I always found "Downton Abbey," the wildly popular British television show, deeply resonant on an awkward and socially dangerous period of historical transition. We find ourselves in these places of turnover every so often, and the path through the dense underbrush is never so obvious as it seems in the high gloss of hindsight.
The San Jose Earthquakes, it would seem, are living out their own late-season Downtown Abbey series. And it is predictably unpredictable. As of Saturday afternoon, Dominic Kinnear is no longer the club’s coach. And in steps the 38-year-old Chris Leitch, ready to take the club in a seemingly new direction under recently-hired general manager Jesse Fioranelli.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the pace of MLS is quickening. Rapidly.
Downton Abbey relates the tale of an aristocratic family in rural Britain around World War I, dealing with the jarring changes of modernity while the high-minded nobility is slowly phased out of ordinary life. You can see the fear in the eyes of the Crawley family at Downton as the creeping dread of industrialized capitalism seeped into their society. The landed gentry system that had propped these families up for centuries was collapsing.
It was hard for me to avoid comparisons between Kinnear and Lord Grantham, the head of the estate at Downton who tried with such verve to hang on to his slipping gains. The world itself was shifting under his feet, and despite his attempts at reform there were simply too many moving pieces. The pace of modernity brooks no dissension, no nostalgia.
For a time, Kinnear was probably the single best coach in MLS. It’s easy to whitewash the league’s past with thoughts of Bruce Arena, the best to ever do it in MLS, but Kinnear’s run from the time he took over San Jose in 2004 to when he ushered Houston through its first few years was a masterclass of coaching. San Jose won the Supporters’ Shield in his second year, in 2005, and then moved to Houston with Kinnear for 2006 with a nucleus at least partly Kinnear’s design.
Under Kinnear’s watch in 2005, the Earthquakes acquired Ricardo Clark from the then-MetroStars, pulled in Brad Davis from the then-Dallas Burn, drafted Chris Wondolowski with the 41st pick in the Supplemental Draft. After moving to Houston in 2006, Kinnear trawled up Stuart Holden after an injury-plagued stint with Sunderland and, with the help of San Jose holdovers like Pat Onstad and Dwayne De Rosario, won back-to-back MLS Cup titles in 2006 and 2007.
A year later, in 2008, Kinnear hit on Geoff Cameron at No. 42 in the MLS SuperDraft, maybe the greatest steal in draft history, while coaching up the Western Conference’s best team.
MLS, to put it mildly, was different then in an acquisition sense. The unifying theme of Kinnear’s greatest personnel triumphs in the crucible of his greatest stretch of results is largely a product of his ability to work the domestic system. And in this he was arguably unmatched, both then and since.
He was always comfortable with the draft and could routinely hit on lower-division players by dint of his likeable personality and coaching network. The MLS of the 2000s was ripe for this sort of domestic cherry-picking.
This is not so much the case anymore.
Since the introduction of the Designated Player rule in 2007 and the infusion of Targeted Allocation Money in 2015, the league has shifted generously toward international scouting. Earlier this year, FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo told me he had the resources through TAM to compete with a number of top Mexican and Central American clubs to win the signature of coveted forward Cristian Colman.
This is, to put it mildly, a different world than the sort that asked its coaches to win MLS titles 15 or even 10 years ago.
It isn’t that San Jose didn’t take big swings in the transfer market in the last few years, but they were more sparse than the league average and so rarely connected. Matias Perez Garcia lasted two seasons before being traded to Orlando City in 2016. Innocent Emeghara played just 13 games between 2015 and 2016. Simon Dawkins has been the only player signed to a Designated Player contract who’s been consistent.
But it was clear that as soon as Fioranelli assumed the general manager role this offseason, things were already changing.
Before the season even began, Fioranelli, fresh off a stint with AS Roma’s front office, swung into action with a flurry of foreign signings using whatever roster initiatives were available. Jahmir Hyka signed from FC Luzern. Florian Jungwirth joined up from SV Darmstadt. Marco Ureña arrived from IF Brondby. Danny Hoesen joined on loan from FC Groningen.
The club drafted former UCLA creative midfielder Jackson Yueill, who Fioranelli identified as his favorite player at the pre-draft MLS Combine. And just days ago, San Jose signed young Georgian Valeri Qazaishvili from Dutch side Vitesse to a Designated Player contract to run their attacking midfield.
The Earthquakes had never seen a flurry of international movement in a short window quite like this before. And every one of those players is under 30.
Welcome to the new MLS.
This is simply the cost of doing smart business in MLS these days. MLS Cup-level roster building requires a keen eye for niche international scouting, which then requires a network of international contacts and a stubborn willingness to use those newfangled acquisition methods at your disposal.
That flurry of signings was likely instructive as to the sort of buying team the Earthquakes plan to be under Fioranelli and Leitch’s guidance. Fioranelli’s said before the club will look for smart buys over big buys, and now that we have a heavy flow of evidence building up and spilling out into the Earthquakes’ roster, it would seem that’s already the case. Either way, it’s already a new direction.
Leitch is certainly capable of existing within the team’s new framework. He has history with the Earthquakes, of course, recently operating as the head of an academy that most in the know now consider to be one of the more impressive up-and-coming pools of talent in the country. And he’s young, at 38 one of the youngest first-time head coaches in the league’s history.
The Earthquakes have only signed two Homegrowns in their history, and Fioranelli’s decision to put Leitch in that role in lieu of someone outside MLS speaks to the growing importance the club is placing on its youth. If anyone will give the academy kids a chance – and Fiorenelli has been adamant that this is a key part of his vision – then who better to do it than the former academy director?
But more than that, it’s a fresh start. I don’t think Kinnear could not fall in line with Fioranelli’s ultimate vision, but maybe there was too much built-up muscle memory on Kinnear’s part to not engender some sort of friction in the way they built the roster down the line. If Fioranelli thinks Leitch is a better fit for the direction San Jose is going, then he’ll have earned some benefit of the doubt in that assessment while we await the fruit.
Kinnear is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, one of the best to ever do it in his era. It should be more than moderately interesting to see what this new one brings to San Jose.