Innocent’s Signing Was A Failure That Could Have Been Avoided

Our long winter of discontent is finally over: Innocent Emeghara has finally left the San Jose Earthquakes.

Last winter I graded all the transactions from the day Dominic Kinnear was hired through the end of the secondary transfer window in August, constituting one season’s cycle. I gave the overall effort high marks. I genuinely believe the Front Office has made markedly better decisions since Kinnear, Leitch, and a bulked-up scouting department have arrived on the scene over the last year and a half.

However, I left the door open to future revision, handing out two “incompletes.” One was for Innocent. Allow me to fill that blank space in with an “F” at this time.

It’s hard to imagine a worse transaction. I’ll set aside the knee injury, since it’s unfair to hold that event against a front office that could do nothing to predict it. I only want to assess factors that the front office could have known when they signed him in January of 2015.

Even by those standards, they deserve a failing grade, and here are my reasons:

One: There were warning signs he was a bad value

$1M the first season. $1.3M the season after that.

That’s significantly larger than any Designated Player contract in Quakes history. And it’s the sort of wage you would expect to pay a solid role player in a major European first division or a star in the second tier. The problem was, there were some major red flags that he was not (or at least no longer was) going to deliver that sort of value.

Although yes, he was a full Swiss international, he hadn’t been called up to the Schweizer pati since early 2013, and 8 of his 9 caps came in 2012 or earlier. He hadn’t been called in for close to two years despite being in the theoretical prime of his career. That red flag should’ve been more thoroughly considered. While yes, he did play in Serie A for two seasons, each season he played for a team that wound end up relegated. And the bottom-feeders in that league are not nearly as good as the relegation fodder in, say, the Premier League.

He bagged just 4 goals in 30 appearances for Livorno in 2013-2014, his last full season prior to joining the Quakes, which hardly indicates a lethal striker. Of those appearances, by the way, almost half were as a substitute. If you’re a believer in statistics, WhoScored rated only one of his three major European seasons as average/adequate, with the other two fairly poor. Comparing him to Simon Dawkins, the only player with even slightly comparable career experience, Innocent of course comes out well behind in areas such as assists and key passes, but to my surprise, wasn’t meaningfully ahead in either goal-scoring or successful dribbles.

When Siena, his Italian parent club, folded in July 2014, it left Innocent in a bit of a lurch as an unexpected free agent. But it took him at least three months to find a new club, and when he did, it was in the backwater Azerbaijan Premier League. To me, that’s a bleeding red flag, since it indicates either 1) that the European teams who had the best scouting on him didn’t value him much or 2) that he didn’t have enough competitive ambition to find a better club sooner or 3) both.

So that’s a player whose international career was well in the rearview mirror, with middling-to-bad stats for relegation-fodder in a league that doesn’t translate particularly well to MLS, who can’t stick at a club for even a second full season, and was not snapped up by any serious league despite being available on a free. Forgive me for suggesting that isn’t the resumé I’d want in the largest investment in a player in the history of the club.

Two: He didn’t fit the team stylistically

Dominic Kinnear is fairly flexible as far as managers go. He’s run 4-1-4-1, Flat 4-4-2, 4-4-2 Diamond, and 4-5-1 for meaningful portions of the season and a half he’s been in charge, in addition to the three-at-the-back looks he uses when chasing a game. He’s incorporated wide players as diverse as Alberto Quintero, Matias Perez-Garcia, Shea Salinas and Simon Dawkins. He’s a consummate pragmatist.

However, he does lean fairly strongly toward two-striker looks, meaning that the wide players are genuine wide midfielders, not glorified inside forwards. It also means that of the strikers, at least one has to be a capable back-to-goal forward who can hold the ball up and link up play.

Innocent’s primary skills were obvious: world-class pace paired with great dribbling. He was an adequate finisher, but what stood out on tape was his ability to drive the ball upfield on his own with those two traits. That meant he could comfortably function as an “inside forward” style left-winger, attacking similarly to iso-ball in basketball: take on the defender in front of him 1v1, beat him with pace and tricks, and create opportunities off of that for himself and others.

The role of a wide player who doesn’t have to track back or do build-up work simply doesn’t exist with Kinnear. Wide men are expected to defend, press, and participate in passing. A player who dribbles too much or is too “individualistic” is a liability, not a star asserting himself. In fact, the word “individualistic” was bandied about constantly by Quakes players during his healthy first months as a description of what was wrong with the team, but I have literally not heard the word in the locker room since he left the rotation.

