Replacing Kinnear with Leitch is a gamble for San Jose's playoff hopes
SAN JOSE, California -- Chris Wondolowski stood before the assembled media less than 36 hours after Dominic Kinnear had been fired as manager of the San Jose Earthquakes and replaced by technical director Chris Leitch. Wondolowski spoke of how much Kinnear meant to him and the immense impact the coach had on his career.
"I didn't see it coming," he said of Kinnear's ousting by GM Jesse Fioranelli. "I owe Dom where I am today, and [assistant John Spencer]. It's definitely tough."
Wondolowski was then asked if he felt the team had underachieved under Kinnear, as had been hinted at strongly by Fioranelli. Wondolowski grimaced, turned around and, feeling his emotions start to get the better of him, he walked away and said, "I apologize, guys."
Clearly, Wondolowski's sentiments were not shared by Fioranelli. In some ways, the decision has been coming ever since the Quakes' GM was hired in January. The thought has long been that Fioranelli would want to hire his own man. But in other ways it was downright odd. The Quakes have performed about as expected this season, and sit in fifth place in the Western Conference after Saturday's 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake.
Fioranelli told the assembled media on Monday that he decided last week that he wouldn't retain Kinnear beyond this season, so rather than persist in that direction, he made the decision to cut him loose now. On Sunday morning, Fioranelli summoned Kinnear and Spencer to a meeting and informed them of the decision.
When the question of whether the Quakes have underachieved was posed to Fioranelli, he said, "I think we can achieve more."
Fioranelli was then asked if Kinnear's ousting was a question of style or results. The Quakes' GM danced around the query before setting on a little bit of both.
"I think that we still have a story to tell as to the young players we have on the inside of the roster," he said. "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 fall into one main aspect, and that is we want to mature a sense of certainty when we go onto this field and be able to impose our game in the long term on a more regular basis."
Fioranelli added, "As we were heading into these six months, I realized that the improvements and the efforts that we had done were not leading to the results that we were hoping for, or at least that certainty that we were aiming for."
Of course, Fioranelli won't publicly disparage a roster partly of his making. But the fact remains that San Jose's performance so far this season is on par with its talent level, a place where it has existed over the past several years. Fioranelli's offseason makeover didn't really do much to change that, with the team's attack still languishing in the bottom half of the league. But in this instance, it's easier to blame the coach, even though he has won two MLS Cups and kick-started the careers of players like Dwayne De Rosario and Stuart Holden.
That is Fioranelli's prerogative, but that he tabbed Leitch to take over is a considerable surprise. Leitch has no prior coaching experience to speak of, so this move amounts to a huge gamble in terms of this season's playoff aspirations. To be clear, in covering Leitch as a player and technical director, he has long struck me as an intelligent, astute observer of the game. But managing a team is a very different job than being technical director, which involved negotiating contracts with the very players he is now coaching. But Fioranelli felt that having some continuity will matter more in the long run.
"Chris Leitch is not just a bridge; he's part of the foundation of this club," Fioranelli said. "We wanted someone that cares, someone that knows the players, someone that knows the team to take on this important next chapter."
There is precedent in MLS of hiring head coaches with thin resumes. Sporting Kansas City's Peter Vermes, Orlando City's Jason Kreis and the New England Revolution's Jay Heaps are just three examples. Given the Earthquakes' current standing, and with designated player Valeri Qazaishvili soon to arrive, Leitch will need to be a quick study.
"I'm not going to sit here and admit I'm 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've got to be OK with that. Obviously, we have to do that in a certain way so that we reach our objectives, and our goals aren't compromised by that."
As for Kinnear, the fact remains that he was given ample time to turn things around. But for all the talk about this season, it was really 2016, his second in charge, that proved fatal. A 47-point haul in 2015 dipped to 38 last season, with some questionable player acquisitions, particularly at the designated player level, hampering the team's ability to improve its attack. Some of that falls on Kinnear, the rest on childhood friend and former GM John Doyle.
Yet the Earthquakes were still playing hard for Kinnear, whatever their offensive shortcomings. Now it will be up to Leitch to turn San Jose into a playoff team with largely the same parts.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.