In sports, results have a way of obscuring things. Too often, positive outcomes create a misleading feedback loop: If a team scores a goal, wins a game or makes the playoffs, how they got there must be correct. They don’t need to evaluate their process – the happy ending is the only thing that matters.
That’s a dangerous trap, and one that the San Jose Earthquakes could’ve easily fallen into this winter. The Quakes made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2012, surviving a midseason coaching change and a serious scare in the regular season finale to squeak into the postseason.
For San Jose, it would’ve been easy to highlight the playoff appearance and sweep the issues under the rug. Instead, GM Jesse Fioranelli and the front office looked at the Quakes’ aging, thin roster, their 5-0 Knockout Round defeat at Vancouver and negative-21 goal differential (the worst of any playoff team in MLS history) and got to work.
San Jose changed head coaches, moving caretaker manager Chris Leitch back into his old technical director role and hiring Mikael Stahre from Swedish club Hacken. They also got significantly younger and deeper, most notably signing Designated Player Magnus Eriksson, 21-year-old Uruguayan center back Yeferson Quintana and three Homegrown Players, two of whom are just 16 (and were 15 when they signed).
The changes have Fioranelli feeling good heading into 2018, even if his Quakes might not have the top-end talent of some of the higher-spending teams in the league.
“We’re confident about the roster as it stands today because we have competition on every single position,” he told MLSsoccer.com over the phone Thursday. “We have veteran players, younger players, we have the core from last season and then we have fresh new blood, whether that comes from Europe or whether that comes from two 15-year-olds that we signed that were an important part of what we believe in, namely the academy.”
The academy has been a point of emphasis for Fioranelli since he arrived in San Jose last January. Despite being in one of the most talent-rich regions in the country, the Quakes have been among the worst teams in MLS at giving minutes to young players, and, prior to this winter, had only signed two Homegrowns in club history. They needed to catch up to the rest of the league on the youth level, especially since they’re not spending Toronto, NYCFC or Atlanta-type money on their stars.
They moved forward a bit last season, when those two Homegrowns – Tommy Thompson and Nick Lima – played significant roles and rookie midfielder Jackson Yueill came on strong with 13 appearances and 10 starts after June.
Lima, 23, is penciled in as a starting fullback again this year, while the 22-year-old Thompson and 20-year-old Yueill will likely begin the season as two of San Jose’s first options off the bench. Thompson is behind DPs Eriksson and Vako on the wing, while Yueill will back up center midfielder Anibal Godoy, who will almost certainly miss time this summer while with Panama for the World Cup.
This winter’s Homegrown signings, 20-year-old goalkeeper J.T. Marcinkowski and 16-year-olds Gilbert Fuentes and Jacob Akanyirige, won’t make nearly as much of an impact in 2018. Fuentes and Akanyirige likely won’t clock a single first-team minute this year, while Marcinkowski is battling with Matt Bersano to begin the season as the No. 2 ‘keeper behind starter Andrew Tarbell.
To Fioranelli, that doesn’t lessen the importance of bringing them on board, particularly when it comes to Fuentes and Akanyirige, the second and third youngest players in MLS. Fioranelli thinks the two teens are talented and said they’ve surprised with how well they’ve integrated during first-team training this preseason, but he acknowledged that their skill isn’t the only reason they were signed.
Their additions were part of a strategic push by San Jose to truly challenge their top academy players. They don’t want them dominating the youth ranks; they want their best prospects on the first-team, fighting with seasoned pros in training and occasionally getting run in USL and with San Jose’s U-18s.
“What purpose does it have if a 15-year-old is not challenged, that is gifted, that is already in the youth national team, that you know might find it easier to express himself in the 17s but might be able to benefit much more from the individual development within the first-team?” Fioranelli asked.
“What we’re trying to do is to work very selectively and individually on the most promising players. And by giving them the right type of environment and the right types of challenges, we strongly believe that they will be able to excel.”
There’s still plenty of progress to be made, of course, but San Jose are at least attempting to move in a positive direction. Couple that renewed emphasis on the youth level with a deep, possibly underrated first-team, and the Quakes feel like they’re in a decent spot in both the short- and long-term.
“Obviously all the teams will feel equally optimistic because we haven’t played a single game yet, but I’m very glad with where we stand right now,” Fioranelli said.