by Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)
2016 was another forgettable year among many (since 2012) for Quakes fans. The team finished with just 38 points, eight points out of the playoff race. That finish was good for 9th in the West, and 17th in the overall league table. The team actually got off to a decent start, with four wins in their first eight, but they couldn't keep that momentum going. From May 22nd to August 5th, the team won just one game, and then only two more through the rest of the year.
The team’s defense kept them in most games - they had the fifth best xGA in the league and the fifth best shots against. San Jose’s real problem was chance creation. They averaged just 12 shots per game, third worst in the league, and only 8.8 key passes per game - second worst in the league. Many of those chances came from balls lumped into the box from out wide - they averaged 21 crosses per game, second most in the league.
If you’re a Quakes supporter, hearing this isn't anything new. Dominic Kinnear coached teams tend to play this way. The 2012 Goonies played this way. Creating a large share of your chances by bombing the ball into the box isn't necessarily an offensive deathknell. It is, though, if you don’t have the right pieces for it. The 2016 Earthquakes didn't quite have the right pieces to do it effectively.
John Doyle – The biggest departure of the 2016 season was of John Doyle, the team’s GM since their re-inception for the 2008 season. Doyle was fired in August, and, while the team won Supporters’ Shield in 2012, they made the playoffs just twice during Doyle’s tenure. 2012 was the only year the Quakes finished better than 6th in the West. For a league with as much parity as MLS, that’s not great.
The most visible of Doyle’s failures was his record with designated players. The 2016 Earthquakes featured Innocent Emeghara, Matias Perez Garcia, and Simon Dawkins on DP contracts. Chris Wondolowski’s contract was brought down with GAM. MPG was traded to Orlando in August, Simon Dawkins has played solidly if unspectacularly in his second stint with the team, and Innocent made only 13 appearances for the team in two years. San Jose has never been a team to splash a lot of cash on a big name signing, but Doyle never got these signings right. His teams have typically had solid players across the board, but, in recent seasons, they've lacked the difference makers that a DP contract should bring in.
Alberto Quintero – San Jose was not willing to meet Lobos BUAP’s $700k asking price to sign Quintero from his loan. Though he was the team’s 2017 expected assist leader, that is incredibly high price to pay for a defensively liable winger. While it was probably painful, it was also probably wise to let him walk.
Jesse Fioranelli – The Earthquakes’ most important acquisition of the offseason, though it certainly took awhile, was a new GM – Jesse Fioranelli. Fioranelli joined the team from AS Roma, and, before that, Lazio, where he was head of analysis and scouting. Much of Fioranelli’s initial work will be to improve San Jose’s capabilities in those areas, as Doyle’s DP signings somewhat attest to a lack of rigor there. Though he attended high school in Maryland, he is not as intimately familiar with MLS rules as many GMs who came up in the league. It’s likely he’ll lean heavily on technical director Chris Leitch for help with the ins and outs of the roster mechanics available to him.
Danny Hoesen – The former FC Groningen forward should give Kinnear a different look than what Wondolowski typically provides. His goalscoring record wasn't stellar in the goal-happy Eredivisie, but, at 26, he’s entering his prime, and will likely be tasked with a greater share of the scoring load here than he was in the Netherlands.
Florian Jungwirth – Jungwirth comes to the Quakes from Darmstadt, where he spent three seasons in the Bundesliga and 2 Bundesliga. Comfortable both as a CDM and CB (and occasionally RB), it’s possible he’ll be the day one starting center back. The team is pretty heavy on defensive mids, so his flexibility will certainly be valued.
Jackson Yueill – San Jose selected Yueill with the sixth overall pick in the 2017 Superdraft. Coming out of UCLA, many regarded Yueill as the best playing-making midfielder in the draft. Comparisons are frequently drawn with Stuart Holden, who spent four seasons under Kinnear in Houston. It remains to be seen how many minutes Kinnear will trust him with, especially early on. Here’s hoping he gets that trust sooner rather than later, but he doesn't exactly fit into the manager’s preferred 4-4-2.
