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Leadership & Culture, Performance, Talent ID & Recruitment | Dec 11, 2017
How San Jose Earthquakes and new GM Jesse Fioranelli are working to harness the power of innovation in Silicon Valley.

The Avaya Stadium had not witnessed such a dramatic conclusion in its brief history. Play had entered the 93rd minute in the final game of the MLS Western Conference regular season and the San Jose Earthquakes needed to defeat Minnesota United to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs. The trouble for the hosts was that they were tied at 2-2 following Francisco Calvo’s 81st minute equaliser for Minnesota.


From deep in his own half, Quakes goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell urgently punted a free-kick up the field and found Victor Bernárdez, the central defender, who had taken up an advanced position as San Jose continued their increasingly frantic pursuit of a winner. With a deft chest control that defied the tension of the moment, the Honduran tamed the ball and headed it into the path of the advancing Quincy Amarikwa. The forward’s snapshot was palmed away by Bobby Shuttleworth in the Minnesota goal but only as far as Amarikwa’s lurking teammate Chris Wondolowski. The American international, who had scored the Quakes’ second, turned provider as he squared for Marco Ureña in a more dangerous position. The 88th minute substitute swept the ball beyond Shuttleworth to send the home faithful into raptures and deliver San Jose to its first playoff appearance since 2012.

In the delirious aftermath, the Quakes’ Head Coach at the time, Chris Leitch, spoke calmly of his side’s ability to face adversity and do what was required to see off Minnesota. “For me, that’s the sign of a growing team,” he commented. “That together we’ve been able to articulate our way through those kinds of tough moments and challenges where maybe we hadn’t, earlier.”

It was no mean feat for Leitch, who was temporarily elevated mid-season from his role as San Jose’s Technical Director to take over the struggling side. Leitch remains in his original full-time role and the rebuilding project continues under new General Manager Jesse Fioranelli and new Head Coach Mikael Stahre.

While that 3-2 defeat of Minnesota provided a dramatic denouement, the Fioranelli was keen to emphasise, even before kick-off, that postseason participation should not necessarily be considered a yardstick. He said: “The way we define success in San Jose should not just be a result of making the playoffs or not.” Displaying his penchant for a colourful metaphor he added: “We have to take some tough decisions so that we can get out of a comfort zone and realise that what is slightly outside of it is where the honey hole is.” Their subsequent 5-0 play-off defeat to the Vancouver Whitecaps underlined Fioranelli’s point and strengthened his resolve. The club has embraced a process that not only takes in roster regeneration but an increasingly talented backroom staff and enterprising spirit that harnesses the energy of Silicon Valley.

Starting a new chapter

The so-called honey hole was a mere spot on the horizon when Fioranelli’s hiring was announced on January 5 2017. He inherited a side that had posted an inconspicuous 8-12-14 MLS record in 2016 but his was an appointment that heralded a sea change for MLS. Never before had a GM arrived in Major League Soccer with such an esteemed reputation and accomplished resume from time spent in the front offices of elite European soccer.

Fioranelli came direct from Italian Serie A side AS Roma, where for the previous 18 months he had served on the team’s Sporting Direction unit, fulfilling duties that included player scouting, match analysis, player-centric development and recruitment for the first team and youth system. “Fioranelli was also responsible for further expanding Roma´s market intelligence and relationship network throughout Europe and Latin America with clubs, agents and federations, including player-development collaboration with Germany´s national team ahead of Euro 2016,” says San Jose’s official biography of their GM. Prior to his time at the Giallorossi, Fioranelli served for three years at Roma’s cross-town rivals SS Lazio; his work also included a spell at Turkish club Samsunspor and six years as a player agent.

“We are excited to welcome Jesse to the Quakes family,” said Dave Kaval, who was President of the Earthquakes at the time of his appointment. “He has a tremendous, well-rounded resume that immediately impressed us, and we believe the team’s technical side is in excellent hands moving forward.

“The search to find a general manager proved to be lengthy, but we’re happy that the thorough process has led us to a candidate of Jesse’s quality.”

