During the winter, there was an unprecedented influx of Mexican talent to MLS. Two weeks into the new season, a couple of them are already making recognizable differences for their respective teams.
The Liga MX 2019 Apertura scoring winner, Alan Pulido doesn’t lack any knowledge as it pertains to scoring goals. The 29-year-old showcased exactly that against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, introducing himself to the Blue Hell with a goal and assist. That’s two goals in two games for the former Chivas striker.
Rodolfo Pizarro, too, wrote his name in Week 2’s stats sheet, scoring Inter Miami’s first-ever MLS goal in the nation’s capital.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Spain, Andres Guardado put together a laudable performance against Real Madrid. Real Betis shocked Zinedine Zidane’s men 2-1 on Sunday.
Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.
Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers — Jimenez started and played all 90 minutes in Wolves’ 0-0 draw against Brighton. The forward registered a lone shot on target.
Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid — After not appearing on Atletico’s bench in February, Herrera was called up by Diego Simeone for Los Colchoneros’ draw against Sevilla. Herrera was left on the bench, however.
Andres Guardado, Real Betis — Guardado played all 90 minutes against Real Madrid on Sunday. In addition, the midfielder contributed an assist, but saw a yellow card in the 74th minute.
Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old did not make the bench in Betis’ win on Sunday.
Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Despite drawing a yellow card, Araujo registered eight clearances, one blocked shot, four interception and two tackles throughout 90 minutes in Celta’s 0-0 draw.
Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli — Lozano and Napoli were inactive this weekend.
Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played 90 minutes in Porto’s 1-1 draw with Rio Ave.
Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven — Gutierrez was left on the bench in PSV’s 1-0 win over Groningen on Sunday.
Edson Alvarez, Ajax — Alvarez featured for the final eight minutes of Ajax’s win on Saturday.
Jupiler Pro League
Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea played 90 minutes in Zulte’s 7-0 loss to Anderlecht on Saturday.
Major League Soccer
Carlos Vela, LAFC – LAFC and Vela host the Philadelphia Union on Sunday.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, LA Galaxy – In his first MLS regular season game at Dignity Health Sports Park, Chicharito went missing – both on and off the field. The 31-year-old failed to registered a shot on goal, and after Galaxy’s 1-0 loss to the Whitecaps, was a no-show at the team’s press conference. A very slow start for MLS blockbuster signing.
Jonathan dos Santos, LA Galaxy – Recently back from injury, Galaxy’s captain was limited to 45 minutes on the field.
Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami – It took two, whole minutes for Pizarro to score Miami’s first-ever MLS goal. The 26-year-old followed up with a solid 88 minutes against D.C. United, who took all three points when the final whistle blew.
Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City – Pulido played 90 minutes and scored a goal in SKC’s 4-0 trouncing of the Houston Dynamo.
Oswaldo Alanis, San Jose Earthquakes – Alanis played all 90 minutes in the Earthquakes’ shambolic 5-2 loss to Minnesota United on Saturday night. Not the best night for the defender, who was coming off a stellar debut.
Elsewhere around the globe:
Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – Davila played all 90 minutes and provided and assist in Phoenix’s 3-1 win over Central Coast Mariners on Saturday.
Marco Fabian, Al-Sadd – Fabian played in Al-Sadd’s 1-0 loss to Al Rayyan.
Hector Moreno, Al-Gharafa – Moreno played all 90 minutes and was awarded a yellow card in Al-Gharafa’s win on Thursday.
The star signing of the offseason, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez makes his MLS debut, as the Los Angeles Galaxy travel to Houston to take on the Dynamo in front of a sold-out BBVA Stadium.
In between, the San Jose Earthquakes look to start season two under Matias Almeyda on a strong note when they host Toronto FC, while Nashville SC – one of two new MLS franchises – receives a high-powered Atlanta United.
Opening day wraps up with Sporting Kansas City taking on the Vancouver Whitecaps, which will see two former Liga MX goal scorers in Alan Pulido and Lucas Cavallini make their debuts.
