Years and years ago, I took an MLS coach to task in an article for his playoff strategy - or lack thereof, as I saw it.
Though the San Jose Earthquakes were indeed relocated, my worst fears for Dom Kinnear didn't happen. He did learn from his playoff setbacks and went on to win multiple MLS Cups with the Houston Dynamo.
He also gave me a long, hard look the next time I interviewed him - one that made me guess that he'd read my article (it isn't online any more, but was at the time). However, Dom has always been polite and fair to reporters, and other than that unwavering stare, never said anything to me about my criticisms.
Winning Cups is the best response, anyway. I still stand by what I wrote, however, and still think I'm right about a practical approach to the playoffs instead of the "Win every game, no matter what" view.
The article is quite a trip down memory lane, to a time when the Quakes held more Cups than the Galaxy, when Steve Nicol and Alejandro Moreno weren't on the ESPN FC couch, when Herculez Gomez played for LA. How times have changed in a decade!
Starting just this year, Dom Kinnear is now back in San Jose, so I expect to see a revival of the California Clasico between the Earthquakes and the Galaxy.
Be warned - I used to think the whole point of writing online was not worrying about word count, and the article is long. This was way before Twitter, when I just might have posted, "D. Kinnear took a good team to the playoffs and threw away their chance at a title with poor strategy."
But that would leave out all the juicy details.The San Jose Earthquakes are on the wrong side of Major League Soccer's
playoffs - on the outside looking in, having fallen to their archrivals
the Los Angeles Galaxy by an aggregate score of 4-2. While some may fault
the playoff system of MLS, a large share of the blame lies closer to home.
Simply put, Dominic Kinnear, the Earthquake's leader, failed to lead
his club well when they most needed it.
Part of what makes the story of the 2005 Earthquakes a bittersweet one
is that if ever a team deserved a better ending, this one would seem to be
it. Many on the roster were castoffs from other teams, but in San Jose, they
were able to meld into a formidable unit. The unheralded Earthquakes
combined a deft passing game and a multifaceted attack led by Dwayne De
Rosario to win the regular season. The team was undefeated at home in
league play. Kinnear deserved due credit and praise for this, especially for
guiding the club past the rocky road of early season injuries to key players such as Brian Ching and Troy Dayak.
But that doesn't excuse his poor judgment in the postseason - where the
fight for the true hardware begins. The only trophy offered to the regular
season winners is one presented by the fans themselves - which is why it
is called the Supporter's Shield. It's basically a "Good Job" trophy that
means little if the team can't perform in the games that follow. The true MLS
champion is crowned after winning the final match of the postseason.
Yet Kinnear made a series of inexplicable moves that hobbled his team's
chances to advance and challenge for the Cup. The first one came before
the playoffs even started.
On October 15th, San Jose was so far ahead of the other teams in the
table that it wasn't going to be affected in the playoff standings no matter
the result. The team was playing an away game to finish off the season.
Normally, and especially without the pressure of the home fans, a prescient coach would put out a reserve line-up, keeping top players rested and injury-free for the games that really count. In fact, it's generally considered a luxury that players have earned - a little rest in return for getting so far ahead in the rankings.
Even though he already had two top players, Brad Davis and Wade Barrett,
dealing with injury issues, Kinnear rolled out all of his other stars in the
line-up against the Los Angeles Galaxy, who were also assured of a playoff
berth, but were fighting not to fall to last in the ranks of those teams.
Playing a precise version of their up-tempo attack, the Earthquakes
emerged victorious, 3-1.
Not without a cost, however. Forward Alejandro Moreno was injured during
the game and had to leave the field. Before getting hurt, he had been his
usual self, a tenacious, physical player who drew fouls and battled for balls.
It had been Moreno who had drawn the red card on the Galaxy's veteran
defender, Tyrone Marshall in the game. With the backline stalwart gone, San Jose was able to capitalize and score all their goals after Marshall's dismissal.
The win, though, seemed a hollow one strategically. The Galaxy dropped to
fourth in the Western conference, and would thus be the opponents for the
Earthquakes in the first round of the playoffs, a home and home series.
Though Los Angeles had been an inconsistent team all season long, they
were the only squad in MLS to have a win over San Jose on the Earthquake's
home field of Spartan Stadium, when they triumphed over their northern
neighbors in the Open Cup quarterfinals. Besides the folly of risking injury to
key starters, it simply didn't make sense to give the one team that managed
the feat, two chances to get it right again.
Because, simply put, Los Angeles is an impressive home team - the bobble
in the regular season's final game notwithstanding. All year they had been
labeled as talented, but underachieving, especially given their marquee
player, former Earthquake and U.S. international Landon Donovan. The
Earthquakes' win against the Galaxy seemed to have sparked something in
the Green-and-Gold players, though.
On October 23, LA came out charged, hungry and eager in their first
playoff match against San Jose. An impressive Pablo Chinchilla stepped in
admirably for the suspended Marshall, and a recharged Cobi Jones was feeding
crosses to Donovan and the surprising Herculez Gomez. The small, but speedy
forwards were consistently able to beat the San Jose defenders assigned to mark them, especially the still-recovering Barrett. Goals by the duo put Los
Angeles up 2-0 in the first half.