Fioranelli tells the Leaders Performance Institute that the attraction was mutual. “I just knew that San Jose had a really strong story to write,” he explains. “The people I got to know at the beginning, both the ownership and those working on the technical side, were committed to opening a new chapter; it was a very strong indicator of the potential San Jose has. I realised we already had a strong foundation in place on the playing side, plus a stadium with a committed ownership group. Given the talent we have here at the club we’re now able to invest and see the dividends in years to come regarding on one hand innovation, and on the other, youth development.”

 

I just knew that San Jose had a really strong story to write. The people I got to know at the beginning, both the ownership and those working on the technical side, were committed to opening a new chapter.

Jesse Fioranelli, General Manager, San Jose

 

He took the transition from Serie A to MLS in his stride. “I was lucky to have enjoyed experiences in elite clubs in Europe, working with fantastic people from the front offices to the technical staffs,” he reflects. “I’ve taken bits and pieces from experiences here and there and this has equipped me to be an essential part of the change of direction at San Jose as we embark upon our journey. I am half-Italian, half-American and grew up in Switzerland so I have always proven adaptable to new environments; you can’t put me in a box or tell me to have one single function. I am confident I can lend a hand helping redirect this club and we’re now following a vision that excites everyone involved.”

What of the journey that brought Fioranelli to Silicon Valley? San Jose engaged Nolan Partners, the world’s premier executive search firm, in seeking to fill the GM role vacated by John Doyle in August 2016. “It started in September when I met Paul Nolan in London,” said Dave Kaval of the process and his discussions with Nolan Partner’s Group Managing Director. “I was tasked as President and CEO to find the best possible candidate, and I wanted us to be really thoughtful and deliberate about who we went and sourced because we’d had a GM for ten years and had not been in the market for a decade.

“It’s easy to go out there and meet with 20 people but it’s more important to know what you’re looking for. Nolan Partners brought a lot of the framework and we spent a month or two with our board understanding our key metrics.” All in all San Jose received 272 applications from candidates representing 133 different clubs. From there, 29 candidates were interviewed and the shortlist was eventually whittled down to six.

“A full search process is typically completed in 6-8 weeks, which may seem lengthy in the speed-obsessed world of sport – but it is necessary in order to properly identify prospective candidates, engage the market, and assess the entire landscape, especially for a position as important as a General Manager. This was a big search – we engaged and interviewed candidates in the Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, English Premier League, La Liga, French Ligue 1, Eredivisie, Liga MX, and Campeonato Brasiliero Série A.” Chad Biagini, Managing Director of North America at Nolan Partners, tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “We have a proven approach for our searches, including comprehensive benchmarking to identify technical, cultural, behavioural, and motivational fit.  We also believe in using our shared intellect and creativity to identify more left wing candidates.”

 

 

He speaks highly of Kaval and the Quakes: “They asked great questions, invested time and energy in the process, challenged the status quo, and trusted their relationship with us.” Nolan Partners’ connections within the sports industry expedited the process and ensured an efficient progression towards the offer that was ultimately made to Fioranelli. “We are specialists in sport,” observes Biagini. “We’re not a generalist firm with a consumer practice that might occasionally perform a sports search. We live and breathe sport; my team regularly attends conferences, dines with management, visits venues, studies the sector, conducts exploratory conversations with industry leaders, and we have an insatiable appetite for improving the market. San Jose was the ideal partner for us because they shared our belief that a franchise can only succeed by hiring the absolute best people. Your people are your competitive advantage.”

He adds: “And though we lead the discussion, at the end of the day San Jose know their own business and culture best. It’s our role to ask the right questions and guide them toward their own conclusions.” Sure enough, Kaval says that the Quakes were learning as they went along: “Some things came up in the process that we weren’t thinking about before, such as our academy programme and how to farm existing talent in the Bay Area. We said to ourselves, hey, maybe we need to think more strategically and intelligently about how we approach that part of the problem; we also realised that a lot of the candidates were former scouts or people who had been sporting directors; some were even coaches.”

 

Some things came up in the process that we weren’t thinking about before, such as our academy programme and how to farm existing talent in the Bay Area. We said to ourselves, hey, maybe we need to think more strategically and intelligently about how we approach that part of the problem.

