Killion: Wondo's absence an odd blessing for Quakes


Killion: Wondo's absence an odd blessing for Quakes


Coverage begins Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.

Ann Killion

Can you have a must win game in just the second month of a seven-month season?

The San Jose Earthquakes might have exactly that Saturday night in Chicago. The game against the Fire is an important game for San Jose, because its the last time in a potentially long time that the Earthquakes will have the services of their best player, Chris Wondolowski.

And, no offense to the Earthquakes, but Wondos upcoming absence is the best thing thats ever happened in his career.

Its probably right at the top, Wondolowski said Thursday. Its a pretty big deal.

Its a huge deal. At 28, Wondolowski was tapped for the U.S. national team. The Livermore native and De La Salle High School product will play alongside the best players in the country (all of whom are available because the European season is over), in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. If the tournament goes as hoped -- all the way to the final -- Wondolowski wont play again for the Earthquakes until early July.

I have full confidence in the team, Wondolowski said. Were playing really well. The defense is playing unbelievably. And were healthy now.

The Earthquakes, after a stumbling start, would like to get out of May without a loss. So far, the team has won three and tied two. A win in Chicago would give the team momentum heading into Junes four matches, which may all be played Wondo-free.

The U.S. team will play in Group C against Canada, Panama and Guadeloupe. Wondolowski is one of three forwards named to the team, along with World Cup standout Jozy Altidore and emerging 18-year old star Juan Agudelo.

As a warm-up act before the Gold Cup gets started, the U.S. national team will play a friendly against Spain in Foxborough, Mass. on June 4. Just a little get together with the World Cup champions; players on the field: David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Iker Casillas.

And Wondolowski. Of course.

Its all part of the unreal year that Wondolowski has been having. After getting his first significant playing time in his seven-year career last season, Wondolowski didnt waste his opportunity. He scored 18 goals, winning the MLS Golden Boot award. During the winter, he was called in to the national team camp. And a week ago, he was named to the national team roster by coach Bob Bradley, to play in the first significant post-World Cup tournament.

So, at 28, has Wondolowski changed?

Not really, he said. I have the same mentality, the same attitude. I just try to get better every day as a player.

Its a little bit of everything. Ive grown as a player. Ive learned a lot. I never had the opportunity to play on a consistent basis. Now I am and it helps build confidence.

This is the beauty of MLS. It can give a guy like Wondolowski a chance to play against the best competition in the world.

MLS is not a great place for the very best, already established American players. Most young Americans who get the chance go and test themselves overseas, against the best competition in the world.

The only one who hasnt, Landon Donovan, should have. In response to a report that AS Romas new American owner was interested in Donovan, Donovans agent Richard Motzkin tweeted, Appreciate the interest but why would @landondonovan leave MLS for the same salary?

Why? Gee, I dont know. For the competition, the challenge, the prestige, the ability to play against AC Milan and Juventus rather Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake?

For a player like Donovan, MLS doesnt present a challenge, just a marketing opportunity. But for guys like Wondolowski, MLS is a place to showcase his talents and get the chance of a lifetime.

Who knows what will happen next for Wondo? He wouldnt rule out considering playing in Europe if an intriguing situation came up. He wants to help the Earthquakes get back to the playoffs for the second straight season.

But for the immediate future, hell play with and against some of the best players in the world. Its one more stop on his amazing journey.

Freelance writer Ann Killion is a regular contributor to and Chronicle Live.

Earthquakes players react to Kinnear's firing, Leitch's promotion

Earthquakes players react to Kinnear's firing, Leitch's promotion

There are few players in Major League Soccer who are as synonymous with their club as Chris Wondolowski is with the San Jose Earthquakes. 

So it speaks to the current climate that is the Quakes when on Monday an emotional Wondolowski fought back tears and apologized as he cut an interview with media members short as he attempted to discuss the firing of Dominic Kinnear. 

The forward, who has played for Kinnear in San Jose and Houston, apologized as he walked away from the scrum on the training pitch back to the team locker room inside Avaya Stadium. 

The news that Kinnear is gone after 2 1/2 seasons with the club hit the players just as shockingly as the team’s fans on Sunday. And on Monday, while general manager Jesse Fioranelli did his best to clarify the intention behind his decision, players and new head coach Chris Leitch tried to steady the ship as the organization is confronted with the only truth that matters: the show must go on. 

“Still swirling, whirling — didn’t see it coming,” Wondolowski said about Kinnear’s firing. “I thought it was a bit interesting. I owe Dom and (assistant head John Spencer) where I am today. So, it’s definitely tough.” 

"We found out as a team Sunday morning,” said longtime Quakes midfielder Shea Salinas. “Came as a surprise to us as it did probably most of you. This is definitely unexpected. And my first reaction is just a little bit of remorse and sadness for Dom and John Spencer. They love this club, they love our team. They wanted us to win and they were doing everything in their power to do so. And I think that’s important to remember, that these guys poured every once of energy into this team.

“We got to speak with Dom [Monday] morning. I haven’t spoken to him personally. He came in and addressed the locker room and just gave us his best wishes and it was really nice and professional of him to have hear what he had to say."

“I hope everyone uses this as a signal to reflect on his own play [during] the first half of this season,” said newcomer and 2017 revelation Florian Jungwirth. “Everyone knows they can do better and like I said, I hope everyone uses it as a signal.” 

The Quakes were riding high after defeating Real Salt Lake on Saturday night 2-1 and propelling themselves back into the MLS playoff race — a place they haven’t visited since 2012. But, according to Fioranelli, the decision to fire Kinnear had been made the week prior after two-to-three months of internal consideration. And regardless of the win or where the Quakes currently sit on the table (fifth in the Western Conference), the time for change at the top was necessary. 

