“I hadn’t seen the bright lights on the field that close for a while,” said new Quakes coach Chris Leitch. The thirty-eight-year-old hung up his boots as a Quakes defender in 2011 and returned to the pitch in his managerial debut in a 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday night.
Leitch was thrown into the deep end after taking over the reigns from Dominic Kinnear on Sunday but hit the ground running with the club’s first ever victory over MLS opposition in the US Open Cup.
“There were exciting moments in there,” he said, though he added that his nerves were calmed by having such a “damned good” group of players and applauded the professionalism of his players in such a tough transition.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it’s hard when a group loses their head coach, especially a coach like Dominic Kinnear, who has had so much success and put so much into this team,” he told reporters after the game. “From my perception, they have not skipped a beat.”
Captain Chris Wondolowski, who was blindsided by the changes, said he was “still processing” the transition but found the 2-1 victory to be a cathartic release. “When I step on [the pitch], that’s my sanctuary,” he said. “I could be having one of the worst days and for ninety minutes I’m just able to concentrate on the ball.”
Given the short turnaround time, Leitch concentrated on “some really basic objectives, offensively, defensively, [and in regards to] set pieces” ahead of the match. He repeatedly reiterated his confidence in the squad, which he was an integral part in assembling under General Manager Jesse Fioranelli.
He set up in a somewhat unstructured 3-5-2 against Seattle, which had been employed to achieve an attacking kickstart under Kinnear. It achieved the desired effect last night, with Shea Salinas scoring an early go-ahead goal in an imposing first half. “I was really happy with big stretches of the first half,” Leitch said. “I think we can do that even more, being comfortable on the ball and knowing that we can be patient. I thought at times we could have just walked the ball past the half field line after three passes. In the first half, we imposed ourselves, for sure. I think we can do it for longer stretches than what we showed in the second half but after every game you’re going to be nitpicky here and there. I thought there was some really, really, really good stuff in there.”
Leitch didn’t rule out using a similar setup against the LA Galaxy on Saturday, although he deemphasized the importance of the formation in his tactical approach. “For me, it’s less about the formation,” he said. “If you watch Seattle and how they build out of the back, their outside backs go really high and wide and they drop their six in. It looks like they have three in the back but if you ask them what they play they’d say four in the back. For me, formations are starting points from which you animate off from but people get stuck on that a lot.”
He employed short corners given his team’s physical disadvantage against Seattle and said he’d like to experiment with more set-piece routines. “When you have guys like Jahmir Hyka and Jackson Yeuill, that can be on the ball in a 2v1 situation, I’ll take those odds every time,” he said. “I’d actually like to do them a little bit more. That first one where we ended up scoring, the reason that we didn’t play it short was because it was because it was an in-swinger and we purposely try to crowd the box. We had a little set piece drew up. It didn’t come off on the initial one but it set up for the rebound, which is nice to see.”
For the players, Wednesday night’s performance was an important reminder that “it’s still our group in the locker room and we’re still unified,” said Wondolowski. “We have each others’ backs. It kind of us against the world.”