With the recent signings of 16-year-old defender Casey Walls and 14-year-old goalkeeper Emmanuel Ochoa, the San Jose Earthquakes have now signed eight academy products to Homegrown Player contracts, including seven since December of 2016 and two in the last week.
The Quakes currently have five players on their roster 18 years of age or younger, three more than any other club in Major League Soccer. Walls and Ochoa join a talented young core that includes Jacob Akanyirige (17), Gilbert Fuentes (17) and Cade Cowell (16), with the more experienced Jackson Yueill (22), JT Marcinkowski (22), Eric Calvillo (21), Marcos Lopez (20) and Siad Haji (19) also under 23.
“These signings did not happen overnight,” said Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli. “They are the result of a team of people, from parents to coaches to scouts to agents, whose collective commitments shape a unique opportunity today for [Walls and Ochoa] and their future perspectives.”
Despite their most well-known player turning 37 in January, the Quakes have signaled their intention to be a young, energetic team that’s built through the academy and honed through USL Championship affiliate Reno 1868 FC. Quakes head coach Matias Almeyda, technical director Chris Leitch, Reno head coach Ian Russell and Fioranelli are working in tandem to make this dream a reality, one that would see local players provide a steady pipeline of talent and help create a competitive consistency from one year to the next. This roster-building strategy can also result in new revenue streams for the club should players be sold overseas or used as trade assets within the league.
“Matias and his staff spent a considerable amount of time with both Casey, Emi and their parents, as they started to transition into the first-team ecosystem over the past six months,” explained Fioranelli. “Also, as we considerably expanded our scouting network to the north, south and east of San Jose over the past year and a half, there’s been a lot time and resources spent behind closed doors in order to offer the most aspiring talents in Northern California a healthy learning environment to grow one step at a time.”
Fioranelli is alluding to the fact that the Quakes are casting a wider net from a scouting perspective than ever before. Major League Soccer, past and present, is full of talent that grew up here in the Bay Area, such as Chris Wondolowski (Danville), Sebastian Lletget (San Francisco), Steven Beitashour (San Jose), Calen Carr (Oakland), Troy Dayak (Walnut Creek) and Joe Cannon (Los Altos). The Earthquakes are building relationships with youth clubs all around Northern California to more effectively identify and offer opportunities to the region’s top prospects. To date, the Quakes have signed Homegrowns from the North Bay, East Bay, Sacramento, and Central Valley, with countless others drawn into the academy from San Francisco and the peninsula. With Sacramento Republic FC’s expansion into MLS come 2022, this effort becomes more and more valuable by the day.
Ochoa’s signing was indicative of two things: his talent and high ceiling as a player, and the Quakes’ ability to take their time with him as a prospect. Argentine veteran Daniel Vega served as the team’s everyday goalkeeper in 2019 and is the odds-on favorite to assume that role again in 2020. Homegrown JT Marcinkowski, a member of the United States U-23 National Team, is most likely viewed as his heir apparent, with veterans Andrew Tarbell and Matt Bersano also in the mix. San Jose’s confidence in their goalkeeping corps allowed them to trade prospect Drake Callender to Inter Miami CF for a second-round pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft and the possibility of incentive-based GAM as a sweetener. Callender could have could have opted for the SuperDraft or tested the waters overseas, leaving the Earthquakes with nothing in return for their investment in him as an academy player. Instead, Fioranelli was able to acquire assets, protect others, and provide Callender with an opportunity to hit the ground running with another MLS team currently devoid of keepers.
Almeyda, who made his River Plate debut at 18 years old, is extremely optimistic of the role the Quakes Academy can play in first-team success. However, he is also very cautious of how these players are groomed and developed.
“I got tired of seeing how youngers players were burnt out,” Almeyda said following the Quakes’ March friendly against Mexico’s Monterrey in which many young players featured. “I think there are moments [for them to play], but we need to be careful of when we can put them in and let them go when they are ready.
“The youth should not carry the weight of changing the club. We need to go step-by-step with the younger players and develop them into ambitious players that really know the system of play, and know the lifestyle of a soccer player, and from that point don’t burn them out. Our objective in a year to a year and a half is to have many young players, and they should know what they play, how to play it, and why they play it.”
Earthquakes fans can look no further than Tommy Thompson, who made a career-high 28 starts in 2019, and Nick Lima, who is a regular with the U.S. National Team, as what the academy is capable of producing.
With this in mind, patience is necessary as very young players mature. Cade Cowell was only 15 years old during his rookie season in 2019. Walls and Ochoa will be 17 and 14, respectively, on opening day next year. Akanyirige and Fuentes, each heading into their third professional season, will both turn 18 this offseason. These are high-potential players that simply need to train in a first-team environment every day and develop at a pace that is best for them. The Quakes are playing the long game with player development.
Even the legendary Chris Wondolowski wants to be a part of the youth movement, suggesting he’d like to serve in a scouting/coaching role with the Quakes Academy following his retirement. That’s the sort of buy-in the whole organization has experienced to this new and exciting ideology.
“Last but not least, considering that Casey and Emi will move to San Jose from Marin and Salinas respectively, I’d like to acknowledge how important their families, agents Richard Motzkin and Jerome Meary, and their former clubs, Marin FC and the Santa Cruz Breakers, have been in supporting these young men and for entrusting the San Jose Earthquakes with their ongoing development,” said Fioranelli. “Above all, thank you to their parents – in particular Jennifer and Irma, Casey’s and Emmi’s mothers – who have commuted several hours per day for years to support their dream. We are committed to providing them the best care, mentorship and attention, as they transition slowly but surely here in San Jose, day in and day out, on and off the field.”