“First, most importantly, it’s the respect we have for Dominic and what he’s done here for this group,” Leitch said. “And I know that respect is shared by everyone in that locker room.”

“Change is scary. And change is also exciting,” Salinas said. "It’s a balance. it’s the same guys in the locker room. We have the same objective. We’re going to go out there to give it our all to win every game.”

Leitch, who will step over from his role as the club’s technical director to front the team on the pitch, echoed his players’ sentiments as the organization looks to turn the page. He’ll attempt to do so with the help of Alex Cavelo, as he'll fill in for John Spencer who was let go along with Kinnear. 

“I’ve been around this club an awfully long time,” Leitch said. “I know a lot about this club. It sure means a whole hell of a lot to me. So, my focus is squarely on that and reaching our goals for this season.”

Without going into specifics, the first-time MLS head coach said the talk of his becoming the team’s head coach started just recently. 

“You always want to be as close as you can to the game so, coaching is extremely interesting as that is the closest part to the game,” Leitch said. “When you work for a club, you do whatever the club wants, you do whatever the clubs need. So in this case, this is what the club needs. It’s always the goal to help the club in the biggest way possible.”

“Chris Leitch is not just the bridge. He is part of the foundation of this club,” Fioranelli said. “For that reason, we did want someone to come from abroad and take over this team We wanted someone that cares, someone that knows the players, knows the team to take on this important next chapter.

“He’s absolutely equipped to take on this challenge,” Fioranelli said, adding that the idea of hiring internally, while sending a message of promotion from within the organization all the way down to the club’s youth endeavors, played a huge part in naming Leitch the head coach.  

While off the pitch, part of the plan is to send a confident message from the general manager all the way down to the season ticket holders, in between the lines, the Quakes face a mountain-esque task of three games in eight days and the pressures that come with being a club that promised improvements to its fanbase since opening a new stadium a pair of seasons ago. 

“My confidence rests in these players,” Leitch said. “I know this is a damn good group. I know that setting expectations anything lower than playoffs is going to be lower than what this group wants.

“Goals are quite simple, they’re all collective. First one is make the playoffs, the second one is we got to make the playoffs and the third one after that is we got to make the playoffs. To say anything less would be to minimize the group that’s in that locker room.” 

Earthquakes GM defends firing coach: 'I think this team can achieve more'

Earthquakes GM defends firing coach: 'I think this team can achieve more'

SAN JOSE -- There was a lot of confusion coming out of San Jose on Sunday afternoon when the Earthquakes announced they had fired Dominic Kinnear midway through his third season with the club. 

On Monday, new general manager Jesse Fioranelli did his best to stabilize a shaky situation. 

“In the last two, three months, I matured a gut feeling as to where we stand as a club,” Fioranelli said about the catalyst for his decision. “When I realized that, heading into the next season, we would not renew with Dominic Kinnear, I said to myself that we wouldn’t want to hold onto this for the remainder of the season — especially also because I have a personal relationship that I very much appreciated in Dominic. And the respect that I have in this relationship would not have allowed me to want to go for another three months knowing that we would have parted ways at the end of the season.”

The timing of Kinnear’s departure was undoubtedly the most confusing part of Sunday’s announcement. The Quakes, who sit fifth in the Western Conference standings, had just beaten Real Salt Lake 2-1 on Saturday night. According to reports, Kinnear was summoned by Fioranelli on Sunday morning and shortly thereafter, he was informed that he would no longer be the head coach. Fioranelli said that it's a decision he had pondered for a couple of months and made the week before. So, despite the win and possible perception, the new GM knew he had to follow through with his decision with conviction.

“I think this team can achieve more,” Fioranelli said. “I think that we have still a story to tell as to the young players we have on the roster. I believe we have a story to tell as to how we want to present ourselves when we play away. I believe that we will want to mature a certainty as to our identity on the field.”

It’s a lack of identity that helped Fioranelli mature the idea of making the switch 17 matches into an MLS season that, if it ended today, would have San Jose in the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

According to Quakes midfielder Shea Salinas, the decision came as a shock to players. The midfielder added that Kinnear addressed the locker room Monday morning. 

Kinnear started his second stint as head coach of the Earthquakes in 2015 and led San Jose to a 27-31-27 record in that time. Including his first term as head coach with San Jose in 2004 and 2005, his all-time record with the Quakes is 54-45-48. Kinnear led San Jose to the Supporters' Shield in 2005 and helped the Quakes break in Avaya Stadium in 2015, improving the club's point total by 17 in his first year over the previous season.

Taking over for Kinnear is first-time head coach Chris Leitch, who after retiring from professional soccer in 2011, has worn many hats for the Quakes since joining the organization in 2012. Before being named the head coach, he was in charge of the Earthquakes’ youth academy system, was the club’s technical director and even its interim general manager after the firing of John Doyle. 

“Chris Leitch is not just the bridge. He is part of the foundation of this club,” Fioranelli said. “For that reason, we did not want someone to come from abroad and take over this team We wanted someone that cares, someone that knows the players, knows the team to take on this important next chapter. He’s absolutely equipped to take on this challenge.

“All I can tell you is, the moment that I confronted Chris (with the opportunity to be the new head coach) he did not hesitate a moment. And he had not been waiting for this either. I can just tell you, when you are working day-in and day-out on several different important areas, you’ll grow a certainty as to how you will see the game, how you would like to develop the game, how you would like to see the players confront situations on the field, how you’d want to communicate.”

The learning curve will come steep and quick for Leitch. The Quakes are not only battling for a spot in the playoffs, but they’re in a middle of stretch has has them playing three games in the next eight days — a U.S. Open Cup bout with reigning MLS champion Seattle, a Stanford Cali Clasico battle with longtime rival L.A. and then a cross country trip to Atlanta.