CenterLine Report: Watson makes the grade

Watson named head coach after leading club to best record in MLS since June

The grades are in, and Mark Watson has passed the test.

After taking over the reins of the San Jose Earthquakes from Frank Yallop in early June, Watson has guided the team to the best record in MLS over the second half of the season. A heroic chase to make the postseason fell one point short, but Watson’s Quakes still managed to finish with the sixth best record in the league. The interim head coach had almost accomplished the miraculous.

As a reward for his efforts, and with the full support of his players, Watson was signed to a multi-year deal that removes the pesky “interim” tag from his title and makes him the permanent head coach of the Earthquakes.

Watson took over for Yallop on June 7 when the team was languishing in the league-wide standings fourth from last with a record of 3-6-6. The team had just returned after a two game road trip that saw them fall at FC Dallas 1-0 and suffer a 3-0 shellacking at Real Salt Lake. The consecutive losses were something not experienced by San Jose since the first two games of last season, a span of 48 matches. The Quakes returned home with only Chivas USA preventing them from falling to the bottom of the Western Conference.

No one expected Yallop, the MLS Coach of the Year the season prior, to part ways with the club, but it was clear that something needed to be done to rescue a team that was playing nothing like the Supporters’ Shield winners of 2012. And so, in stepped Yallop’s trusted assistant Watson to curate the club during that difficult time. He was given the interim head coaching job, and the front office announced they would be conducting an international search for a potential Yallop replacement.

But Watson had other ideas than just being a caretaker coach in San Jose. The then 42-year old former Canadian international set about reviving the moribund team, pushing them forward in an effort to salvage the season. The Quakes won on his coaching debut, a thrilling 2-1 victory at the Colorado Rapids that marked the team’s first road win of 2013, and pressed through the remaining games of the regular season to finish with a respectable 14-11-9 record. With Watson in charge, San Jose was 11-5-3.

Watson changed the mindset around the team from the very beginning. Whereas Yallop was more inclined to let the players be themselves, Watson required more emphasis on playing team soccer. The former defender stressed the importance of defending as a group and letting the offense build from those efforts. After 15 games under Yallop, the Earthquakes had conceded 23 goals; with Watson in charge for the last 19 games, the number of goals against dropped to 19. Team defense propelled the Quakes to a 7-0-2 record in all competitions to end the year with only 2 goals allowed. Without a doubt, Watson had turned things around.

Watson joined the coaching staff of the Earthquakes ahead of the 2010 season. The former Canadian national team member and Charleston Battery assistant coach quickly proved his worth to Yallop and was integral in helping turn around two seasons of futility to one of making the MLS postseason. The Earthquakes upset the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the New York Red Bulls, to start the playoffs and came within one goal of beating the Rapids to make it to MLS Cup. Two years later, Watson, now firmly entrenched as Yallop’s number two, helped lead the team to its second Supporters’ Shield and a club-record total of 66 points.

His impact on the team in those years was mainly felt behind the scenes. Watson had entered coaching after a long professional career spent in Canada, the United States, and England. He was a member of the Columbus Crew in the 1996 inaugural season of MLS and a mainstay on the Canadian men’s national team throughout the ‘90s, including the Canada team that won the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Vancouver native spent the last season of his career in Charleston as a player-coach for the Battery before joining the Earthquakes.

While Watson did not accomplish his first priority after taking over the Earthquakes, making the MLS Cup playoffs, he did bring relevance to the team over the course of the last three months of the season when most hope had been lost. Even an early stumble in the CONCACAF Champions League was corrected, as Watson’s Quakes survived an 0-2 start to group play to advance to next March’s knockout round with a pair of shutout victories. In fact, including those two wins, the Earthquakes under Watson’s care completed their Buck Shaw Stadium portion of the season with a remarkable 9-0-1 record.

The best team in MLS over the second half of the regular season. Advancement to the knockout round of the CONCACAF Champions League. A virtually unblemished home record. The unwavering support of his players. Watson’s resume since taking over the Quakes back in June is nearly impeccable. The facts speak for themselves: Watson is the right coach to lead the Earthquakes forward next season and beyond.

Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas