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The San Jose Earthquakes are quietly becoming MLS’s most German team

Written by Will Parchman

San Jose Quakes take on the Seattle Sounders FCduring the U.S. Open Cup 16th Round.

The Premier League is not a model. It is not an architectural blueprint left on the table for enterprising leagues to prod into, a nicked business framework here, an aped monetary model there. Much like players attempting to become Leo Messi, there is no amount of self-sustainment that can get you to the Premier League. It is simply money, ambition and circumstance. There is nothing to follow in this. Just to enjoy.

The Bundesliga is different, even if the gradients are slighter and the scale reaches beyond what building leagues can grasp. They promote young, play consistently and have holistic policies reaching into the guts of their academies. And if you need proof, look at their daring anti-ageist approach to hiring coaches.

This season, six of the Bundesliga’s 18 teams will begin the year with a coach in their 30’s. Julian Nagelsmann, the most famous and youngest of these, doesn’t turn 30 until later this year and has Hoffenheim in the Champions League this fall. Why German clubs insist on doing this, on hiring on average five years younger than any other major league in Europe, is a matter of culture. Namely, it is a matter of youth culture. From the aforementioned Archie Rhind-Tutt article.

Neither Nagelsmann nor any of his five fellow German compatriots had experience of being a Bundesliga coach prior to their current roles but each of them had worked in a Bundesliga youth academy, with four promoted directly from roles within their current club’s coaching set up to then head up the first team.

In other words, clubs are placing an emphasis on how coaches have been able to develop talent in the past. In some cases, that then allows the coaches to promote young talent that they’ve worked with in that club’s own academy – one such example with Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim is Nadiem Amiri, a European Under 21 Champion this summer with Germany.

This phenomenon has accelerated of late, but it is not a particularly new idea in Germany. Jurgen Klopp, remember, was 33 when he was given his first major coaching job with Mainz in 2001. Thomas Tuchel, when given the same chance to launch his own career with the same club eight years later, was just 35.

This is certainly part of the German soccer culture, but it’s also a choice. A series of choices, really, stacked one on top of the other like bricks sandwiched between mortar. Unlike the Premier League, it’s a capable albeit scaled choice within reach. And though it’s early days in the Jesse Fioranelli Project, the San Jose Earthquakes, those San Jose Earthquakes, have begun walking this most German of pathways.

And, so far anyway, it’s been a thing to behold.

Even before Fioranelli fired Dominic Kinnear in June, expelling the man who represented MLS’s ancient of days, you could feel that there would be little place for Kinnear here. Kinnear was brilliant in how he manipulated the MLS rosters of the 2000’s. He engineered some of the best trades of the decade and crafted a small dynasty in a league that hates dynasties by trading, poaching off the draft bed and trawling for overlooked domestic players. But with the dizzying infusion of cash, which brought about a somewhat staggering bevy of new ways to acquire players, Kinnear had fallen away. There was now too much in the way of foreign acquisition, too many moving parts for him to keep pace. MLS still has miles to go, but if allocation money did anything, it was to lasso Europe’s acquisition practices and haul them a little bit closer in.

The Quakes, under Fioranelli, signed Jahmir Hyka from FC Luzern, Florian Jungwirth from SV Darmstadt, Marco Ureña from IF Brondby. Danny Hoesen joined on loan from FC Groningen. At No. 6 overall, they drafted scintillating UCLA playmaker Jackson Yueill after drafting a goalkeeper and a holding midfielder first the previous two years under Kinnear despite having a glaring need at neither position (both have been good, if predictable positionally vis-à-vis Kinnear, for what it’s worth). Yueill was widely reported to be Fioranelli’s pick.

But the real meat on San Jose’s bone, or at least the biggest difference in the organizational nomenclature these days, is in the academy. And this is where the Quakes become as German in ethos as any club in MLS.

When I talked to Fioranelli earlier this year, about five weeks before he fired Kinnear, he left no doubt about the academy’s primacy in his future plans. He told me San Jose plans to break ground on a new facility soon, and his carefully chosen word here – backbone – leaves nothing to the imagination.

“The youth academy will be the backbone of our club,” Fioranelli said. “Ownership has completely bought into this. We are looking into a youth academy complex as well that will be a significant investment that we’re really excited about. The youth talents here in the area have to have a perspective provided by an MLS club, so we’re taking it very seriously.”

San Jose lagged terribly behind most of the rest of the league in academy integration, boasting barely two Homegrowns (Nick Lima had just signed) by the time Fioranelli arrived. But the academy was slowly ramping up under the watch of Chris Leitch, who ran it from 2012-2015 and then oversaw its continued progress from 2015 while operating also as the broader team TD. In this time, the Earthquakes managed to raise up some truly important talent, and not just Lima and Thompson; names like Arda Bulut, Amir Bashti, Andrew Paoli. The Quakes are producing first team candidates at a quickening pace, and Leitch, it should be said, had a heavy hand in helping that wheel to turn.

It was out of this swift-running stream that Leitch was poached to assume Kinnear’s former position. Leitch is 38, making him one of the youngest first-time coaches in MLS history. His post-playing history was mostly spent overseeing the development of young players. And he has the mandate of the front office because of all those things.

This, friends, is what coaching promotion and team-building looks like in the Bundesliga. Pay attention to those things here.

“Chris is the ideal person to take the role for the Earthquakes at this time,” Fioranelli said. “He has a history with the club and has very good knowledge of our entire development pipeline from the youth teams, through PDL and USL up to the first team. He combines that with a shared vision for the club’s identity that we have been developing for the past months. Chris and Alex give us two very good soccer minds with a desire to make this club one of the best in MLS.”

Keywords: History with the club. Development pipeline. Shared vision. Club’s identity. And of course there’s this, a literal collaboration between the Quakes front office and the DFB as a knowledge exchange.

The results, so far anyway, have been stirring. The Quakes flipped the switch about as fast as any team in history from being almost entirely unwatchable to absolutely tap-dancing on opponents’ souls. Go watch back San Jose’s 3-2 win over the LA Galaxy in the US Open Cup quarters and behold. Leitch started Tommy Thompson, Nick Lima and Jackson Yueill, the Holy Quakes Youth Triumvirate, and the Quakes ran the Galaxy out of the building. With all apologies to Atlanta United, there might not be a more enjoyable watch in all of MLS than San Jose at the present moment.

This is a sort of risk most MLS teams have been historically loathe to make. It takes more than a simple blueprint to do what Fioranelli and Leitch have planned. It takes ideology, or an unwavering belief that you can build something out of miry clay. These sorts of projects rise and fall and then reset in Germany all the time, but the framework is left behind for whoever slides in next.

This, ultimately, is Fioranelli’s vision. And right now, it looks every bit as fun as its Bundesliga cousins.

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