feeling" belies any preference for metrics. Let's hope Leitch is a better coach than a player and that Fiorinelli's European inclinations do not lead him to follow the disastrous course other MLS teams have had with European coaches.

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