By, Thomas Viola
The 2017 season ended with a thud for the San Jose Earthquakes Wednesday night, losing 5-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first round of the MLS playoffs. For the Earthquakes though, it is hard to call this season anything other than a success. Yes, it took a miracle stoppage-time winner against Minnesota to even qualify for the playoffs, and before that the team ground out a tough but crucial draw against Vancouver to keep the playoff dream alive. But for a team that was widely expected to miss the playoffs by a healthy margin, even before going through a coaching change, making the playoffs was a victory to be celebrated in itself.
The Quakes and manager Jesse Fioranelli are now tasked with taking the next step, and go from surprise playoff qualifiers to contenders. There is no question that the Quakes were the beneficiaries of some good fortunes this season. It is not often that a team with a minus-21 goal differential makes the postseason. And a 3-12-2 record away from home is not a recipe for sustained success. To compete moving forward, Fioranelli and Co need to address some key areas this offseason.
Most important on Fioranelli’s agenda should be coaching. Chris Leitch stepped into the spotlight with absolutely no coaching experience, replacing a coach in Dominic Kinnear who was incredibly well liked by the team. That is a tall order for anyone to fill, and certainly no one would have blamed Leitch had the team failed to make the playoffs. But too often this season Leitch was hesitant to make substitutions when needed, such as the 1-1 draw against Vancouver, in which the only Quakes sub was made in the 88th minute. It’s possible Leitch can further grow into the role, but does Fioranelli want to deal with those growing pains, rather than bringing in a more experienced man to helm the ship moving forward? This will be a critical decision for Fioranelli, and one that will have a lasting impact on his tenure as the boss of the Earthquakes.
On the field, the Quakes are in need of a minor roster overhaul. Victor Bernardez’s age is beginning to catch up to him, and 34-year-old Chris Wondolowski is going to start slowing down eventually. The Quakes need to be preparing for that eventuality now. Danny Hoeson is undoubtedly one piece of that puzzle. San Jose would be wise purchase him from FC Groningen, as he has the potential to become the centerpiece of the Earthquakes after Wondo.
The good news is that if anything is proving to be Fioranelli’s strong suit as manager, it is talent acquisition. Gone are the days of frustration and ineffectiveness from the team’s designated players. Instead of Innocent Emeghara, San Jose now has Vako, which for the Earthquakes has proven to be like trading in an old Camry for a Ferrari. Vako has the kind of playmaking potential teams need to see out of their designated players, and bringing him on in the summer transfer window was a stroke of brilliance.
It is hard to pick out a player Fioranelli signed that hasn’t panned out this season. Marco Ureña comes to mind, as his best form has clearly been on display for Costa Rica, not for San Jose. But he is still a talented player, and being the savior of the season is nothing to shake a stick at. As for the other players Fioranelli has brought into the fold: Jamir Hyka, Florian Jungwirth, and Danny Hoeson are all starters, as well as some of the best players on the team. Homegrown player Nick Lima’s season was cut short by injuries, but when he was healthy he was rightfully in the conversation for rookie of the year.
If Fioranelli can continue his trend of strong signings with a center back to challenge Bernardez, as well as one who can allow Jungwirth to return to his natural position of defensive midfielder, coupled with the acquisition of a pacey attacking player who can complement Vako and Hoesen up top, the Earthquakes could come into the next season not as underdogs, but as a bona fide cup contender.