San Jose won the Supporters’ Shield in 2012 in style, scoring a commanding 72 goals and generating a +29 goal differential. After grabbing a 1-0 lead away, a slip-up against Los Angeles in the return leg of the playoffs tainted an otherwise stellar season.
In hindsight, the 2012 season was an aberration. The following four season recaps range from “Average” to “This Season Never Happened”. Worst of all was a dire 2014, when San Jose finished last in the West with a mere 0.88 points per game, its lowest total since rejoining MLS in 2008. The highlight of the season was a noble shoot-out loss to Toluca in the CONCACAF Champions League with an injury-plagued team.
Amidst such carnage, fans look for optimism wherever they can find it. One source emerged from the signing of Tommy Thompson, San Jose’s first (and only) homegrown player. To say San Jose developed Thompson would be an overstatement: Chris Leitch spotted him in game against San Jose’s youth team in 2012, and offered him a training spot with the senior team. Still, the signing offered encouragement that after seven seasons of Quakes 2.0, the team finally tapped into the populous local youth soccer community.
Thompson had a promising first season, appearing in 12 of San Jose’s last 14 games. He ultimately saw 690 minutes of game time across 13 games, and another 515 minutes on loan with Sacramento Republic. Thompson saw a decent amount of action for a first-year homegrown player, particularly in a league where minutes for young, American attackers are rare. Here are the minutes played for all homegrown players in their first full season with a team:
Few homegrown players make an immediate impact, but this also makes sense; on the balance, these players are younger, and should be viewed as taking the next step on their development path. Thompson had an Involvement rate of 59% (minutes played / [games played * 90]) in 2014, below the league median, but well above token minutes of a player who worked hard in training. With the exception of Gyasi Zardes (and Jordan Morris, once the 2016 regular season ends), homegrown attacking players do not walk into the league and become key contributors.
Heading in to the 2015 season, excitement built around Thompson’s potential. He made Jeff Carlisle’s list of Top 10 U-21 players in the US and played in the 2015 U20 World Cup, nearly scoring an excellent goal against Serbia. However, San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear rated other players ahead of him, citing designated player Matias Perez Garcia, designated player Innocent Emeghara, Shea Salinas, Sanna Nyassi, and Leandro Barrera as options on the wing. While Thompson appeared in more games in 2015, he actually played 465 minutes, fewer minutes than his rookie year. Between the increased appearances with San Jose and the U20 World Cup, he also played just twice for Sacramento, though tensions between the two clubs may have limited cooperation.
Little changed this past season. There were more loans to Sacramento, more excitement over false dawns of a starting role, and with the signing of Simon Dawkins and Alberto Quintero, another logjam in attacking positions. Part of the issue is the alignment of Kinnear’s tactics with Thompson’s skillset. Kinnear prefers a 4-4-2 with traditional wingers, and at least one holding central midfielder. With a full roster, two rightfully guaranteed starters are Anibal Godoy in central midfield and Chris Wondolowski in one of the two attacking spots up front. What’s left is for Thompson to win one of the outside mid spots that doesn’t play to his strengths (Kinnear prefers more crossing ability), or to drop back into central midfield, a continuation of some of the spot work he performed toward the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016.
Even while playing non-optimal positions for San Jose, Thompson demonstrates ability. He has the second-highest Pass Completion rate, trailing only Anibal Godoy. On a per90 basis, Thompson is tied for 2nd on the team in Key Passes, is 5th in Total Passes, tied for 5th in Shots on Target, and tied for 3rd in Successful Dribbles (his 66% dribble success rate indicates he should probably take guys on more often.) What’s more, he’s 1st in Tackles, meaning he isn’t completely shirking his defensive responsibilities. It’s surprising that Thompson hasn’t had a run as a withdrawn, central attacker. Much has been made about his lack of goals and assists, but while on loan with Sacramento, Thompson scored goals like this:
Herein lies the danger of hope. San Jose was not a good team this season – Week 13 was the last time it had a points per game average greater than 1.5. Despite going all of June, July, and August with just two wins, San Jose found itself in playoff contention as late as September, and were only officially eliminated from the playoffs in mid-October. With MLS’ exceptionally liberal playoff threshold, the Quakes find themselves in a continual loop of playing just well enough to stay mathematically alive for the post-season. While Dallas receives plaudits for its dedication to youth development, San Jose – with little risk – seems like the polar opposite.
As Thompson concludes his third season, it’s up for debate whether he’s a third-year pro, or if he’s simply relived his rookie season three times. His longest streak of starting games (6) is still from 2014. His 2016 minutes played will be marginally higher than the 2014 total. As young players like Christian Pulisic, Julian Green, Lynden Gooch, Rubio Rubin, and Emerson Hyndman earn more experience with the national team, Thompson’s likely to encounter similar competition and role fluidity at the next level.
That, of course, is if he makes a breakthrough with San Jose next season. Here’s hoping he’s not a player for the future for the fourth consecutive season.