Dave Kaval, former President, San Jose

 

There was no doubt from Kaval that they had found the right man. “Jesse really thrived in this environment at Roma and Lazio. He commands the room and can attract high quality personnel to continue building the team in an efficient way. He has relationships across South America and Europe; that type of experience and market intelligence only comes with numerous years spent in the industry.” With two months to spare before the 2017 MLS season, San Jose had their man and the transformation of this corner of Silicon Valley could begin.

A shared vision

The aforementioned market intelligence of Fioranelli informed his first steps as GM. On the playing side, a slew of influential signings arrived, including forward Danny Hoesen on loan from Dutch Eredivisie side FC Groningen and the 24-year-old Valeri Qazaishvili from Groningen’s compatriots Vitesse Arnhem, which made the Georgian San Jose’s youngest-ever Designated Player when he put pen to paper on a contract in June. “The priority was reducing the age of the team because there’s no risk of relegation in MLS,” Fioranelli tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “Since there isn’t that risk you have every possibility and I think it’s necessary to take a bold stance and there’s no need to have an average age of 30.” As MLS has developed and the standard of play improved, the league has become more adept at attracting younger talents from across the globe, although there was a sense that San Jose, which was reborn as a team in 2008, was being left behind. That notion is beginning to change: “I saw that we could redirect the ship by giving greater emphasis to younger, more dynamic, courageous and smarter play. And that’s a direction that I feel identifies itself with San Jose as a city and the values of people in Silicon Valley.”

The roster was beginning to take shape as San Jose finished the season but Fioranelli publicly stated that it remains a work in progress as the team looks to build on the gains of the 2017 season. “I can tell you in the future there won’t be any revolutions, either,” he said as the campaign reached its conclusion. “That is not beneficial and we never want to do that. We want to build on what we know. A new signing has to fit what San Jose represents. We have to feel it.” Perhaps more significantly, those new signings are starting to feel it too: “All the players that came here wanted to come here. Now that they are here they don’t want to go away. That is not irrelevant.”

 

I saw that we could redirect the ship by giving greater emphasis to younger, more dynamic, courageous and smarter play. And that’s a direction that I feel identifies itself with San Jose as a city and the values of people in Silicon Valley.

Jesse Fioranelli, General Manager, San Jose

 

Equally heralded have been Fioranelli’s moves behind the scenes. First was the hiring of the Brazilian Bruno Costa as San Jose’s Head of Scouting. “Bruno is a fantastic addition to our organisation, having worked in the competitive [Brazilian] Serie A and with the most successful national team in international soccer,” Fioranelli said in the club’s official announcement of the appointment in April. “Our goal was to hire an experienced scout that knows the US and the international talent markets. As we develop a comprehensive player scouting and development programme across Quakes teams. Bruno will focus on prospects in the Bay Area as much as he will cover the US and select markets in Europe and Latin America.”

Joining Costa on the backroom staff in April was the Spaniard Alex Covelo in the eye-catching role of Director of Methodology after a two-month pursuit of a person with extensive experience in Spanish soccer, including a similarly-titled role at La Liga’s Espanyol. “He allows the Earthquakes to instil a method of our own, from how we develop our talent in training to how we establish our game identity in matches,” said Fioranelli at the time. “He brings an in-depth expertise in reading and analysing the game and sharing knowledge between coaches and players. Considering that there were elite teams in Europe and Asia interested in recruiting Alex underlines how much he and his family wanted to join us in San Jose.”

Covelo also served a spell as Assistant Coach under Leitch before reverting to his original full-time executive role in the reshuffle that followed the arrival of Stahre as Head Coach in November. Stahre, who retained longtime Quakes coach Steve Ralston as his assistant, recently resigned from Swedish Allsveskan side BK Häcken after guiding the Gothenburg side to fourth place in his final season at the club.

 

 

Fioranelli had been keenly aware of the Swede’s work since his own time at Lazio. “What stood out with Mikael are not only the cups his teams won and his consistency over the past 10+ seasons,” he said upon Stahre’s appointment, “but also his ability to identify with our players, our coaching staff and most importantly our goals.”

Stahre was equally effusive in a club statement: “I’m going to give everything I have to the Quakes and I am very excited about being part of the club.”

Gradually, Fioranelli continues to find the missing pieces of the puzzle. He tells Leaders: “We wanted to identify the real culture of San Jose as it is lived by the people when they come to the game; they are hard-working but they also stand for innovation.” And it is innovation where San Jose may have made the greatest gains.

