An unforeseen hot steak. A reinvigorated fan base. A dormant franchise suddenly catapulted into playoff contention.
No, we’re not talking about the San Francisco Giants. The Bay Area’s hottest pro team this summer has been the San Jose Earthquakes, a former laughingstock that needed mere weeks to morph into one of the strongest clubs in Major League Soccer.
The Earthquakes have lost just twice since May 11, rallying behind first-year coach Matías Almeyda to establish themselves as legitimate contenders with less than two months left on the regular-season docket. Last weekend’s 2-1 defeat in Colorado dropped San Jose (11-8-5) to fourth place in the Western Conference, but that leaves them firmly in the playoff hunt with a road game against Sporting Kansas City on tap Saturday night.
On Aug. 3 the Chronicle conducted an exclusive interview with Earthquakes General Manager Jesse Fioranelli. Now in his third year with San Jose, the 39-year-old Switzerland native is enjoying his club’s resurgence after enduring a disastrous 2018 campaign that saw the Earthquakes finish in last place with a 4-21-9 record, the worst mark in franchise history.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
San Francisco Chronicle: That 2018 season must have been brutal for everyone involved. Had you ever experienced anything like that before in your career or your life?
Jesse Fioranelli: I think all of us didn’t experience something like this, whether it be a player, a person in the front office, a fan. We were all in a very vulnerable position. That was tough because it’s not about me — it’s about the people that I work with day-in and day-out that are exposed to questions, to criticism and so on. What I’m grateful for is the trust that I think we received from ownership throughout the process to stick this out. When we went into the 2019 season, we only made four signings. We kept the group intact. Both Matías and I were convinced that was a group of players that will turn around. Nobody could have known that we would be trending the way we are trending right now. What I think it really comes down to is that we go into training and into games and into our office not thinking that we deserve to win, but we work hard to earn wins.
SFC: Do you think it was in part a lack of MLS experience from the front office that contributed to the poor season?
JF: It could be that being familiar with MLS could have helped in 2018, by having players that were American throughout that period of time. … Not only was I new to MLS but (former coach) Mikael Stahre was new to MLS. I think we were very vulnerable for the fact that if I now compare to Matías… Mikael did not fall back onto a coaching staff that he had worked with previously. So for them there was an adjustment that was not only getting used to MLS and San Jose but it was also getting used to working with each other. In hindsight I think knowing the coaching staff members and the people that we were working with, we firmly believed in them, and I know how committed they were. But I do believe that with the decisions that I took, I certainly put us in a position where we were exposed. I’m very happy, though, that at the year’s end we believed in the process and we believed in the players. Nine out of the 11 starters today are the same players as 2018.
SFC: What do you think attracted Matías Almeyda to the Earthquakes?
JF: I met Matías a year-and-a-half ago. We had very open conversations. He was not just known for what he had done in Chivas (Guadalajara) but also in Argentina. He had taken on a club in Mexico that at the time when he took over had big difficulties, big challenges, a half-empty stadium. They didn’t have a game identity and certainly didn’t have titles. … Throughout the time we were in contact with him, I think he saw in us a similar challenge to Chivas, and he said MLS is growing. One day it might even out-compete Mexico, but for the time being he has a club with values, a club that wants to invest in him and believes also in every single coaching staff member that joined us, and that’s a big coaching staff. That was very important to him.
SFC: It was important that you allowed him to bring on whoever he wanted?
JF: Yes, they’re a family. He takes care of the guys, and his wife is very close to all the wives and the kids. Together they move. They don’t split up.
SFC: So it’s the exact same coaching staff he had in Guadalajara?
JF: 80%, yes. Matias kept every single coach who wanted to continue this ride with him.
SFC: How did you hear about him originally?
JF: Matías I already knew, just from a name perspective, when I was 15, 16, 17 years old. My father had already worked with Lazio and was very close to the club. It’s a complete coincidence, but my father had transferred Matías from Sevilla to Lazio (in 1996). He was an agent that represents players. But the fact that we met two years ago was a complete coincidence because there was a player inside of our team, Andrés Imperiale, who had a friend who knew Matías really well. So it was his friend, Sebastian Salazar, introduced us to Matías, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s Matías from back then.’ He already represented a lot of the values as a player as he does right now as a coach. He was special.
SFC: Did he know anything about the Earthquakes when you met him?
JF: He knew about the Earthquakes. He was back then in the midst of a season. These were very open conversations without us making any commitment to each other. There was interest, but more importantly, I think we hit it off from day one. One of the reasons it is important for us to be working with Matías now is that he’s a partner. He’s a partner in this club, and he’s very vested in the direction that we’re going.
SFC: What makes Matías special? What do you think it is about him that inspires players to play so hard for him?
JF: The first thing is that he can completely relate with the situation that the players are going through as players and as people. And he is open enough that he will share things from his career as a player with the group so that they know he’s been in their shoes, or maybe he’s experienced even more things in a different way. And the second thing I believe is he’s asked the players to enjoy the game again. They had come off of a very difficult season — all of us did. He encouraged them to listen to music in the locker room, for instance. He wants players to engage and communicate with each other regardless of your origin. The less you do it, the more you become, in a group that is forming, isolated. He really does pay attention to making sure there is no player that is left behind.
SFC: On June 25 you signed Chivas winger Carlos Fierro, the Earthquakes’ most celebrated Mexican acquisition in years. What special qualities does Fierro bring to the team?
JF: I think that Carlos is a player that has experience on a high level, but most important he has a quickness, a technical ability and also a quality to be able to attack the space. By contrast, Vako is more of a player that takes players one-on-one. But in Matías’ game, the ability to attack deep, to stretch the defensive line and at times also not only try to veer towards the center but to go deep on the wings is something that has proven to be very valuable as to how we produce goals. One good example is Cristian Espinoza. He has done very well doing just that. On the other side, we have Shea Salinas. He’s been fantastic. And so the way we look at it is we want to equip the team from one transfer period to the next to become stronger and more unpredictable.
SFC: For a team located in an area with a sizable Mexican-American population, the Earthquakes do not have a history of signing many high-profile Mexican players. How much did that play into pursuing Fierro?
JF: We don’t sign a player just because he comes from a specific country. We sign a player in general because he will reinforce the team. … With Fierro I think what really drew our attention were a few things, and it’s similar to Andrés (Ríos): the fact that he’s very invested in the style of play that Matías has, and he came here also because of Matías. Andrés was committed, and not only committed but so excited to join this team, and that’s really who we are and who we want to be in the future. It’s not about your name or your origin or your age. … When it comes to identifying talent, I think that we have over the last two-and-a-half years since I’ve been here, we have paid a lot of attention to the Mexican market. But the fact of the matter is it has to fit in with the team, with the position, with the criteria, with the cap. For these transfers to actually come to fruition, you will see sometimes it taking six months. On Fierro, we were interested in Carlos a year-and-a-half ago.
SFC: Unlike, for example, the LA Galaxy, the Earthquakes have seldom been a club that pursues high-profile stars. As your team gathers momentum this year, will you be looking to change that dynamic in any way?
JF: We will never exclude the possibility to sign a top-name player, in the same way we didn’t exclude the possibility to sign a top-tier coach. That was an ambitious move from the club in one of the more difficult situations that our club has been in. That’s why I love to come to work, and we do in general, is the fact that what we’re doing is genuine. Matías has said it a couple of times: He doesn’t like stars that much because they are too far to be able to reach. And I can fully understand because we’re with our two feet on this ground and we commit to each other and we believe in the process. So we will try to continue to reinforce it one training, one game, one player at a time. I really hope that the Earthquakes will never have to rely on one single player to win a game.