Saturday’s full MLS schedule
Montreal Impact v. New England Revolution — 3:00 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo v. LA Galaxy — 3:30 p.m. ET
San Jose Earthquakes v. Toronto FC — 5:30 p.m. ET
FC Dallas v. Philadelphia Union — 6:00 p.m. ET
Orlando City v. Real Salt Lake — 6:00 p.m. ET
Nashville SC v. Atlanta United — 8 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps v. Sporting Kansas City — 10:30 p.m. ET
A handful of Mexicans abroad debuted with their respective clubs over the weekend, but none were at par with Rodolfo Pizarro’s.
The 26-year-old attacking midfielder scored on his fourth touch as an Inter Miami player, two minutes after coming off the bench. Pizarro’s right-footed strike proved to be historic, as it became the first official goal in club history.
Also on Saturday, in different regions of the United States, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Alan Pulido, respectively, made their debuts. Chicharito played 78 minutes in Los Angeles Galaxy’s 2-1 preseason loss to Toronto FC, while Pulido logged 61 minutes in Sporting Kansas City’s scoreless bout.
Qatar’s new marquee star, Marco Fabian, debuted in Al-Sadd’s hard-earned cup win.
Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.
Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers — Jimenez started and played all 90 minutes in Wolves’ 0-0 draw against Leicester City. The forward registered four shots off target and one blocked.
Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid — Herrera was not called up by Diego Simeone for Atletico Madrid’s draw against Valencia on Friday.
Andres Guardado, Real Betis — Guardado dressed but didn’t take the field on Sunday.
Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old was is out after undergoing appendicitis surgery.
Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo played a vital part in La Liga’s most surprising outcome of the matchweek – Celta’s 2-2 draw with Real Madrid. The defender recorded eight clearances, one interceptions and two tackles throughout the 90 minutes.
Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli — Lozano, Napoli’s most expensive player in team history, was not called up by Gennaro Gattuso on Sunday. The 24-year-old and the Italian manager seem to be on different pages, and the situation doesn’t appear to be getting better with time. It might be time to panic for Lozano’s development in Italy.
Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played 84 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 victory over Vitoria, which was marred by racist abuse towards Moussa Marega by Vitoria supporters.
Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven — Gutierrez played the final five minutes of PSV’s 3-0 thumping of AOD Den Haag.
Edson Alvarez, Ajax — After several weeks of little activity, Alvarez seems to be making his way back into Ajax’s starting lineup. On Sunday, the Mexican defender played his second set of 90 minutes in four days.
Jupiler Pro League
Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea played 76 minutes in Zulte’s 2-1 loss on Sunday.
Major League Soccer
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, LA Galaxy – In front of a semi-full Dignity Sports Park, Chicharito made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut. The storied forward, however, failed to score despite seeing a decent amount of chances. Galaxy open the MLS season against Houston Dynamo on February 29.
Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami – It took two minutes for an Rodolfo Pizarro to score on his unofficial Inter Miami debut. Ironically, the brand-new MLS franchise has yet to announce the signing of the 26-year-old from Monterrey.
Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City – Pulido played 61 minutes in SKC’s scoreless, preseason draw against Real Salt Lake.
Elsewhere around the globe:
Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – Davila played all 90 minutes in Phoenix’s 1-0 victory over Melbourne City. The attacker also managed to pick up a yellow card throughout the match.
Marco Fabian, Al-Sadd – Fabian debuted for Xavi’s Al-Sadd on Saturday, playing all 120 minutes in his team’s win via penalties.
Hector Moreno, Al-Gharafa – Moreno and Al-Gharafa were inactive this weekend.
