San Jose Earthquakes president Dave Kaval knows his next move will determine the direction of the club for the better part of a decade, so forgive him if he’s leaving no stone unturned during his general manager search.
He has to get this right.
After he led the team to two playoff appearances in eight years on the job, the Quakes fired former GM John Doyle in the midst of an extended downturn in August. After elevating technical director Chris Leitch to replace Doyle on an interim basis, Kaval quickly launched into finding a full-time replacement.
He put together an initial list of more than 25 potential candidates, interviewing “12 to 14” of those names over the last few months. He’s spoken to executives from other MLS clubs and the league office, met with “eight to 10” European candidates on a trip to London, Paris, Copenhagen and Belgium, entertained player agents and, rather unusually, talked with executives from the NBA and Major League Baseball.
Leitch, who played with the Quakes from 2009-2011 and took a front office position with the club in 2012, is also in the running for the gig.
Kaval told me earlier this week that San Jose are now at the end of the first round of interviews, with plans to move into a second round featuring “at most” five candidates in the coming weeks. The goal, as stated at the time of Doyle’s firing, is to have a replacement hired by the end of the year.
Whoever takes the job will be working next season with head coach Dominic Kinnear. Kaval told ESPN FC’s Jeff Carlisle over the weekend that he "absolutely" expects the veteran coach, who has been linked to the Minnesota United job, to be back for a third year with the Quakes in 2017. He reiterated that to me on Monday, saying that Kinnear is under contract for 2017, and that he hasn't been contacted by Minnesota about a potential interview with the two-time MLS Cup winner. He added that the former Houston Dynamo boss is “a very good coach” who “has not had the resources to be successful” in his first two years in San Jose.
Kaval is betting a new GM will change that. It’s clear that he’s taking the long view on the hire – even if that means taking a little extra time with the decision.
“This is one of the decisions you can make that can really change the course of the entire franchise,” he told over the phone on Monday. “So we want to make sure that we’re thinking not only where the league is right now, but where it’s going to be in five, 10 years and that [that vision] matches the skill set of that person to make sure that they can be successful. As part of that, we’re really casting a wide net to think about what type of candidate would be the best fit.”
Kaval said he’s evaluating every candidate in three broad areas: Ability to effectively manage a head coach, coming up with and executing a plan to build “competitive advantage on the soccer side” and ability to leverage relationships to make impactful Designated Player and TAM-level signings.
In speaking to Kaval, who said he thinks MLS will see “a massive increase” in the number of “high quality international players” over the next five to 10 years, it seems like the latter might be the one that ultimately drives his decision. That could give a leg up to European candidates, who have had mixed results as MLS executives in the past.
“The international candidate, either technical directors or current sporting directors at teams in England or Belgium or France or Scandinavia… brings with it a lot of relationships in Europe that can help sign TAM [players] or DPs,” he said. “I think that’s really helpful. And then [they] also have a good understanding of how to setup the organization, the performance department, the analytical department, manage a first-team head coach of a high caliber like Dominic Kinnear, all these types of things.”
San Jose have lagged well behind the rest of the league in signing DPs and TAM-level players. The Quakes were among the last teams to sign a DP, and have only had five in their history. Only one, Chris Wondolowski, whose classification has vacillated between DP and TAM player in the last two years, could be considered a success.
Kaval knows the club has missed with most of its big-name signings. And he knows that needs to change if San Jose are ever to become a consistent contender.
Fortunately for Quakes fans, the new GM will potentially have room to sign up to two DPs this winter. Innocent Emeghara, who signed ahead of the 2015 season but suffered a major injury early in his Quakes career and has only played 13 games for the club, and Matias Perez Garcia, who was traded to Orlando over the summer but is still classified as a DP on San Jose’s roster, are both expected to come off the books this winter.
Their likely departures will leave Simon Dawkins as San Jose’s lone remaining DP, though Wondolowski’s classification could potentially change from a TAM player to DP. Dawkins could presumably be bought under the DP threshold using TAM, as well.
Kaval said that the Quakes are in the process of identifying potential new DP signings, with Leitch leading that search. He said San Jose, who have surrendered the third-fewest goals in MLS this year but rank last in scoring, will be on the lookout for attacking players, confirming that a No. 10 will be a possibility.
Working in concert with Kinnear to land a high-quality DP that fits the Quakes system will be the most important order of business for San Jose’s new GM this offseason. Kaval feels that the Quakes haven’t been choosy enough with their DP signings in the past, saying he thought “sometimes [we] just got the best player available” instead of acquiring DPs that actually fit their system.
“I think, in many ways, we were late to this party when it came to signing DPs,” he said. “Some of the mistakes that we made with some of the recent signings, you had teams like Seattle or Toronto, they were doing that in 2010 or 2011. I think they learned from it and they have a better system for signing bigger players. We learned from it, we understand what it takes and we understand what we need in a GM to make that successful.”
DPs weren’t the only area in which San Jose got a late start. Kaval admits that they had a bit of a vagabond-like feel for a while, what with their extended stay at tiny Buck Shaw Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University, no permanent training facility and an academy that didn’t fully kick into gear until 2012.
But those days are over. The club has their own home at Avaya Stadium, complete with a first-team training facility. They’re aiming to break ground on a $38 million academy center less than a mile from Avaya Stadium by the end of the year.
Perhaps for the first time in franchise history, San Jose are actually in position to achieve sustained success. The infrastructure is in place. Now it’s time for the Quakes to catch up to the rest of MLS on the sporting side, a process that will truly start when they hire their new GM.
