Quakes Hit Bottom: Now What?
There's an old cliché told by rehab facilities when they see a patient coming in off of a bottom: "This can either be the best day of your life or the worst, and you get to decide." That's where the San Jose Earthquakes are right now.
In July, they lost all 7 matches they contested, twice in ICC friendlies, once in the US Open Cup, and four times in MLS play. While the performances haven't necessarily been quite as dire as the results, too often they have been. With ESPN's SPI predicting just a one-in-four shot to make the playoffs as things stand, the Quakes find themselves at a crossroads where even a minor setback in the race for the playoffs may snowball into the wheels coming off.
Should the Quakes win against Portland, get a good haul of points against Houston and Colorado in the subsequent weeks, and stave off the Reaper for just a little while, they just might survive the brutal back-to-back road matches against DC United and Sporting KC just three days apart. Make it through those, and the Quakes contest 7 of their last 9 games at home, albeit against some tricky opponents. That stretch could easily provide the pathway back into the playoff picture.
Fail to grab big handfuls of points against the teams we should, get put to the sword by two quality opponents on the road trip, and it's barely September but our players are already booking vacations during the MLS playoffs.
So where do we go from here? I'd imagine the Quakes braintrust has more or less four options, scenarios which I've laid out below:
First Scenario: System Change
For a generation raised on FIFA, sometimes the knee-jerk reaction to results not going ones way is to press the button that cycles through formations until each player's "overall rating" is maximized. Sadly, that's not how top-level professional soccer works. Or soccer at any level, for that matter.
While all coaches acknowledge that to some extent, Dominic Kinnear may well be an extremist. He doesn't put much stock at all in formations, even once referring to them as "just numbers." One could describe his current system as 4-4-2 Diamond, 4-3-3, or 4-1-4-1 and be equally right. He has eleven fairly flexible roles in mind, all variations on the same core theme. As such, any suggestions I would have for a new system would actually look end up looking quite a lot like the Rorschacht blot that we're currently running.
To the extent there is variation within that structure, it occurs in response to the particular strengths of the players in it. One minor system tweak, then, would be to move closer to an out-and-out 4-4-2 diamond. Right now, the fact that our primary wide players (Sanna Nyassi and Shea Salinas) are offensively-oriented and not particularly comfortable in possesion makes them a poor fit for that formation. Marc Pelosi and Cordell Cato, however, as genuine two-way players with a midfielder's comfort on the ball, would be ideal fits. That would also allow Chris Wondolowski just a tiny bit more freedom to push up closer to goal and operate as a deep forward, rather than an attacking mid. Of course, that would require Pelosi to prove himself definitively better than Salinas and Nyassi, and despite the excitement that follows new signings around, that isn't necessarily a given.
More radical changes would seem to me to be unlikely. First, it isn't Kinnear's style to start reading from a new scripture the second things aren't going well. Second, if you're going to overhaul the system, you'd ideally wait until an offseason so that the players could truly understand it. Third, any proposal that ditches the four-man back line (which has been the best part of the team all season) in favor of a three-at-the-back look would be fixing something that ain't broke. Fourth, I would argue it almost certainily would underutilize our personnel.
For example, any formation that requires a double pivot forces a choice between Matias Perez-Garcia being deployed far deeper than you'd ever want him and taking one of either Chris Wondolowksi or Quincy Amarikwa off the field if MPG were higher up. That being said, I'd imagine they will retain the 4-2-3-1 as a secondary option to compensate for players going unavailable, and that ultra-attacking 3-4-3 that Dom has occasionally used to chase a lead late in a game.
Second Scenario: Transfer Binge
MLS's latest bizarre rule change de facto created a "mini-DP" slot to go along with the three existing ones. While it's unclear how much the Quakes are truly willing to spend, and there would have to be the right player to spend it on (one who simultaneously is worth the money and willing to come to San Jose during the productive part of his career), they are well-positioned to take advantage of this rule with not one but two players just barely above the current DP threshold that could be easily bought down.
The trouble is, freeing up another DP slot is only half the equation: clearing out the salary space to fit a DP cap hit is the other half. And it won't be easy. There are several older players on the roster who make six-figures and may either retire or not get their contracts renewed. There's another, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi who makes more than DP Matias Perez-Garcia, and has become something of an albatross for this front office. Then again, he's not a complete black hole of production, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to move him to another team for the exact same reasons that we'd want to move him.