San Jose was both complacent and unimaginative in their attack. Kinnear
did not seem to have instilled any sense of playoff urgency in his squad,
which sorely missed the creative, scrappy play of Moreno. Rico Clark was the
Quake player who was consistently hustling, but his eager play was thwarted by
his tendency to shoot from long range. Moreno was finally subbed in by
Kinnear, but it was clear his injury was a factor in hampering his execution.
The Earthquakes had a chance, though, when a Galaxy error on a clearance
gifted Clark a shot that he hammered home.
At that point, the Earthquakes only faced a one-goal deficit on aggregate, a
small enough obstacle, especially given the friendly confines of Spartan
Stadium. It would have made perfect sense for the Earthquakes to play to
hold the result, and make the Galaxy chase the game. LA would probably
want to do so, to try to take a bigger lead into the second leg.
On the field, though, it was San Jose pushing the ball into the Galaxy area,
leaving a lot of space in the back. Kinnear should have seen the danger
this created, especially when Donovan tore past his defender to collect a
pass in the penalty area. He was tripped up, but San Jose dodged a bullet when
no call was made. Despite the clear warning given by that particular play,
Kinnear made no adjustment. Thus, it was not too surprising to soon see
Jones knock a long pass where Donovan could outrace his defender, tap
the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper Pat Onstad, and then calmly head the
ball home to reclaim the two-goal lead.
Kinnear blamed "pride" for the San Jose tactics, but it was an amateur
mistake to treat the first of two games as if it was a one-off that had
to be won. It didn't - but a smaller loss would have made a big difference.
"Our determination to get goals and to win the game - it hasn't been a
fault until that last play," he argued. "We got caught on it. I think our
attitude is always to go forward."
A wise coach manages the tactics to fit the situation, but the
predictable approach of the Earthquakes was becoming a liability. This showed
especially in the final game of the series on the 29th of October. Under no
obligation to impress the Earthquake fans who booed them at every opportunity, the Galaxy put in a workmanlike, defense-oriented effort aimed at killing the San Jose rhythm and style of play, while knocking up quick counter
efforts to Donovan and Gomez. The plan worked to perfection, limiting San Jose's attacks, especially through De Rosario. Kinnear could not seem to adjust
to the strategy.
Even when a clearance mistake by Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman helped
set up Mullan's cross for an Earthquake goal, the Galaxy kept their cool and
stuck to the game plan, holding San Jose from the aggregate equalizer.
Donovan finally pulled the trigger on his playoff magic skills, threading a
perfect pass between two defenders to Ned Grabavoy. The midfielder's
strike put LA's advantage at two goals again.
Galaxy coach Sampson then switched gears, pulling Grabavoy in favor of
the taller Alan Gordon, and adjusting the formation to move him to a target
forward spot. The Earthquake defenders who had beaten the small forwards
to the long balls launched out to them suddenly had to contend with a
player who could battle with them in the air. This again complicated their
ability as a team to go forward.
Two goals is not an insurmountable lead - as the New England Revolution
proved in their playoff game against the Metrostars. Already frustrated,
however, the Earthquakes now seemed to panic slightly, creating fouls
and more disjointed play. Instead of calming his squad, Kinnear compounded
Gomez had fallen on the field and referee Alex Prus whistled a foul. The
ball, meanwhile, rolled to the Earthquake bench, where former U.S.
national team player Kinnear kicked the ball toward Gomez and hit him.
While Prus did not add any penalty for this action, it did not in any
way indicate a leader in control of his emotions and holding the belief that
his team could rally to change the outcome. Kinnear's petulant behavior
admitted a defeat of sorts before the game ever ended. There would be no inspired rally from the Earthquakes, as the game ended on a 1-1 draw.
Some may consider Donovan as the tipping point in the series, since he
regularly elevates his game so much in the playoffs. Still, Kinnear had
Donovan on his squad in last year's playoffs - and San Jose proceeded to
lose a two-goal lead against the Kansas City Wizards because of their
inability to do what the Galaxy pulled off this year - a sustained game
plan to protect a result in the second leg of a home-and-home series.
It doesn't naturally follow that Kinnear, who pulled together a squad to
produce such a quality regular season, could be shown up in coaching
tactics by Sampson. Nevertheless, the playoffs are a different animal. As a head
coach, Kinnear has twice proven unable to tame that beast - once when he
had Donovan, and again when he seemed to have a better team even without
Donovan. He has won a single game in the postseason, and lost the
aggregate series in both tries.
After the game, Kinnear derided the Galaxy's style of play, but left out
the most important adjective description - effective.
The San Jose players, meanwhile, spoke of the pressure they felt all
game long as the two goals they had to overcome loomed large and led to
frantic, rushed play on their part.
The gold standard for playoff coaching in MLS, now that Bruce Arena has
moved on, would probably be Steve Nicol, who always seems to have his
Revolution teams gelling at the right time. His team managed to escape
the difficult conditions of Giants stadium with only a one-goal deficit.
While they conceded another goal in their home game, Nicol had the guts to
change tactics, bringing in rookie Khano Smith for an injured Marshall Leonard.
The move paid off when the fleet Smith struck for the gamewinner after Jose
Cancela and Pat Noonan scored.
The Earthquakes might cease to exist as a team this year, and the
players and coaching staff may scatter. Kinnear remains a viable candidate for
any position, due to his quality accomplishments, especially this year in
the regular season. For those who wish for post-season success, though, his
track record may give them pause.