The San Jose Earthquakes’ now 40-year-old general manager is seated comfortably on a five-legged office chair, with a can of Canada Dry ginger ale in his hand. An 11×14 impressionist-style mural of Troy Dayak shouldering off an opponent with the ball tucked at his feet, gracefully hovers over his right shoulder. A pair of hardcover books on avant-garde art are open and aesthetically placed on the lower glass of a two-level glass coffee table in front of him. The Swiss is in his office, his home away from home, and its composition is telling of the person and professional he is. Ironically, telling about the Quakes’ unorthodox mantra, as well.
It’s one of the first times Fioranelli opens the doors of his base to reporters. The same space in which most of the signings are made official – at least according to the team’s social media accounts – and where much of the brainstorming regarding the future of the Earthquakes takes place.
With a lukewarm season behind them that saw the Quakes jump from dead-last in 2018 to four points out of playoffs in 2019, he’s given the green light for all questions, pressing and convivial. After all, Fioranelli hinted that he’s entering a second contract of his stint as general manager, in sync with the tune of “five to 10 year hire” that previous President Dave Kaval declared upon Fioranelli’s arrival three years ago.
Working closer with all facets of the team, in conjunction with head coach Matias Almeyda and his king-size staff, Fioranelli feels “closer to the pulse” of one of the nation’s most storied teams. But after missing the playoffs for a second time in three years, and the local and regional expectations spiking during Almeyda’s spell, Fioranelli has decided that it’s time to talk about the current state of his team and its future.
“I really want this team to improve,” are some of his words in what was a near two-hour long open conversation with a trio of journalists. “I really want the fans to believe in the direction that we are headed. I would like ownership to feel confident – as much as the fans – that we are very committed to being competitive. I would like there to be a sense that our club is striving towards a sustainable model. I’m not just speaking from a financial standpoint, but also from a roster-management standpoint. And trust the process throughout, which is part of the reason why I understand that, if the fan up until today has not received enough answers as to the answers they might have, that they look at some of the input that I am willing to share today.”
In charge of the Quakes sporting side during the franchise’s historically-worst season in 2018, Fioranelli’s reputation has been on the chopping block, painted in a bad light by some. Self-inflicted or not, he’s endured pressure and heckling – most notably on Twitter – that very few general managers in MLS endure.
“And our thoughts about how we would like to go into 2020,” he continued. “That we’re doing this all together, because I really care not about doing everything right by everyone, but by being able to earn the trust, I think, that has been at stake in the last three years, in which we have gone through some ups and downs to be able to say, ‘You know what, I believe in the direction that we are going [in].’ I really care about seeing the fans as excited in 2020 as we were in 2019 for some stretches, and I certainly don’t want to disappoint the fan – every single kid that comes to this stadium; every supporter that has been close the club 30, 40 years – to live up to a standard that we are trying to live every single day.”
“I believe a lot in the spirit of the club, and I finally believe that we are doing football. I really do. I’m really proud of the people that have contributed to this process, every single one…”
According to Fioranelli, a former soccer analyst, player agent, and son of a prominent super-agent in Italy during Serie A’s golden age, the team’s cultural progress isn’t universally taken in: 60 to 70 percent of the roster are showing up for non-mandatory workouts during the offseason; players are exchanging heart-to-heart dialogue on WhatsApp groups; and academy coaches are making progress when it pertains to attending and recording all first-team practices.
“This (our organization) is like an organism,” he says, “a living being that you try to take care of and you try to reinforce. From the outside it might be difficult to see all of the dynamics, but it’s important that we believe in that and that we trust it. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to sit down with you today.”
In a rich man’s league, Quakes are banking on a develop-and-sell model
“Each owner can sign a DP and they can spend whatever they want,” Quakes coach Almeyda said recently in an interview with Argentina’s TyC Sports. “Not everyone does it, some do, and that is what marks the difference in the signings.”
For a handful of years, there has been a correlation that reigns supreme in MLS: teams that spend lavishly on their first-team are the teams that win MLS Cup – or clinch playoffs almost at a yearly-rate. With the gap between the haves and have nots widening constantly and exponentially, a chunk of small- and mid-market teams made it clear this offseason that they’re willing to try and keep up with the league’s big spenders.
