National Writer: Charles Boehm

Why San Jose Earthquakes dismissed Luchi Gonzalez & what's next

Luchi Gonzalez - San Jose Earthquakes

The numbers behind the San Jose Earthquakes’ woeful 2024 campaign are daunting.

Last place in both the Western Conference and overall MLS standings with just 11 points from their first 19 matches. One of three clubs with just three wins to date, and a league-worst 14 losses. Far and away the most goals conceded in MLS at 51, and the worst goal differential at -22. Zero clean sheets, and 20 points dropped from winning positions.

The sheer weight of it all spelled the end of Luchi Gonzalez’s tenure as head coach. The former FC Dallas boss was dismissed from his post on Monday with a 13W-24L-16D record, and general manager Chris Leitch believes their current group is capable of a great deal more.

“It's time to make a change. It’s a result-oriented business; we weren't getting the results,” Leitch told reporters in a Monday afternoon media availability.

“I think the team is looking forward to a change of pace, change of voice,” he later added. “We've been competitive in a lot of these games. We've been competitive for large stretches in these games. However, we haven't done enough to get the results over the 90 minutes enough times. So the hope is that we continue to some of the good stuff that we're doing that Luchi and the staff and his team has shown that we're able to do, and then add on to that.”

Defensive issues

While Saturday’s 6-2 demolition at the hands of West leaders LAFC apparently wasn’t a tipping point, the nature of the rout epitomized many of the season’s shortcomings in San Jose.

“It wasn't a good game against LAFC. For me, it was the first time we really got thumped,” Leitch said. “Now that being said, we're playing away, we're playing against one of the better teams in the league, but it was just the body of work, especially this year.”

It’s probably not surprising that addressing the “alarming amount of goals” conceded is the top priority for Ian Russell, the longtime assistant promoted to interim coach. He’ll get a baptism by fire this weekend, with San Jose hosting their California Clasico rivals the LA Galaxy – who are 5-1 since late May – at Stanford Stadium on Saturday night (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), traditionally the biggest home fixture of the Quakes’ season.

“We're giving up too many goals. I think we’ve given up over 50 goals already this year, that’s more than we gave up all last year,” said Leitch of the side’s defensive fragility. “We need to turn losses into ties, ties into wins … Ian is a proven winner. He knows how to win. I think he's going to approach some things differently, maybe a little more practicality, simplifying some things.

“When you're giving up that many goals, I think the first thought is probably on the back four or the goalkeeper. I don't believe that's the case,” he noted. “Defending is a whole team effort. So by the time the ball gets to our backline, as Ian said this morning, that backline should be at times only picking up the scraps.”

Russell at the helm

A Quakes midfielder during his playing career, Russell played well over 100 matches for San Jose during their early-2000s salad days at Spartan Stadium, helping the club win the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cups and the ‘05 Supporters’ Shield. He’s spent the majority of his coaching life on their technical staff, including a solid stint in charge of USL Championship outfit Reno 1868, the Quakes’ developmental affiliate from 2017-20.

While Russell has not officially been given the rest of the season to prove himself, Leitch sounded inclined to see what he can do.

“He's also been a part of every major thing this club has won, in ‘01 and ‘03 as a player with the two MLS Cups that we won, and then again in '05 as a player with the Supporters’ Shield, and again in 2012 a Supporters’ Shield, so he's been around some of the high points of this club,” Leitch said of Russell.

“As a head coach with Reno he did a really good job in the four years there. He made the playoffs all four of those years, he was up for a Coach of the Year finalist in three of those four years; he won USL Championship\] Coach of the Year in 2020 \[alongside current [D.C. United boss Troy Lesesne], he has a plus-97 [career] goal differential. So those are indicators that Ian knows how to win. Obviously, he knows this club really well and understands the spirit of this club, and he's got a lot of pride for this club.”

Summer plans

The GM was markedly more guarded about the possibility of acquiring reinforcements in the upcoming summer transfer window.

“We're always looking to improve this roster. At the same time, we also feel like this roster is a stronger one than what we've been able to show. So we feel like this roster has underperformed that part of it,” said Leitch.

Sitting in the middle of one of the most talent-rich youth soccer regions in North America, the Quakes have recently devoted more focus to their academy; Gonzalez’s extensive player-development résumé was a key factor in his hiring last year. Yet Leitch pumped the brakes on the suggestion that the first team’s current plight could provide opportunities for rising homegrown prospects.

“It's always in consideration. I think as a club right now, we need to get results, right, so that's going to be the first order of business,” he said. “Our concentration right now is supporting Ian and making sure that our team, and the experienced players within our roster, are put in positions to optimize their potential. But within there, we also have young, young players.

“Ian has a history in player development as well. He understands our academy. He knows these young players. He's very familiar with those guys,” Leitch added, pointing to 19-year-old center mid Niko Tsakiris, one of San Jose’s top performers this season, as a positive case study. “He will be, I would imagine, continuing to call those players into trainings every day so he can evaluate them, whether it's for possible selection into the first team roster or to be a bigger part of the team moving forward.”