No team in MLS is colder or more luckless right now than the San Jose Earthquakes. They're winless in their last seven matches, sit second from the bottom in the Western Conference standings in points-per-game terms and possess a -8 goal differential that ranks joint second-worst in the league in a three-way tie with FC Cincinnati and Toronto FC.
That two-month snapshot is an ugly one, and the overall picture in general manager Jesse Fioranelli’s time with the club was not a whole lot prettier: The Quakes tabulated a 41-67-28 regular-season record over his four and a half years by the Bay, with just two postseason qualifications and nary a win in either.
In light of all that, Tuesday’s news of his departure is not too surprising. It also doesn’t quite tell the whole story of what’s happening (and not happening) around PayPal Park.
Fioranelli arrived in January 2017 bearing a pretty decent, and certainly intriguing, resume. Though he has US roots, he’s a continental polyglot with deep European experience and was billed as both well-connected and analytically rigorous upon his hiring, having worked stints at AS Roma, Lazio, Turkish side Samsunspor and a prominent player agency.
“Fioranelli was most recently a member of the ‘Direzione Sportiva,’ the Sporting Direction unit for AS Roma since July 2015, where he played an integral role in overseeing a comprehensive club management program – The Roma Way – in the areas of player scouting, match analysis, player-centric development and recruitment for the first team and youth system,” read one section of the Quakes’ announcement of his hiring.
A few months later the NorCal club became the first MLS club to ink an “artificial intelligence and machine learning” deal with cutting-edge data-crunchers Second Spectrum, who have since become a league-wide analytics partner. The 2018 arrival of Matias Almeyda seemed like a logical progression, a chance to deploy all that technology and information in support of his demanding – but exciting – high-tempo philosophy.
But it was hard to pinpoint a clear data-driven methodology in the moves San Jose made on Fioranelli’s watch. In fact, under Almeyda many of the Earthquakes’ most notable acquisitions share the common factor of having previously worked under the charismatic Argentine at Chivas, Banfield or River Plate.
In a lot of ways, that makes sense. “Pelado” is an idiosyncratic and highly personal kind of coach, with a unique set of tactics and a preference for selfless, hard-running players eager to submit to the collective ethos. A desire for familiarity is understandable and not uncommon elsewhere around the world.
Unfortunately, there’s also a common thread of underachievement running through those players’ performances in San Jose, particularly compared to the resources expended on them. Here's a current list of players on the Quakes roster who were signed after having previously worked with Almeyda.
- Daniel Vega
- Andres Rios
- Eric Remedi
- Javier “Chofis” Lopez
- Carlos Fierro
- Oswaldo Alanis
- Luciano Abecasis
Rather than try to match the spending of the West powers in Seattle and Southern California, the Quakes have generally sought to do something akin to what’s worked for FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union. Perhaps that’s why a recurring theme of Almeyda’s time in NorCal is the idea that his ideas can work in MLS, but are less likely to do so when they are being executed by a group with less high-end talent than many of their opponents. And Pelado indeed had reason to lament the limitations of the squad he inherited.
But that was a while ago now – and whatever shortcomings Fioranelli showed in the time before then, he’s lately spent most of his time bringing in the guys that Almeyda seemed to want. Take a good look at the end product offered up by those signings, and ask yourself whether they’re living up to what’s required of them.
So Fioranelli’s departure is a reality check for everyone at the club, Almeyda included, even if the repeated approaches made by interested clubs and federations have bolstered his leverage in that relationship. There’s been a general sense that Pelado, an adventurer and romantic at heart, could soon be tempted by something new. But the current struggles are unsustainable; it’s too late in the cycle of this project.
The Quakes have careened from euphoria to misery under Almeyda, reflecting in many ways his particular brand of passion and personality. If they keep wallowing in the latter, the center may not hold much longer.