There's no pulling out of this death spiral for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Nineteen games into the season, the Quakes have accumulated just 12 points, the fewest in the league. They've managed to beat just one other MLS team in league play this season -- Minnesota United, twice -- and are in the throes of a 11-game winless streak in all competitions.
Captain Chris Wondolowski, ever the diplomat, told ESPN FC that there was "enough blame to go around" for this disaster of a campaign. Fans are calling for the head of manager Mikael Stahre, especially in light of a very public sideline spat he had with midfielder Fatai Alashe during last Saturday's 2-0 loss to the Montreal Impact. Alashe was subbed out at the beginning of the second half, having only just come on for Anibal Godoy with five minutes remaining the first half. He made his displeasure with Stahre's decision clear, and it looked like it might boil over.
The exchange also appeared to hint at a fractured locker room. Multiple sources within the organization insisted to ESPN FC that the team is still playing hard for Stahre, although one source indicated that was limited to those still getting steady playing time under the Swede, which isn't all that unusual on a last-place team.
As for Alashe, a statement from the club indicating that he was injured invited plenty of skepticism, but a Quakes spokesman confirmed that the midfielder suffered a groin strain and will now miss two weeks.
General Manager Jesse Fioranelli (who through a team spokesperson declined to be interviewed for this article) told the San Jose Mercury News that Stahre's job is safe. It makes some sense. Stahre's brief, eight-month tenure means he can only be assigned so much blame, although he's constantly changed formations and personnel in a futile attempt to right the ship. Rather, this debacle is mostly down to the actions of one man, that being Fioranelli himself.
It was Fioranelli who put this roster together. Go down the list of names, and only forward Danny Hoesen has had a good season. Wondolowski remains a club legend, but looking at the rest of the squad, the assessments range from "OK" to "awful".
Even the players know it. Defender/midfielder Florian Jungwirth told Quakes Epicenter that, "If I see the other teams, we have to be honest: most of the teams are better than us. It's simple this year." While that comment didn't endear him to his teammates, he wasn't wrong either.
Nowhere are Fioranelli's missteps more obvious than in the construction of the Quakes' defense. In the midst of a 2017 campaign in which his club conceded 60 goals, Fioranelli began revamping the center of defense. He brought in Francois Affolter in the middle of last season and acquired Yeferson Quintana on loan from Uruguayan side Penarol prior to this campaign. Yet the Quakes have actually gotten worse in this area, and are on pace to ship 69 goals this season. Their current mark of 39 translates to 2.05 goals allowed per game, second worst in the league.
Neither Affolter nor Quintana have proven capable of locking down one of the center-back spots. Jungwirth has seen time in the middle, but prefers to play in midfield. Of late, Stahre has relied on Harold Cummings and Jimmy Ockford, with no improvement. Now yet another-center back, Guram Kashia, has been signed in the hope that he can singlehandedly add some steel to the Quakes' defense. A source familiar with Kashia from his time at previous club Vitesse describes him as "a great leader, but he makes mistakes." That said, he can't do much worse than what's already there.
The left-back position has seen a parade of players -- seven in total -- line up at the spot. Joel Qwiberg was signed to play left-back but he's played more minutes with the team's USL affiliate in Reno than he has in San Jose. Shea Salinas, a converted midfielder, has been forced to play the bulk of the minutes there and continue an experiment that started last season.
"I kind of feel sorry for Shea," said one Quakes source. "He's our best left-back but that's like his third-best position."
The midfield has provided little to no defensive help to the backline, either centrally or out wide. Godoy looks to be suffering from World Cup-itis, and has looked nothing close to the player he was when he first signed in 2015. In terms of expected goals allowed, the Quakes have fared better at 1.60 per game, pointing to some inconsistency in goal as well.
The attack has been better, but still ranks in the bottom half of the league. Vako, with four goals and four assists, hasn't delivered the kind of numbers one would expect from a designated player, which aside from Wondolowski has been typical of Quakes DPs. Magnus Eriksson hasn't been bad, but his three goals and three assists are less than what is needed from a player who Fioranelli shelled out a club-record transfer fee of $1.4 million.
Affolter's pending acquisition of a green card has cleared the way for the team to acquire Kashia, but that still leaves the Quakes with four of their seven international players playing in defense. And unless Fioranelli clears out a player from the senior roster, no more reinforcements are coming.
Fioranelli told the San Jose Mercury News, "I didn't expect to have the challenges we've had. I fell short."
Left unexplained is how exactly Fioranelli is identifying players, particularly those from abroad. After stepping in to manage the team last season following the firing of Dominic Kinnear, Chris Leitch returned to his role as technical director when Fioranelli hired Stahre. Yet multiple sources have indicated that Leitch's primary responsibilities are overseeing the team's USL side, as well as the academy, leaving little time for anything else. In a front office with scant MLS experience, is it any wonder that a manager and GM who are relatively new to the league are struggling to get things right? While far from a cure-all, it's confounding that Fioranelli isn't leaning on Leitch more.
Fioranelli was hired in part for his international connections. He also touted his use of technology as well as partnerships with the German Football Association as a means of gaining an advantage over other MLS teams. Yet other than the signing of Hoesen, his tenure has yet to yield much that is tangible.
Some will no doubt point to the fact that Fioranelli has only been on the job 18 months as proof that he needs more time. But he's also had four transfer windows to sign new players and shed bad contracts like the DP deal given to Simon Dawkins. In that time he has been passed -- and in some cases lapped -- by every other MLS team.
As an organization, the Quakes have a decision to make. Last year's run to the playoffs was supposed to build momentum. But the more Fioranelli has put his stamp on things, the worse the team has done. Former president David Kaval said upon Fioranelli's hiring that it was an appointment for the next five to ten years. But how long can San Jose afford to wait for Fioranelli to get up to speed, assuming of course he ever gets there? The organization is struggling for relevance, especially now that the "new" factor of Avaya Stadium has worn off and sellouts are a thing of the past.
The crash has already taken place. It's unknown precisely who can pick up the pieces.