2017 will be Dominic Kinnear’s defining season in his second term in charge of the San Jose Earthquakes, but not by choice. The veteran Major League Soccer coach is entering his third year in charge of the Quakes empty-handed, having missed out on the playoffs two consecutive years. Few MLS coaches are granted clemency after a two-year postseason drought, offering Kinnear a rare opportunity to reverse the club’s fortunes and end MLS’s joint-third longest playoff drought at four years.
Kinnear is better equipped than ever this year; with only six of twenty-eight players remaining from the 2014 season, the team is molded to his model. The addition of seven potentially decisive offseason signings also lifts some weight off the shoulders of veteran Chris Wondolowski and provides much needed attacking options to last season’s lowest scoring team in MLS.
The Quakes’ 4-1 preseason demolition of the Sacramento Republic was an early tasting of the what could be to come, but there are still many questions ahead of tonight’s home opener. Kinnear deployed an empty bucket 4-4-2 against Sacramento, starting former Bundesliga defender Florian Jungwirth alongside Victor Bernardez at center-back and Shaun Francis and Nick Lima at fullback.
Fatai Alashe and Anibal Godoy resumed their solid partnership in the middle of the park, while Tommy Thompson and Shea Salinas played on the wings. Costa Rica international Marco Ureña made his Avaya Stadium debut alongside Simon Dawkins up top, with Wondolowski sidelined with an ankle injury (though he is fit to play tonight against Montreal).
Jahmir Hyka, Darwin Ceren and Danny Hoesen also made second-half appearances up top and will be in contention for a starting spot against Montreal. For the first time in many years in San Jose, the club are spoilt for attacking options and there are numerous ways Kinnear could line up up top: play Wondolowski and Ureña together, pushing Dawkins back into the midfield in place of a winger; omit Ureña and play Dawkins alongside Wondo up top; keep Wondo on the bench and stick with his lineup from last weekend, or change the system entirely. Of course, there’s also ample room for other straight swaps in the starting eleven against Montreal.
The Canadian side will be no pushover, having defeated the Quakes 3-1 late last season. Although DP striker Didier Drogba departed in the offseason, Ignacio Piatti and Montreal’s veteran attacking lineup will keep the Quakes backline busy.
Outsiders haven’t exactly given San Jose the greatest odds heading into the new season, ranking near the bottom of the table among most prognosticators, but Quakes fans are hoping to see renewed vigor at very least, ditching their conservatism for a more ambitious approach.
Last season, there was not one obvious decision that blighted the club’s playoff hopes, but a collective hesitance spanning from the front office to the stands to the dugout that paralyzed their momentum at pivotal crossroads.
Yet the offseason has offered hope that the club will dig themselves out of the doldrums this year, the replacement of general manager John Doyle with Jesse Fioranelli a vital statement of intent that was met with overwhelming support from the Quakes fanbase. Most importantly, Fioranelli’s hiring illustrates the club’s willingness to take decisive actions and, in turn, applies pressure on Kinnear to follow suit. And why not? He has nothing left to lose.
At the end of last season, club President Dave Kaval labeled their cautious approach as “boring”. Successful or not this year, the club’s offseason changes have been made in the hopes of eliminating that predictability, which makes it somewhat fitting that there are so many unknowns heading into Montreal.