Strategic collaboration

Shortly before Fioranelli’s appointment, San Jose announced the formation of its ‘Innovation Advisory Board’ – a panel of eight that, as the club says, “advise team executives on new and emerging technology trends that can improve the fan experience, increase brand awareness, improve player performance and deliver potential corporate partnerships to the club.” It is the first of its kind in US soccer.

“Even before I arrived in June the innovation board was advising the team,” says Tom Fox, who succeeded Kaval as San Jose President in June. “These are Quakes fans who are involved in technology in some shape or form. We have a director from Tesla [Ira Ehrenpreis], the guy who runs the driverless car programme at Intel [Jeff Ota]; we also have a senior executive from Sony [Austin Noronha]. All of these organisations look to sport for ways to find applications for their technologies and these are people it’s very easy to meet and spend time with. There’s a big opportunity here and Jesse spotted that when he arrived.”

By July, San Jose had announced two strategic collaborations. The first was with the German Football Association [DFB] and the DFB Academy when the club announced, “a multi-year collaboration focused on knowledge exchange, game development and machine learning. The collaboration presents both organisations an opportunity to take a global leadership role, centred around capturing new insight from objective-driven match and performance analysis.” Fioranelli was effusive in rekindling the relationship he cultivated with the DFB at Roma: “Driven by two landscapes rich in talent and innovation, both organisations are committed to making an increasingly fast game even smarter, one player at a time.”

In the same statement, Markus Weise, the Head of the DFB Academy’s conceptual development unit, echoed Fioranelli in emphasising the value of the partnership for the Germans. He said: “The Earthquakes, just like so many other organisations in Silicon Valley, are truly embracing technology and challenging the status quo. Their innovative approach is perfectly in line with our ambition here at the DFB and our Academy.”

 

 

Later that month, San Jose announced their partnership with Second Spectrum, Inc. the Los Angeles-headquartered technology start-up. “We are opening a new chapter in video analysis and machine learning,” said Fioranelli at the time. Second Spectrum installed its state-of-the-art tracking system – the first of its kind in football – with a view to expanding its use from the first team right down to the academy. “What the technology allows us to do is teach a machine how to read the game the way a coach does and helps players and coaches to identify the game objectives that we want to stand for, in real-time.”

Fioranelli is pleased with the progress made on both fronts and tells Leaders he is reluctant to claim the success as his own. “I don’t think it’s my success – it’s really the club’s,” he says. “After less than a year working together we have changed the direction of the club and walk away with a sense of optimism having completed those partnerships with the German Football Association and Second Spectrum. I recall what we were doing at Roma; clubs are increasingly supported by sophisticated analysis.

“There’s a sense of optimism regardless of the fact that we’ve not won every game and people can identify with the direction in which we are heading.”

The Leaders Performance Institute asks Fioranelli what US soccer can most learn from Europe and he turns the question on its head. “Our goal is not to look constantly to Europe in the next three to five years when it comes to solutions,” he responds. “I think that MLS will be unique in its own way and should take a bolder stance spurred on not only by our momentum but the values it represents and a work ethic that I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else in the world.

“Before we look to Europe we have to be conscious of our assets, whether that’s the infrastructure, finance, or human resources. There’s a lot of talent whether it’s at front office level or on a youth level; there’s a lot of playing talent over here that has not been developed yet and it’s starting to receive a professional platform thanks to the development of the academy. I’m also pretty sure that in five years the US will have a strong men’s national team thanks to the reform decisions being taken by MLS.”

We end by asking Fioranelli about the picture that adorns the wall of his office that depicts Andrés Iniesta of FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou stadium. Is that where he sees San Jose in the future? As the most beloved club in its region, admired across the globe? “Every city has its club and it’s the job of each and every one who works inside to connect with the people that come and follow them and have a sense of belonging, not only to the colours but what it stands for. Barcelona has epitomised this in the best way for a long period of time. It’s something that I believe and look up to; if someone sees it they will know me a little better and that’s why I have it hanging there.

“That would be the best achievement I think we could have; that we’re not dependent on one person for success and an entire city is proud of what we stand for as a soccer club. We’re still at the beginning but we’re working hard and having fun.”

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