In some ways, Saturday night was business as usual for Mark Watson. Having been involved in professional soccer either as a player or coach for more than two decades, the pregame rituals were still generally the same.
Yet one thing was undeniably changed: culpability for the outcome of the San Jose Earthquakes’ road trip to Colorado rested most heavily on Watson’s shoulders – for good or bad.
As it turned out, Watson’s debut as the Quakes’ interim head coach, his first game as an MLS decision-maker, came off as close to perfect as he could reasonably expect, ending in a 2-1 victory against the Rapids that was San Jose’s first win away from home this season.
“It was very familiar but also a very new experience,” said Watson, who had been a Quakes assistant for three years. “I’ve been through hundreds and hundreds of games, and gone through the process, but it was definitely a different feeling being the boss. ... You’re in charge. You have the final say on everything. We discuss everything – tactics, players, substitutions – as a staff, we always do that. But now I have the final say.”
That final say went over well with a veteran Quakes group left shocked by the departure of Frank Yallop, the only coach San Jose had known since rejoining MLS as an expansion side in 2008.
“There’s a lot of similarities, but [Watson] has definitely put his mark on it, his spin,” striker Chris Wondolowski said by way of comparison between the two coaches. “He’s definitely detail-oriented, very specific, which is something that we need at this moment, and he’s doing well with that. I think a lot of the guys are buying into it.”
While Watson talked up the need for better possession and more patience offensively, the Quakes still paired target men Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart up top, and a classic Route 1 pass by Justin Morrow from the center of San Jose’s backline eventually led to Lenhart’s 24-yard bolt in the 11th minute. Even so, the Watson-led incarnation of the Quakes was hardly a carbon copy of Yallop’s squad.
“I think the biggest things Mark preached building up to the game was [retaining] our defensive shape and being hard to break down and trying to possess the ball, not always having to fly forward,” goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “Take care of the ball, and if it means pulling it back, pulling it back. But if it means hitting long balls, hitting long balls. It’s what we like to call ‘effective soccer.’”
Watson also endeared himself to his players with his snap reaction – kicking a ball back into the field of play – after midfielder Sam Cronin was chopped down in the 48th minute by Rapids forward Edson Buddle.
“We all know Watty has a really strong personality,” said Morrow. “I think that showed through in the game a little bit. When Frank stepped out and he came in, we let him know that we had his back, 100 percent.”
What remains to be seen is whether the club will follow suit. Watson has been given the job on a half-year basis as an extended tryout of sorts. In the meantime, the club is still looking at other options for 2014.
That means every result can be seen as a referendum of sorts on Watson’s tenure. Not that the 42-year-old is looking at it that way.
“Whatever my tag is, it doesn’t bother me,” Watson said. “I’m here to win games.”