On only one occasion did he devote himself to such a role, against Seattle in the second game of the 2015 season, putting in a banner performance and sticking to an incredibly rigid and conservative shape. The moment of magic, however, was textbook Innocent: a mazy run with a few deft dribbles, a few spectacular bursts of pace, and an exquisite finish. In case you’ve forgotten (and how could you?) it was immortalized by the internet:

On the other side of the ledger from that single game, wherein his best moment more closely resembled that role that famously doesn’t exist in Kinnear’s system, is every other performance from a wide area which has shown fairly conclusively he can’t cut it in that role.

Of course, his primary role throughout his career was as a central forward. And the player himself as well as the coaching staff seemed to reiterate on several occasions that was the intended idea. In Kinnear’s world, one option is to be a link-up striker, and Innocent is just about anything but that. He’s never demonstrated any knack for passing or combination play, he’s physically too small and weak to provide any aerial or hold-up presence, and he strongly prefers to face goal and take men on.

That leaves the other striking role, which is essentially already occupied by (stylistically-distinct) Chris Wondolowski. Either you suffer through two forwards whose primary focus is facing-goal individualism, completely destroying any realistic hope of build-up play in midfield, or you have to choose just one of your two best and highest-paid players to play at any given time.

Innocent was best as a center-forward in a 4-3-3, where he would receive the ball on the floor quite a lot, or attempt to beat the back line. Neither of those things are possible in Kinnear’s setup unless Wondo is out of the picture, and even then, I have my doubts.

Moreover, the speed of play in MLS is physical, and players get closed down quickly. In Italy, the play is famously languid: many players coming out of that league have suffered immensely in that type of transition. Surely I, keyboard warrior, am not the only one who was concerned that this fact might present an issue for a player whose best skill attribute is dribbling, in a league where plenty of other players have the pace to keep up with him.

Three: He didn’t fit the team culturally

I’d actually like to go out of my way to say that I kind of like the guy, personally. He seems thoughtful and kind. I know a lot of the reporters thought he was more interesting than the average footballer. Here, I’m only discussing the fit with the team to the extent it impacts the field of play.

This San Jose squad is black-and-blue in the way it plays, prioritizing hard work, physicality, and defense. It’s filled with a bunch of really intense characters, many of whom have a chip on their shoulder about being overlooked by college recruiters, the draft process, or even the league itself.

Beyond the scrappy US-born players, the Central-and-South American core of the team for the most part didn’t come up through luxurious academies with links to the biggest clubs in the world either. None of them made so much money at any point that they would run the risk of feeling like they made it to the global élite, and many grew up in places or environments that were rough and tumble.

Even those who came through the European academies are at least of the sort that fit in a bit better. Jordan Stewart is an intense, extroverted guy in his 30s who was mature enough as a footballer and a man to know exactly how to be a professional. He even signed with MLS when he knew that wretched Buck Shaw would be his home, indicating that he would not turn up his nose at dirty work. Simon Dawkins, although from the posh Tottenham academy and with some experience in and around the wealthy leagues of England, is from a thoroughly working-class neighborhood in London, with Jamaican family, and an incredible sense of humility that doubtless came from a series of career-threatening injuries. He, too, willingly chose Buck Shaw, and is an unusually thoughtful man who seems to appreciate the opportunities he gets.

Innocent doesn’t exactly fit in with that group. He’s laid back and quiet; almost shy. I’ve seen him go down hurt in practice on multiple occasions, none of which seemed to elicit any sympathy from his teammates, indicating a fairly obvious indictment of his toughness. Whereas another player might chew out the player who had knocked him down, Innocent would typically brood in silence.

He’s a Nigerian immigrant to Switzerland, sure, but from the age of 13 he was a hot shot in Swiss academies and living in one of the wealthiest countries on planet Earth. In his career, he quickly moved up the ranks and, although one cannot be certain of the details, it’s clear he made quite a bit of money playing in Europe. We’ve all seen the Ferrari picture. We all know he hangs out on Santana Row, where he lives. It’s hard not to interpret those as signs that he might value comfort over competition.

At 21, he was playing in the Swiss top division. At 22, he was sold on to Ligue 1, and he made his international debut. At 23, he was in Serie A. Success came early. And his stint in San Jose was the first time he’d ever spent two full seasons at the same club.