Sporting Kansas City broke open its purse and shelled out a reported $9.5 million for Mexican striker Alan Pulido. Columbus Crew wired Tigres over $8 million for Lucas Zelarayan, while Vancouver Whitecaps set a franchise record by purchasing Canadian goal scorer Lucas Cavallini from Puebla for $5 million.
Up until a few months ago – four, to be exact – the Quakes had no official word on whether or not Cristian Espinoza’s loan contract had a buyout option. It was the 24-year-old Argentine winger, himself, who “exercised the option for them” by stating to Villarreal that he wanted to make a permanent move to San Jose.
Espinoza, pictured at right, cost San Jose roughly $3 million amid interest from various teams in MLS and abroad. Fioranelli said the player can be worth “double or three times” the investment.
San Jose has a different soccer business vision in mind to stay alive: a develop-and-sell strategy.
Youth development and player trading is far from a new concept in the sport, with shoestring clubs all over the world sticking to the business blueprint for decades, managing to keep up with powerhouses financially and on the field. The Quakes aren’t there yet, but they’re laying the foundation for it.
“We are preparing ourselves for that, there is no doubt about it,” Fioranelli said sternly. “Luckily, we did not have to sell, which is part of the reason why we didn’t have to fill. We have been scouting very actively in South America over the last year. Just recently I came back from a trip, while we were visiting Cristian working out the contract. At one of the places, there were teams from Europe that were actually looking at Marcos Lopez, because he’s going to be a part of the pre-Olympic games in January. They said, ‘You got yourself a great, 19-year-old fullback.’”
“Now, yes, he needs his time,” he added. “Any player – be it Marcos, Jackson (Yueill), Nick (Lima), JT (Marcinkowski), the homegrowns – should have a perspective. I’ll put it in the words of Matias – that I think he already expressed in a press conference – you have to know the time in which the player stands the weight and carry the backpack. We want to protect them. It’s a responsibility we feel with the person before the player. And with the parents as well, right? It’s the first time in three years that the Top-Five clubs (in MLS) had interest in a lot of our players. We choose to go ahead the way we are going ahead. We’re lucky to be able to do that.”
Fioranelli, who said that excessive spending isn’t “sustainable,” explains the Earthquakes’ model with fervor and precision. There are three levels for players in their first-team pyramid: development, contender and starter. The development players, composed mostly of younger players such as homegrowns and draft picks, will either train with the first-team or train and feature with USL affiliates Reno1 868 FC with a clear pathway of rising up the pecking order. Contenders, on the other hand, are stationed in San Jose and are actively fighting for minutes, while starters are awarded playing time in return for robust performance.
The structure has a trickle-up effect, causing for the players to drive and support their and the team’s current and future value. When a younger, more marketable player has sustained himself at the top of the pyramid, the time comes in which the player “graduates from the Earthquakes,” Fioranelli said. Put bluntly, the player gets sold for a profit.
Although that has yet to occur, there are a couple of players approaching that threshold.
For the first time in Quakes history, players are “marketable,” says Fioranelli. Several key players on San Jose’s current roster received “interest” from winning teams in MLS last season and from clubs abroad. Instead of engaging in transfer talks, the team’s front office opted to keep their core together and continue developing the cognitive, physical, tactical, and technical attributes of each player as they go into their second season under Almeyda’s tutelage.
The Black-and-Blue, too, have placed great emphasis on their academy, despite not having an academy facility.
During the offseason, the team announced the arrivals of Emmanuel “Emi” Ochoa, 14, and Casey Walls, 16, respectively, as Homegrown players, joining the likes of Tommy Thompson, Nick Lima, Gilbert Fuentes, JT Marcinkowski, Jacob Akanyirige, and Cade Cowell.