All that is to say that it's possible (though painful) to free up the space to sign another DP. Perhaps that's in the form of an unexpected home-run signing that you've all been hoping for. More likely, it's Mathieu Coutadeur, a talented Ligue 1 veteran who has endured several injury-plagued years but could be a real diamond in the rough if he's moved past them. As a creative midfielder, he would be a rare and valuable asset in MLS, but it's unclear how he fits into this team and makes it better. He would almost certainly have to displace one of Wondolowski, MPG, or Amarikwa to get on the field, and that doesn't seem to solve the bigger problems.
Outside of the one potential DP-level slot, however, new signings will be hard to come by. There simply isn't enough cap or roster space around to binge on a large volume of players for the time being, although if the right guy comes along it would be quite easy to drop some of the bottom players on the roster to make space for a minimum contract if it were a punt on the future such as Matheus Silva. Essentially, while non-DP purchase are possible, they're unlikely to be of the sort that change the fortunes of our team down the stretch.
The last potential is a straight-swap. I would imagine it hard to get other teams to take on the Quakes under-performing assets such as JBP and Nyassi, but not impossible, and they could get something valuable in return. There hasn't been any smoke about this sort of deal, but the Amarikwa trade was announced out-of-the-blue and definitively made the team better. For now, neither count on it nor count it out.
Third Scenario: Stay the Course
There are cooler heads abound who I think are justified in claiming that things aren't as dire as they appear on the surface.
First off, only 4 of the 7 losses were league matches that utilized our first team. Secondly, two key pieces of the rotation, Cordell Cato and Chris Wondolowski, just returned after missing most of the dark stretch. Third, there have been some personnel upgrades (Amarikwa instead of Sherrod/Jahn, Pelosi instead of one of our various misfiring central mids) that dramatically improve a roster spot but have yet to fully reward the overall team product, and often that just requires time to settle. Finally, of those four league losses, two of them were eminently winnable matches, and the other two were against western conference powerhouses on the road.
As such, our front office may decide there is nothing fundamentally wrong here. And that the best thing to do is to have faith that poor performances will return to the mean, new players will settle in, and returning players will fix some of the bigger problems. Moreover, the influx of personnel will help certain players (notably, Perez-Garcia) get back to full health and better production. The Quakes are more than capable of winning their next three games, and if they do, they'll be no worse than four points back of Portland with two games in hand. From there, you just have to survive until the home-heavy stretch and hope Innocent can contribute at the tail end. That seems plausible to me.
One of the worst things a sports executive can do is panic in response to his or her short-term circumstances, selling low on players going through a dip and buying high in order to fix problems quickly. If I had to guess, Doyle and Kinnear will be largely stay-the-course through the rest of the season.
Fourth Scenario: Focus on 2016
There are times in professional sports where you shut it down in order to get your main players healthy, grab a better draft pick, and speed up the development of some of the younger guys. While I don't think the Quakes are quite there yet, they may only be a few weeks away from making such a decision.
If they do, the first thing you'll notice is the banishment of players who won't be returning next season, which will make it abundantly clear who Dominic Kinnear thinks are up to scratch. You'll probably also see quite a bit more of the younger players, particularly the "young American core" in midfield comprised of Thompson/Pelosi/Alashe. You'll see a lot of moves towards the very end of the transfer window that exchange short-term productivity for long-term assets.
Most importantly, you'll see the Quakes keep their powder dry in terms of making any major moves. Coutadeur, as a 29-year-old non-superstar, would seem to be valuable over the next year and a half but a poor building block for the next several years. If we shut it down, we'll save that fourth DP slot for the coming offseason (or midseason for that matter) and make a run at a much bigger name.
While this path may end up being the wisest choice, I don't know how able Quakes fans are to tolerate yet another soulcrushing back stretch. I would imagine that the incipient restlessness would start manifesting itself in explicit protests by the end of the season if this came to the fore, and for good reason: this front office promised greater spending and better results on the field, and a second straight season well out of the playoff picture would simply not be good enough despite being a fairly modest expectation.