Jesse Fioranelli swears he hasn’t taken a week off since his arrival to San Jose in early 2017.
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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.
The Quakes had a “blockbuster” signing of their own in Espinoza, but it’s unlikely they’ll top their own record signing any time soon, or replicate ambitious statements of intent done by Kansas City, Vancouver, Columbus or the New England Revolution, who came to a realization that it’s either spend or risk being left behind.
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.
During the aforementioned interview with TyC Sports, Almeyda foreshadowed a possible significant change in the league’s Designated Player rule that incentivizes teams to sign DPs under the age of 23. The rule that is reportedly being pushed by small-market owners is certainly influencing the Quakes’ next “big” move.
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.”