ORLANDO – After his team endured one of the worst seasons in MLS history in 2018, San Jose Earthquakes GM Jesse Fioranelli knew he had to get it right with his next head coach hire.
There isn’t much that needs to be written about how brutal the Quakes were last year. Their 4-21-9 record and the midseason firing of first-year manager Mikael Stahre say more than enough about how bad things got in 2018. Not that Fioranelli can compartmentalize his club’s struggles that easily. For the Swiss GM, who arrived in San Jose ahead of the 2017 season without any prior experience in North American soccer, 2018 was more than just a miserable season. It was a direct indictment, a black mark that fueled the perception held by some of his peers around MLS that Fioranelli is in over his head.
He knew his credibility took a major hit in 2018. He realized that San Jose weren’t looked at as a serious club at the end of last season. He understood he likely won’t get another chance to make this right.
He knew he had to take a big swing. By hiring Matias Almeyda, he did just that.
“It feels right,” Fioranelli told MLSsoccer.com earlier this month at the MLS Player Combine in Orlando. “It feels good.”
Landing Almeyda, whose hiring was officially announced on Oct. 8, two weeks before the Quakes closed their grueling 2018, was one of the bigger surprises in recent memory in MLS. The former Argentina international joined San Jose after a successful stint with Liga MX giants Chivas, whom he led to five trophies in less than three years on the job. Prior to joining Chivas in September 2015, Almeyda coached in his native Argentina, where he guided both River Plate and Banfield to second-division titles in his first season at both clubs.
His impressive resume as both a coach and a player (he represented Argentina at the World Cup in 1998 and 2002) instantly gave San Jose some much-needed credibility. No one knows just how he’ll fare with the Quakes, but other teams can no longer simply look past San Jose. There’s even a sense that bringing him on board could be an equalizer of sorts for San Jose, a way for the club, traditionally one of MLS’ lower spenders, to punch above their weight and compete with their higher-spending rivals.
“He can play a critical part. He will be without a doubt a leader inside of this organization, and that will go beyond the formation and the first team,” said Fioranelli. “That will then go also in to the youth development and how we can even attract players to San Jose. I think that it was not a matter of investment, it was really a matter of having a really strong willingness from the entire club, from the board to myself to him and his coaching staff, to want to take this next chapter together.
“Even in the first dialogues that Matias has had with the first team after the season ended, I could see a sense of not just interest, but a commitment from him and the players from the very first talk.”
As Fioranelli hinted, Almeyda is changing where and how San Jose recruit players. After looking primarily to Europe for their biggest signings during Fioranelli’s first two seasons on the job, the Quakes have shifted their focus to South American players this winter. They acquired holding midfielder Judson on loan from Brazilian club Tombense, landed 19-year-old Peruvian national team left back Marcos Lopez on a full transfer from Sporting Cristal and swung a season-long loan deal with Spanish club Villarreal for Argentine winger Cristian Espinoza, who Almeyda knew from his time in the Argentine Primera.
All three acquisitions were made using Targeted Allocation Money, and Fioranelli feels all three address major positions of need.
“We’re very glad about the signings that we’ve been able to do,” said Fioranelli. “We had some extra time on our hands because we unfortunately didn’t do so well last season, but this allowed us to really start from day one on identifying positions of need and players… in line with how Matias wants to play.”
San Jose’s roster probably needs some additional work for them to realistically compete for a playoff place in 2019, but don’t expect much more player movement this winter. The Quakes already have 28 players signed, including a pair of Designated Players in Vako and Chris Wondolowski. Things could change in the summer, but Fioranelli doesn’t expect many transactions in or out of San Jose for the remainder of the winter window.
Almeyda will work with their current pieces, see what he has, and re-evaluate later in 2019. Fioranelli swung big on him. Even if things don’t click for San Jose right away, he feels like he has a hit with his new head coach.
“I haven’t gotten over being angry for how last season went. I think that we slipped a quarter of the way into the season and we didn’t stop sliding,” said Fioranelli. “Seeing my team, seeing our guys go through the difficult challenges we had to go through was something that tested me, without a doubt. I cannot say that that feeling will go away until we start the season, but I think it’s not just there in myself, but also there’s a sense inside of this locker room that we want to get it straight. You might not have noticed many big comments from my end or from any other people inside of the organization, but we’re talking a little bit less and we’re working very hard. We care about setting the direction straight.”