For three months, Jesse Fioranelli was everywhere. Or at least that’s how the Swiss felt.
From the day Fioranelli was hired as San Jose’s formative new general manager on January 5, he crisscrossed the Bay Area seemingly a hundred times on a determined mission to understand the ticking of the club’s internal clock. He talked to Earthquakes stakeholders, performance staff, youth academy administrators, players, coaches, fans, MLS officials, even Silicon Valley magnates. Whatever the Earthquakes were, as a foundational unit, Fioranelli sought out the definition.
And if we start anywhere with the enormity of Fioranelli’s vision for the Earthquakes, it’s in what he found in those three months diagnosing what he calls the club’s “stomach aches.” And by the end, as March melted into April, he’d become his new club’s most ardent new evangelist.
“I think that each club has its own identity,” said Fioranelli, who was previously an executive at AS Roma in Italy’s Serie A. “San Jose is fortunate to draw back on several important aspects. It’s a club with a rich tradition in MLS, which means that the jersey has a certain weight when you put it on and step onto the field. It also means we want to have players here who know why they’re here and are excited to be here, whether a player from Europe or a youth academy player. We all have to be excited to be able to play a part of San Jose.”
Laying the groundwork
The Earthquakes had become too reliant on goalscorer Chris Wondolowski for offensive production in recent years / USA Today Sports
Fioranelli’s mandate to reshape the Earthquakes is not without its challenges.
Since the inimitable Goonies set the league on fire in that unforgettable 2012 season, the Earthquakes have been on a slow, steady erosion in form. They haven't been back to the postseason since. In that four-year span, San Jose went 41-52-43 and seemed to lean increasingly on Chris Wondolowski for goals amid little else. The Designated Players they signed in that span largely failed to change the narrative, and since the foundation of the club’s academy they had only signed two Homegrowns by the time Fioranelli arrived.
But where some saw a daunting task beset by previous institutional shortcomings, Fioranelli saw endless opportunity. And he set to work almost immediately.
After his three-month fact-finding mission, Fioranelli sprang to action in April by first hiring Bruno Costa (pictured below right) to head up the club’s beefed-up scouting operations. Costa, who also spent time with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., spent years with the Brazilian federation scouting young talent, which included initially identifying a young up-and-comer named Neymar. Fioranelli knew Costa through a mutual acquaintance, and Costa was wooed by Fioranelli’s intoxicating vision for San Jose.
A week later Fioranelli struck again, this time announcing the hire of Alex Covelo (photo below left) as the club’s head of methodology. While the Costa hire directly hit the first team, Covelo’s hire was geared more toward the club’s long-term sustainability in its youth system.
The Spaniard once played in Barcelona’s youth system alongside the likes of Xavi, and he held a similar methodological post for Espanyol in his native Catalonia for four years.
Covelo’s job is to essentially set the overarching tone for San Jose’s youth system, shaping it into a lean, pro-producing machine from the U12 level up through its U19s.
The Silicon Valley way
Fioranelli has tried to adopt a culture that takes from the Silicon Valley mindset of innovation / USA Today Sports
From the moment he arrived, Fioranelli viewed the first team through a more organizational prism, not the other way around. Both Costa and Covelo were long plays, meant to lay groundwork for years.
“For me, a club is not just made up of the first team,” Fioranelli said. “It’s made up of all of the various areas in the sporting sector. Whether that’s in the performance area, understanding how we can improve or scout better, or how we can bring full-time people into the youth academy, which was one of the priorities. Then also understanding what type of players were needed. We brought in players in January that all of which really wanted to come to MLS.”
Since Fioranelli started, San Jose added three first-team players with increasingly important Targeted Allocation Money: Marco Urena from Brondby in Denmark, Florian Jungwirth from SV Darmstadt in Germany, and Jahmir Hyka from FC Luzern in Switzerland. They’re only the vanguard, the first few signings under Fioranelli’s watch, but the early returns have been modestly encouraging under coach Dominic Kinnear.
All three played in each of San Jose’s first 10 games and combined for five goals and six assists. And then there’s loanee Danny Hoesen, who joined in February from Dutch club FC Groningen. He, too, has played in all 10 of those matches. With the help of those four, San Jose’s 4-3-3 start puts them in the thick of the testy Western Conference standings at the season’s quarter pole, with a trip to Colorado awaiting this Saturday (4 pm | UniMas and Facebook.com in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).
It’s a start. But the club’s vision is vastly more sweeping. Fioranelli says they plan to cut the ribbon on a dedicated youth training facility within in the next three years to unclog the academy’s pipeline to the first team. In the meantime, under men like Covelo and the existing Development Academy coaching staff, San Jose’s emphasis on youth is about to skyrocket.
“The youth academy will be the backbone of our club,” Fioranelli said. “Ownership has completely bought into this. We are looking into a youth academy complex as well that will be a significant investment that we’re really excited about. The youth talents here in the area have to have a perspective provided by an MLS club, so we’re taking it very seriously.”
As to ownership, overall investment in the club increased this year, and Fioranelli said he expects that to continue to rise in the coming years. The club intends to keep its insistence on “avoiding just being flashy,” as Fioranelli says, but it’ll also look to spend in areas where it hasn’t in previous years.
Florian Jungwirth is one of three 'Quakes players signed under Fioranelli with Targeted Allocation Money, or TAM / USA Today Sports
About a month before Fioranelli arrived, the Earthquakes announced what it called an Innovation Advisory Board, which is “a collection of some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley,” announced club CEO Jared Shawlee. In the next couple months, the front office plans to announce initiatives deriving from that board’s conclusions. Fioranelli declined to go into specifics just yet but did offer up “things to do with communications and video analysis” as a teaser.
“I have always appreciated a game that allows us to know why we won and know why we are heading in the right direction,” Fioranelli said. “What that means is you have to be able to read the game. I would like to fall back on what makes San Jose special. We are in Silicon Valley. This is a place where innovation is rooted. That’s something that will drive us very much in the next coming years.”
And a not insignificant chunk of that investment will go directly into the first team. Fioranelli told me he plans to sign a Designated Player this summer to “be a reinforcement for our team heading into the playoffs.”
Playoffs. Fioranelli didn’t skip a beat.
San Jose’s wanderings the last four years pushed increased urgency onto the front office’s machinations. Fioranelli knows the club’s vision is more long-term than 2017, but it’s a results business at the end. If they can’t get it done in the near term, there won’t be a long view to realize. And as far as Fioranelli is concerned, he thinks the club’s newfound vision can satisfy both ends of the spectrum.
And he plans on being front and center for the shift.
“We have to have a courageous identity, and also one to be open-minded in wanting to leave a mark in MLS,” Fioranelli said. “I know that San Jose has had its ups and downs in MLS, but what really distinguishes the people from San Jose is they roll up their sleeves.
"I like that about my team. I feel like we have a team that’s alive this season, that’s working hard to reach objectives. Whether the result satisfies us or not, we know we can fall back on a team that’s hungry.”