San Jose Earthquakes General Manager Jesse Fioranelli took an axe to the last vestiges of the club’s veteran leadership on Sunday morning in sacking head coach Dominic Kinnear, yet the cut wasn’t as clean as might have been hoped.
The decision likely represented an inevitable conclusion to the broad management overhaul that commenced with last year’s removal of former GM John Doyle – a Kinnear ally – but the awkward timing amidst recent on-field improvements has muddled the message.
Speaking to media after the club’s first training session under permanent replacement Chris Leitch, Fioranelli issued broad statements of ambition but few specifics, and didn’t explain precisely what had precipitated the move other than fast-tracking a decision that had already been made not to renew Kinnear’s contract in the post-season.
Considering that the long-term coaching decision was already made, a skeptic could attribute the timing (after Saturday’s victory over RSL) as an effort to avoid the risk of having to make the same move under even more controversial conditions should the Quakes gain further steam with wins this week against Seattle and then the L.A. Galaxy at Stanford Stadium.
“When I realized, 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, especially because I had a personal relationship with Dominic that I very much appreciated,” he told Quakes Talk. “The respect that I had in this relationship didn’t allow me to go another three months knowing that we would have parted ways at the end of the season.
“I didn’t want to delay the decision. I said to myself that regardless of the outcome of the game, we were going to feel unsatisfied with holding off on this decision. Ironically, the win is supposed to be considered, in two ways, a positive aspect. If we would have lost and terminated the relationship with Dominic, it would have passed a judgment on him that he does not deserve. Secondly, if we would have lost and [then] said that we would like to hire Chris Leitch and Alex Covelo, it would have sent a message as if we want to react to a loss, which is not the case. This is more than just about the game, this is really about a club that, for several years, has been on track in one direction and is starting to make decisions to help direct it in a direction where we can be in control of our own fate.”
A combination of stylistic differences and results motivated the decision, pointing to a broader disconnect with Kinnear as to the direction for the club. “As we were heading into 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 are aiming for,” he said.
“I think we can achieve more.”
That improvement is now the job of Kinnear’s replacement Chris Leitch, the Quakes’ Technical Director, whose appointment has raised eyebrows in light of Leitch’s lack of coaching experience at any level. Despite being new to the role, Leitch – a former defensive player of the year as a Quakes player – is considered a rising star within the organization, having moved from Academy Director to interim GM in a few short years since his retirement. But given the short lead time ahead of a crucial run of mid-summer matches, the pressure is already on.
At yesterday’s press conference, Leitch repeatedly deferred questions about his tactical approach and game-planning, saying he wanted to get past day one before communicating the path ahead, though “week one” includes tomorrow’s elimination US Open Cup match against the Seattle Sounders and Saturday’s Cali Clasico battle at Stanford Stadium.
Coaching, Leitch said, had not been a career consideration until Fioranelli recently proposed the switch, but he was willing to jump head first into the challenge.
“I’m not going to sit here and admit that I’m going to do every single thing right, the same thing with our players,” he said. “We want them to make mistakes, to dare to take risks and with that, there are going to be mistakes on the way and we have got to be okay with that. Now, obviously, we have to do that in a way so that our playoff goals aren’t compromised by that.”
Although many among the Quakes fanbase appear inclined to trust in Fioranelli’s long-term vision, such a bold move puts him directly in the line of fire should results fail to improve in the back half of the year.
The club were obligated to inquire with other job candidates due to MLS diversity rules, but Fioranelli argued that selecting an internal replacement is consistent with his goal to establish a strong and clear identity for the Quakes, both internally within the organization and externally with the fanbase.
“The best clubs in Europe [are] the ones that really have an identity and really strive for a different definition of success, the ones that are not only one-game based, but represent a model that people, whether that’s a player, a coach or a fan, can identify with,” he said. “That has very much to do with why we want to choose Chris Leitch. He represents that, he cares about this club. The succession, that perspective, was a very important consideration in making this decision.”