The San Jose Earthquakes entered 2017 without a playoff appearance in five years, without a General Manager, without any new Designated Players, and with only half a club president. The Quakes began the new year without direction.
Enter Jesse Fioranelli.
The Italian was announced as the club’s new General Manager just five days into 2017 and has rapidly brought the struggling club up to a speed that better matches its Major League Soccer competitors. Fioranelli asserted himself as the point man for soccer operations in San Jose in his first year in charge, bearing a sweeping vision for the club and backed by meticulous roster management. The new GM disbanded much of the old guard in order to take the club in a fresh direction.
Publicly, Fioranelli said he’d spend the first few months of his Quakes tenure to “listen and absorb” but privately, it was clear he was down to work from day one. Within a month of Fioranelli’s arrival, the Quakes announced three signings from Europe, a market underutilized by his predecessor John Doyle. Those signings, Florian Jungwirth, Danny Hoesen, and Jahmir Hyka, would together total more than a quarter of the club’s goalscoring tally and more than a third of their assists in the 2017 season.
Fioranelli – not coach Dominic Kinnear – appeared alongside each player at his introductory press conference, signaling the GM’s pole position within the club’s new hierarchy. Whereas Doyle rarely made public appearances, Fioranelli’s accessibility differentiated the executive from the outset and earned early respect from the local media.
Costa Rican international Marco Ureña was also acquired in the offseason, as well as rookie standouts Nick Lima and Jackson Yeuill. Although Quakes fans bemoaned the perceived lack of transfer activity over the winter, the Quakes had, in retrospect, done brisk business while keeping their third DP spot open.
The decision had been made by Fioranelli’s arrival to hold off until the summer transfer window to fill the club’s third DP spot. Fioranelli spoke often of finding the right fit for San Jose, not only in terms of tactics but profile as well. The Quakes found this fit in Vako, the twenty-four-year-old Georgian midfielder. With five goals and two assists, Vako was the club’s second-highest goalscorer despite only eight starts. Finally, it appears, Vako has been able to turn the club’s recent DP woes around.
Player recruitment has only been one facet of Fioranelli’s takeover, though. The GM has undertaken two managerial changes in his first year in charge, the first of which came in June when Dominic Kinnear was replaced by Chris Leitch.
The timing of Kinnear’s ousting is still unexplained. Fioranelli informed the coach of his termination shortly after a solid victory over Real Salt Lake that had put the Quakes in playoff position, more than enough to satisfy the club’s meager expectations. When pressed on whether he sacked Kinnear because of style or results, Fioranelli didn’t choose either option. His lack of specifics was frustrating at the time, though his motivation is clearer now. The sacking appears less a function of results than of a broader difference in vision between Kinnear and Fioranelli. For Fioranelli to fully implement his vision for change in San Jose, Kinnear had to go. Apparently, the new GM severed ties before the coach could build a case for himself under the new regime.
Although Fioranelli discounted widespread concerns regarding replacement Leitch’s lack of experience, the GM was undeniably risking the club’s playoff chances. Leitch was unable to turn around their road fortunes – which actually worsed in the second half of the season – and the Quakes suffered, with the playoffs seemingly out of the picture after a 4-1 home loss to the Chicago Fire in late September.
Locker-room fractures began to appear at this point in the season, with the multiple casualties of Fioranelli’s takeover coming to the fore. Goalkeeper David Bingham had been a USMNT call-up in the spring but was forced out of San Jose in the fall, and others such as Simon Dawkins and Cordell Cato simply went AWOL after midseason.
However, Fioranelli’s intervened to try to set the club back on track. He organized team dinners to restore unity in the locker room and the Quakes mustered an impressive late run, though only Ureña’s stoppage-time winner on the last day of the season secured a crucial playoff position. Without this goal, Fioranelli’s first-year tenure would likely be viewed in a quite different light.
Ureña’s goal lifted the weight of the club’s playoff drought and completed Fioranelli’s transition, wiping their plate clean for him to build a new legacy starting in 2018.
He has already moved swiftly this offseason, hiring coach Mikael “Mika” Stahre to take the reigns from Leitch, who returned to his former post of Technical Director, and signing the club’s fourth Designated Player Magnus Eriksson. Although MLS pundits often question the ability of foreign coaches or GMs to grasp the Byzantine machinations of the MLS salary cap, Fioranelli’s manipulation of the roster rules to allow for Eriksson’s signing (using TAM to buy down Simon Dawkins’ contract) shows promise in this sphere. Whereas his predecessors in San Jose often seemed clumsy and rash in the transfer market, Fioranelli has been decisive and deliberate.
He has begun to forge a unique identity in San Jose, a European approach with, now, a distinctly Swedish flair. “In 2017, we will send a strong message,” he said at his introductory press conference. And that he has done.