Fioranelli said that their boy’s academy teams – ranging from U12 to U19 – are competing for top-five spots within MLS in all age groups. In efforts to set a top-to-bottom system, Almeyda has all academy sides playing a near-identical system to the first-team’s – intentionally pressuring for the ball, encouraging one-on-ones, and playing out of tough situations from the back – similar to what he ushered in at Chivas.
In three to five years, Fioranelli hopes to have all of the youth “under one roof, in the same city.” But for now, the focus is simple: tapping into the talent hotbed that is Northern California and doubling down on the develop-and-sell model that will keep his team afloat – and potentially within reach of the league’s ever-growing list of big spenders.
“I do believe that that’s how we can become sustainable,” he said. “And this is not just about young player formation. This is not about how do we save money. This is about how can you create value. That’s how some top clubs in South America and Europe have done it. We’re doing it our own way, and we don’t have to compare with any other markets. I believe in it, the coaches, the scouts.”
2020: A similar roster with higher hopes
With a low turnover rate following the 2019 season, the San Jose Earthquakes are set to begin MLS’ 25th season with an identical roster. The same team that fell five points short of clinching playoffs after losing their last six games.
San Jose began building for 2020 over the second half of the season, initiating negotiations with Espinoza, Judson, Florian Jungwirth and Chris Wondowloski – all of whom eventually signed contract extensions. Younger players such as Eric Calvillo and Gilbert Fuentes, who will likely be featuring with Reno permanently next season with other homegrowns, also put pen to paper over the offseason.
A considerable revamp of the roster will have to wait an additional season, with Fioranelli indicating that there will be a “certain turnover heading into 2021.”
From now until then, minimal transfer activity from the Quakes is expected. Fioranelli and Almeyda will, however, add a center-back this winter, presumably to fill in one of the three spots that opened following the departures of Harold Cummings, Francois Affolter and Jimmy Ockford.
Either in the summer or during next winter’s transfer window, they’ll sign a young DP from a top-five “important market” in South America.
San Jose identified “five, six” starting-profile players in MLS that they were willing to bid for, but as Fioranellli notes the teams were uncooperative as they were unwilling to unload their players. In summation, the league’s market has proven to be too limited for the franchise.
So, as the season nears, the Quakes are heading into one of their most important seasons with two DPs in Vako and Espinoza and with an identical supporting cast.
The buzz surrounding the arrival of Almeyda still lingers, safeguarding the high expectations for the team to clinch a first playoff berth in two years.
Fioranelli might have opened the doors to one of the most intimate spaces in his life and for the first time shared a behind-the-scenes look into his San Jose Earthquakes. But even then, he’s unwilling to reveal his rubric for a successful 2020 season.
Perhaps that has everything to do with his unorthodox mantra.
“The way I look at it is what I believe in,” Fioranelli said. “And I do believe that we can have a better start than what we have had in 2019, because we know each other. I do believe that some of the difficulties that we had towards the end of the season – I wouldn’t say that they were self-inflicted – but I do believe that halfway into the season, while there was so much hype around the San Jose Earthquakes, that for us it presented a completely new scenario in which we weren’t accustomed to being in.”
“There were people giving us the possibilities of winning MLS Cup and we had just came off of a very, very challenging season…,” he added. “And so, that’s part of the reason why as we’re heading into 2020, conscious decisions [have been] taken with regards towards the roster because if you were to speak with Matias, Wondo, Flo, even with Shea, Daniel Vega, to any of the players that were showing up here during the offseason, we know we can do better than that, we feel that. I can tell you it’s the first time in three years that we’ve had as much interest in our players by other clubs in MLS than what we’ve had this year, and there were conscious decisions on why we are still together. Partially, because the club wanted it that way. Partially, because the players wanted it that way. I’m not going to set one, single benchmark. I just want to remind ourselves what we lived through in 2019, and why I believe in why we can have a better start, why we can also finish the season better than we did in 2019. That’s how I look at things right now.”