On loan from La Liga club Villarreal, Espinoza enjoyed a strong first season in MLS — his 13 assists putting him sixth in the league in 2019. For a player who bounced from loan to loan since signing for the Spanish side in 2016, struggling to find consistent playing time, 2019 showed what he's capable of.
That was great for the Quakes on the field, who improved from a league-worst campaign in 2018 to only missing the playoffs after a late-season slump. But it also made the negotiations a bit more tricky. Villarreal spent £6.5 million ($8.5m) to pry the highly rated youngster, then aged 21, from Huracan. His impressive performances in the Bay Area increased his value.
During the season, head coach Matias Almeyda, GM Jesse Fioranelli and ownership all determined Espinoza was someone the club wanted to invest in. The player was happy, too. So about three months ago, the Quakes opened the dialogue with Villarreal and eventually agreed to a club-record fee to keep Espinoza in San Jose.
"It took a little bit longer than expected, primarily because Villarreal spent a good amount of money in him and they wanted to recoup their investment," Fioranelli told MLSsoccer.com last week. "Was I concerned about being able to sign Cristian? Not so much, I felt very confident about our position and Cristian wanting to stay here. The only concern I had was if Villarreal was going to take him back to count on him in 2020 and beyond. There was that risk, he could have been an asset to other teams as well. But Cristian expressed clearly – his son was born here in San Jose – this was the place to stay.”
With Espinoza secured, as well as new deals for Chris Wondolowski, Florian Jungwirth and exercising the purchase option on Judson, the Quakes are retaining the core of their 2019 squad, which improved vastly year-to-year when Almeyda took over ahead of the season. Even more is expected in year two, with the core intact and summer signings given a full preseason with the club.
Being the GM for Almeyda brings its own set of special circumstances, not least of which is respecting the value of a full preseason. Almeyda's combative, high-octane system requires tremendous fitness, the foundation built during preseason. It's critical the club can have most, if not all, of the roster in place by mid-January when camp opens.
“Cristian Espinoza was a critical piece, there will be more work to keep strengthening the team," Fioranelli said. "We’re one of those teams that are obligated to be ready on day one of preseason. I believe Matias today knows who will start the season. We can’t exclude there will be more opportunities, but as of now, the main concern was: How much can we conclude by December? I’m really glad we are as far as we are. Preseason under Matias is quite strenuous, I wouldn't want players to miss out on that period of time. We believe we can improve on 2019 with the players that we have.”
Almeyda, who earned a ton of plaudits for his first season with the Quakes, was reportedly a wanted man this offseason. Some of Liga MX's biggest clubs were circling, as the former Chivas manager wrapped up the season with San Jose.
It was trying times for supporters, who feared Almeyda might depart after one exciting season. Fioranelli was never worried, just like he wasn't with Espinoza.
“It is obvious when you have a coach like Matias, or a player is doing extremely well, there will be interest," Fioranelli said. "But the most important thing is the relationship we have, between Matias, myself and ownership. I never, ever put that into question. There will be teams interested in our players or coach, that will happen for sure, particularly the better that we do. The fact that we’re already a year into this relationship but Matias already took a stance regarding the rumor, I think it says a lot. We’re committed to each other.”