Off-the-ball hard work, toughness, resolve when things aren’t going well, team-first ethos: these are the kinds of things that don’t seem particularly appealing when you are a millionaire being paid twice as much as the next highest-paid player on a team in an unsexy league (MLS) and have been a hotshot European international since your early twenties.

And I’ll just come out and say it: it never really seemed to me like his teammates liked him all that much. It’s not hard to imagine why, if you’re Bryan Meredith and you’re making $60k a year, you might not take kindly to $1.3M/yr Innocent complaining about going in on him too hard during training. As a hypothetical example.

Finally, he has been conspicuously absent from all the team’s community events, some of which are directly charitable, and others which are just the kind of meet-and-greets that fans of smaller clubs like San Jose tend to really appreciate from their players. That kind of effort in reaching out to the fanbase is the difference between despised failures and beloved ones, such as Roberto Soldado at Tottenham, who never once ducked the fans despite his struggles on the pitch.

I’ll admit that I have no on-the-record sources to justify this opinion. It’s just based on me reading between the lines of the comments at dozens of press conferences and interviews, body language at dozens of training sessions, and other minor inferences. I just don’t think he was ever a personality fit, and that would not have been hard to figure out through interviews with the player himself or coaches at one of his many stops.

Post-Script

I totally understand where the Quakes were coming from. It’s not every day that a 25-year-old with national team experience for a decent side in Europe and years of Serie A football under his belt wants to come and spend three years of his prime in MLS, let alone one of MLS’s worst teams the previous year. They felt they needed to do something as they moved in Avaya, and were clearly not negotiating from a position of strength.

The San Jose front office, without its own scouting department, famously had to rely on MLS’s eyes and the “Wyscout” database for information and film on players that weren’t easily accessible. So that weak bargaining position was worsened by limited information.

They took a leap of faith. If this had worked out, he’s a franchise cornerstone, totally marketable as a star, and a sure-fire jersey-seller (“Innocent” is dope). I was amongst the believers for a time; I argued that the system could reasonably be adapted to his strengths, and I was still in awe of that singular performance against Seattle. I was wrong.

And I don’t hold it against a Front Office being wrong on a gamble. You need to take gambles to get ahead. The trouble, however, is, that the “risk” isn’t purely random, like it would be in a card game. You can reduce risk with better scouting and better technical staff that would be able to identify the right fit in the roster. Moreover, when you are taking a risk, there are contractual means of hedging such as including performance incentives or contract options. The FO did this very successfully with Geovanni, from whom they quickly and easily moved on once it became clear he wasn’t good value. Innocent had no such hedge, seeing his pay increase after his miserable first season, and without any contract out until a full two years into his tenure.

The knee injury was unfortunate, and I don’t think you can hold that against the FO. But at this point, I think it’s fair to ask whether or not the consistent soft-tissue injuries, starting with the extraordinarily lengthy return from a meniscus tear, are at least in part to blame on the player, and may have been revealed with better scouting.

When finally allowed to play his natural central forward role in 2015, he showed some signs of life for the first time since the epic Seattle game. But even then, he had far from convinced at any point. From the games he did play, WhoScored gave him an average rating that would slot in at 17th best on a far-from-sterling Quakes team last year. That’s miserable. And it indicates the problems started long before the injury.

Prior to the 2016 season, fans (including me) were excited to see if he could ever touch any of the potential that he had. I even picked him to be a potential breakout candidate (although in my defense, just about any production at all would’ve been a “breakout”). As the season wore on to the summer, and the results went from bad to worse, there was a clutch of dire fans who even suggested that he be given more playing time and somehow blamed Kinnear for it. Anyone close to the organization, however, already knew: he was simply not good enough. Including him in the match day 18 made the team worse from a pure quality perspective. His 2016 appearances, when he did get his 116 minutes of a shot at production, warranted a horrifying 6.02 rating on WhoScored, the worst mark on the entire team through the season.

There is no comparison case amongst historical MLS DPs for lack of production. Others deemed failures were at least capable of cracking the starting lineup, or were quickly moved on when the lack of ability became clear. Some “busts” have been attributable to unforeseen circumstances such as injury. In Innocent’s case, however, he’s not good enough to make the 18 of a miserable San Jose team when healthy.

In the end, it didn’t work out. And unlike fans or reporters like me, the Front Office probably should’ve known better. In my mind, it’s no small part of why John Doyle lost his job.

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