National Writer: Charles Boehm

"Potential" into reality: Gruezo, Cowell usher in LuchiBall era for San Jose



Luchi Gonzalez tacked a newfangled-sounding suffix onto one of the sport’s most commonly-used terms during the San Jose Earthquakes’ introduction of their new Designated Player, Carlos Gruezo, on Thursday.

A check of the dictionary confirms this is indeed a recognized and active word, albeit not a common one. Gonzalez used it in reference to Gruezo’s process of integration into his system and the Quakes’ locker room, but it also offers a decent enough early tagline for the dawn of the Luchi Era by the Bay.

One of MLS’s most respected developers of talent elected to leave the US men’s national team to take over arguably the league’s most chronic underachiever of the past decade or so. Why? Well… potentializing.

“It's got a great foundation, I think it has high potential. And yeah, it definitely needs a lot of work, it needs to improve in a lot of areas, but every club’s going through that,” Gonzalez explained to in a one-on-one conversation on MLS media day last month, sounding somewhat like a new homeowner at the onset of an ambitious renovation project as he discussed his new team.

“A few modifications can really change the future of this club,” he noted. “One of them started with me and certain members of the staff. And then in terms of what I can influence and how I can lead, is the team culture, the style of play, the training. the values, our beliefs.”

Given how expansive and intricate Gonzalez’s possession-oriented philosophical blueprint is, Gruezo may prove a substantial and necessary joist. The Ecuadorian international returns to MLS after three and a half years with FC Augsburg, a Bundesliga experience he earned, in part, by patrolling central midfield superbly for FC Dallas as they won a Supporters’ Shield and US Open Cup double in 2016.

Back then, Gonzalez was steering FCD’s academy towards its current lofty perch, and he only overlapped with Gruezo on the first team for his first half-season as head coach. Still, he saw enough to make the 2014 and 2022 World Cup veteran his biggest acquisition so far of the Quakes’ latest rebuild.

“I’m thankful for Luchi’s trust in me. We spoke about this project, and he asked me if I wanted to join him, and I said yes because we had worked together before,” said Gruezo on Thursday, noting that he himself “matured a lot during the last three years” in Germany. “I know how he works, his work ethic is excellent, and he has grown with the US men’s national team.”

It’s a transfer prone to flying under the radar, given Gruezo’s dirty-work skill set and San Jose’s recent tendency toward Western Conference basement-dwelling. It nevertheless stands as the most expensive fee in Quakes history, with’s Tom Bogert and other outlets reporting a $3 million price tag. And it’s a welcome dose of proven performance amidst so much of that “potentializing” around PayPal Park, largely personified by one Cade Dylan Cowell.

Breakout year brewing for Cowell

The Quakes’ tantalizing, but up-to-now mercurial teenage talent turned heads with his man-of-the-match outing in the USMNT’s January camp friendly vs. Serbia, raising hopes he’s poised for a breakout in his fifth season as a professional.

“Definitely a positive performance. Glad he was given the opportunity,” Gonzalez told of Cowell’s national-team display. “He was coming back from an injury in the offseason, and I thought the medical team did a great job and the physical staff did a great job to get him ready in the offseason… I thought it was important just to have him playing, getting touches on the ball, connecting the tactical things, and especially knowing how U.S. Soccer works.”

Positive January camp experiences can function as a launching pad for MLS players at the dawn of a new season. Cowell doing so this spring figures to be pivotal to San Jose’s hopes of a strong start under the new boss.

“I know everyone's excited,” Cowell told at the league’s media day last month. “Young team we have, really young team, everyone's on the same page. Everybody knows their expectations. Everyone knows how we've had a rough couple of years with the coaching staff, with different types of people. But we're really excited to make playoffs this year.

“He's known for sending young players to Europe,” added Cowell of Gonzalez, a key figure in the development of big-money FCD sales like Ricardo Pepi, Bryan Reynolds and Tanner Tessmann. “He's known for developing and believing in young players, and it's going to be really exciting to see what he does.”

Cowell aims to win spots on both the United States’ U-20 World Cup squad later this year and the largely Under-23 group that will compete in the Olympics next summer. He’s also targeting the 2026 World Cup as a longer-term objective. After a dip in productivity last season, following a career-high 5g/6 in 2021, he’s due for a step up. Perhaps no one in Quakes blue is better aligned for some of the potentializing promised by LuchiBall.

The 19-year-old harbors European dreams, too. His club rejected a transfer bid from French club Stade de Reims last year, while big clubs like Germany's Borussia Mönchengladbach and even Spain's FC Barcelona are said to be tracking him.

“Man, I wish I knew the timing, to be honest,” said Cowell of his next step. “It's really whenever it all comes down perfectly and the right deal happens, the right club happens, you know? It's a difficult process. It's not really easy, especially in my case. But really just waiting, waiting for the right moment – waiting to have a really breakout year with Quakes. My focus is this year, because this year can definitely change maybe the rest of my life.”

A purposeful and decisive performance vs. Serbia – one that saw him methodically probing the seams both on and off the ball from his self-proclaimed “favorite” inverted left winger role – signaled a breakout year may well be on the way.

“So proud of him to go and represent San Jose on and off the field. And then in the opening game with a young national team, showing courage, showing aggressiveness to take people on, to create, cut inside and shoot, take people on and cross with his left foot, press, be aggressive and press after loss,” said Gonzalez.

“Just a lot of positive things that we saw. To represent our country, to do it at the biggest stage, and now coming back in the club, there's no reason why he can't show that type of performance here consistently in our league.”

The coach is presenting his entire squad with a similar ‘why not?’ mental framework this preseason. As many lean years as they’ve stacked up in Silicon Valley, Gonzalez insists the Quakes have both the talent and chemistry to make a marked turnaround along the lines of what FC Cincinnati and CF Montréal have achieved of late.

“This is a league, I know it was built on parity, but you see year to year: just because you won the MLS Cup doesn't mean you're going to make the playoffs next year,” said Gonzalez last month. “Just because you didn't make playoffs one year doesn't mean you're not going to make it the following year, or that you can't fight for a cup the following year.

“It's a group that can from day one compete and win games, because they have the unity and they have the potential already.”