SAN JOSE, Calif. – As San Jose Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli was fielding calls from prospective coaches and their representatives looking to replace Dominic Kinnear, the leading candidate was quietly and unwittingly building his own case inside club headquarters.
Chris Leitch had served as interim GM between the August dismissal of John Doyle and the January introduction of Fioranelli. And as the Swiss-American Fioranelli adjusted to life in MLS and in the US for the first time in years, he sought the counsel of the Ohio-born Leitch, a former Quakes defender turned academy guru who was inserted as technical director upon Fioranelli’s hiring.
Then, as the finality set in on Fioranelli’s decision to move on from Kinnear, the way forward became clear: Despite having no MLS coaching experience (even as an assistant), Leitch would become the Quakes’ ninth head coach.
“If you work day in, day out on complex problems, looking at the game, looking at the players you have, there’s nothing better that can vet a person as you take important decisions for the club,” Fioranelli told reporters Monday, one day after letting Kinnear go. “I can tell you having worked with Chris and knowing what he stands for in the game, that he’s absolutely equipped to take on this challenge. … I felt absolutely confident that this was the right decision and the right moment to do it.”
For the 38-year-old Leitch, it’s another episode in his growing Quakes legacy. Leitch spent his final three MLS seasons (2009-11) as a right back for San Jose shortly after the club was reborn as an expansion franchise, then moved into the front office in 2012 to help build out the club’s then-nascent academy program.
“When you work for a club, you do whatever the club wants,” Leitch told reporters. “You do whatever the club needs. In this case, this is what the club needs. … I’ve been around this club an awful long time, I know a lot about this club and it sure means a whole hell of a lot to me. So my focus is squarely on that and reaching our goals for this season and beyond.”
Despite dumping the winningest active MLS coach for a replacement with no appreciable experience in the field, Fioranelli showed no interest in slapping an “interim” tag on his new coach. And Leitch has undergone the grueling two-year training program sponsored by MLS and administered by the French Football Federation, graduating with the coveted Elite Formation Coaching License. That badge is held by only a few dozen American coaches.
“Chris Leitch is not just a bridge,” Fioranelli said. “He’s part of the foundation of this club. … We did not want someone to come from abroad and take over this team. But we wanted someone that cares, someone that knows the players, someone that knows the team, to take on this important next chapter.”
To Fioranelli, Leitch represented the best way to manifest his vision of maintaining a consistent style of play from the youngest members of San Jose’s academy to those on the pitch at Avaya Stadium. Installing Leitch will – in the best-case scenario – allow the Quakes to more seamlessly introduce some of the same ball-possessing, game-controlling concepts that they have tried to implement at the academy level.
“I know most players from our U-12 group all the way up to our first team group,” Leitch said. “That includes [Quakes affiliate Burlingame Dragons of the] PDL and that roster and staff. That includes [Reno 1868 FC of the] USL and that roster and staff. And that includes some guys on the first team.
“I think it’s more of an extension of the club. I do have pretty good knowledge of the stable of players, the staff on the various levels and as a club, the reason why we have this development pathway and our idea of how a club should run.”
On Monday, Leitch gave few hints how he might line up the Quakes during his debut Wednesday against Seattle in the U.S. Open Cup. But he was clear about his expectations for San Jose as they chase a first MLS Cup playoff berth since 2012.
“Goals are quite simple,” Leitch said. “They’re all collective. The first one is making playoffs, the second one is we’ve got to make the playoffs and the third one after that is, we’ve got to make the playoffs. That’s the goal of this team. To say anything less would be to minimize the group that’s in that locker room.”