The Quakes have the personnel to run a 3 man backline with a million defensive center mids, but Dom Kinnear generally prefers a 4-4-2, and that’s probably what we’ll mostly see.
Goalkeeper - 2016 starter David Bingham was one of the league’s best goalkeepers last season. He was rewarded for his performance with a call up to the USMNT’s January camp and a second half appearance against Jamaica, where he preserved a 1-0 shutout. Andrew Tarbell, drafted last year as part of the Generation Adidas class, will back up Bingham. Tarbell was highly regarded out of college, but hasn't yet had the opportunity to make good on that promise.
Defense- Centerback Victor Bernardez started 33 games last season. He’ll be 35 in May, and looked a step slower at times last year, but he’ll be expected to anchor a backline that could see a number of changes elsewhere. Marvell Wynne started 31 games last season, mostly as Bernardez’s partner in the middle, but he’s currently sitting out the preseason with a heart abnormality. Panamanian national teamer Harold Cummings will likely be the first choice there when he returns from a sports hernia injury, but for the time being expect Jungwirth to slot in at CB. When Cummings returns, Jungwirth can move out to the right, but 22 year old homegrown Nick Lima has apparently impressed in preseason there so far. Right and left fullbacks, then, will be covered by some combination of Lima, Shaun Francis, and Kofi Sarkodie to start the year. Given that Fatai Alashe can player centerback in a pinch, San Jose has assembled a fairly flexible backline.
Midfield- The Quakes were to central midfielders this year what the Philadelphia Union used to be to goalkeepers: hungry, hungry hippos. Alashe, Darwin Ceren, Anibal Godoy, Jungwirth, and Marc Pelosi are all capable of box-to-box or defensive midfield roles in the middle of the park. Yueill unfortunately doesn't quite fit in here in Kinnear’s formation of choice.
Simon Dawkins and incoming signing Jahmir Hyka will likely start on the wings. Dawkins appeared in 29 games for the Quakes last year, but registered only 1.1 key passes per game, 55th best in the league. That’s a pretty poor return for a player who was expected to create a lot of chances for Wondo from out wide. Hyka comes to San Jose from the Swiss Super League, where he was a mainstay for FC Luzern. There’s a lot of optimism among Earthquakes fans regarding Hyka, and most signs point to that hope paying off. Eternal hype generator Tommy Thompson will also hopefully see some minutes on the flanks in 2017.
There’s a good mix of youth and experience in the midfield, even if there isn't an even balance of chance creation. Hopefully Kinnear strikes the right tone between playing the young guns and relying on his veterans, in order to find a combination that works.
Forward- While Quincy Amarikwa rehabs a torn ACL and LCL, San Jose will be looking for his replacement to pair with Wondolowski. The team will count on Hoesen to fill that role as a hold-up number 9. Marco Urena, while a different type of forward than Hoesen, will also get a look there. He was brought in from Brondby IF, but, frankly, his goalscoring record is very underwhelming. Wondolowski, then, will again be needed as a model of consistency. He bagged 12 goals last season, to go with 3 assists. Expect him to put up similar numbers in 2017.
In the absolute worst case scenario, the Quakes’ season is mostly over by the time the summer window rolls around. Fioranelli begins to plan for next year, and brings in summer signings with that in mind. If that happens, expect the young guys to be given the opportunity to improve, with Tommy Thompson, Jackson Yueill, and Nick Lima all getting solid minutes. Even if the 2017 winds up as a bust, there’s no reason they can’t be as well prepped as possible for a solid run in 2018. For a fanbase that appears willing to give their new GM time, this isn’t such a bad option.
In the best case scenario, San Jose manages to stay relevant until July. Jesse Fioranelli decides to make some serious moves to put the team in contention for one of the last playoff spots, and the team sneaks into the knockout round.
Realistically, though, I think the team will fall short of the playoffs next year. The defense, if the new additions can mesh, will be good again in 2017. The problem is really on offense, where San Jose just doesn't have the horses to consistently generate and score quality chances. That was an issue in 2016, and they haven’t yet added the necessary pieces to fix it for the upcoming season.