“This is kind of the end of what I call the infrastructure phase, getting the pieces in place so we can actually build a business on top of it,” Kaval said. “It would almost make no sense to have a high-powered general manager with an international pedigree who’s doing these things if you didn’t even have a training pitch, or you didn’t have an academy location or if you didn’t have a first-team ground where you could draw fans. So all of this is being enabled by the infrastructure that we’ve built and the ownership group that’s invested over the last two to three years so we can finally kind of move into that next chapter.
“I think it is an inflection point. That’s why we’re taking the hire so seriously. It’s one of those things where they tell you sometimes to hire slowly. This is one of those situations to hire slowly, to really be deliberate, to think about what you need because it can chart us on a totally different course as an organization.”
Moneyball in MLS?
This is only speculation based on my conversation with Kaval, but I think the Quakes will ultimately decide to hire a European and keep Leitch or someone else with extensive knowledge of MLS on staff in a technical director-type role to ease a foreign GM’s transition to the league.
That said, I’m very intrigued by San Jose’s decision to interview sports executives with no soccer background for the job. Kaval made it clear that he thought it unlikely a non-soccer candidate would get the job, but he did share a couple of interesting nuggets regarding that side of the club’s search.
The most noteworthy bit of info? Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s executive immortalized in Moneyball, actually gave Kaval a list of potential candidates for San Jose’s GM position.
Beane, a huge soccer fan who was hired in 2015 as a consultant for Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, is a minority owner of the A’s, whose majority owners, Lew Wolff and John Fisher, also own the Quakes.
Here’s what Kaval had to say about interviewing candidates from outside soccer:
“This one just kind of fell in our laps, too, because I had some inbound people contact me. It’s folks in other sports like a general manager in baseball or someone in the NBA or something like that. And I think the hardest thing with that is that they just don’t know the league that well. But they certainly know how to set up the sporting side of an organization and they know how to set up a culture and be successful. And so we’re entertaining that. That’s probably the least likely of the different paths, but at this point it can’t hurt to have the conversation.”
Time for a new MLS award
MLS already has a surfeit of postseason awards, but I think it’s well past time for a new one: Sporting Executive of the Year.
The league already has an Executive of the Year award given to the top club president in MLS, but that’s more of a business-side plaudit. The Sporting Executive of the Year award would focus more on the field, honoring the top GM/technical director in the league after every season.
The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL all have awards given to their top GMs – there’s no reason MLS shouldn’t join them. It wouldn’t take anything away from the existing award season and would have the potential to create a little extra debate and buzz. From the league’s perspective, that’s never a bad thing.
It’s not a real award (yet, anyway), but Philadelphia Union sporting director Earnie Stewart has a case for 2016. The former US international has had a pretty excellent hit rate since moving from Holland to Philadelphia, drafting three of the top rookies in the league in Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers just two weeks after starting with the Union and landing one of the bigger signings of the summer when Alejandro Bedoya joined the club in August. Roland Alberg, a Dutch import Stewart was familiar with from him time in the Eredivisie, who has delivered timely goals. The Union also struck gold by acquiring Chris Pontius, though that deal happened before Stewart officially took over.
I’d also give some consideration to Toronto’s Tim Bezbatchenko, who made some really astute moves this offseason to shore up the TFC defense. Dallas’ Fernando Clavijo probably merits a mention, as well.
Castillo off to uneven start in Turkey
It’s still early, but Fabian Castillo’s European career has gotten off to a bit of an uneven start.
The former FC Dallas winger completed a contested move to Turkish club Trabzonspor in August, heading to the Super Lig side on a $3 million loan that will expire at the end of 2016. Trabzonspor will have the option to permanently acquire Castillo from Dallas in January for an additional fee starting at $1 million and potentially rising as high as $1.5 million.
Castillo has appeared in five of Trabzonspor’s six league games this year, but the campaign has yet to really get off the ground for either the Colombian or his new club. Trabzonspor are in 12th in the 18-team Turkish league with six points through six matches and have a minus-seven goal differential, worst in the division. Castillo has yet to register a goal or an assist.
Castillo’s playing time has dwindled in recent weeks, too. The 24-year-old started the first four matches of the season, but has been relegated to the bench since a loss on Sept. 17. He came on as a substitute in a Cup win on Sept. 21, failed to appear in a league slump-busting victory on Sept. 24, then played 25 minutes off the bench in a 4-0 loss last weekend.
FC Dallas have been keeping up with how Castillo is doing in Turkey, though technical director Fernando Clavijo told me a couple of weeks ago that he hadn’t spoken to the on-loan attacker since he decided to depart Dallas and fly to Turkey days before the actual loan deal between FCD and Trabzonspor was completed.
“I hope he does well, I hope he does well,” Clavijo said. “Every time there’s a player coming out of FC Dallas we wish him well and nothing but good things. I hope he does well and fulfills his dream.”
Whether or not Castillo will have the time to adapt in Turkey remains to be seen. Accustomed to finishing in the top four or five, Trabzonspor struggled last season, going through four different managers and finishing the season in 12th. The club is currently managed by Ersun Yanal, who was appointed shortly after last season ended and is in his third stint coaching the team.
Given that Trabzonspor have already paid $3 million for Castillo, they’ll likely want to keep him around beyond January. Still, if he doesn’t produce or if the club passes into new management – always a possibility in Turkey – that could change, and Castillo could conceivably return to Dallas.
“You never know, you never know,” Clavijo said when asked if he could envision Castillo returning to Texas. “That was a loan part of the deal we did. It all depends. You know how it is, unfortunately in Europe some of those countries are unfortunately still in turmoil, soccer-wise and civil-wise. I mean it’s crazy what’s going on right now in Turkey, so we never know, we never know. We have to be prepared for anything and we are.”