Since June 7 when he was named interim head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes, Mark Watson has been auditioning to become the permanent replacement for former coach Frank Yallop. On Sunday evening, he learned that he had made the grade.
During the first annual Earthquakes Awards Gala in downtown San Jose, club general manager John Doyle told an audience of loyal boosters and supporters that the club has agreed to terms with Watson on a long-term contract that will see the longtime assistant finally earn the unencumbered title of "Head Coach."
"My focus has been on the team and the season since the day I took over," said on Saturday following the Quakes season ending win against FC Dallas. "We'll sit down over the next couple of days and discuss it. Hopefully it works out."
While the deal has not been finalized, Doyle said that he expects to make an official announcement in the coming days. The GM provided plenty of praise for Watson in his address and stated the he expected great things from the club's new head coach.
Watson took over an Earthquakes team that had limped through the first half of the MLS season to a 3-6-6 record and a winless mark on the road. The defending Supporters' Shield holders were playing nothing like the team that scored a club record 72 goals in 2012, and the defense was prone to making too many mistakes. The season was slowly fading into oblivion.
Under the weight of great expectations, Yallop, the reigning MLS Coach of the Year, and the Quakes front office agreed to part ways in early June, paving the way for his assistant coach Watson to take over. The then 42-year old former Canadian international, who joined the Quakes coaching staff prior to the 2010 season, stepped into the role vacated by his mentor and quickly got to work stabilizing the team. San Jose won in his first game in charge, a 2-1 win at the Colorado Rapids, and the team never looked back.
"We've played very well in the second half of the season," said goalkeeper Jon Busch late last week. "We've been organized defensively, which is very important. If you look at the record we've put up, it's a very good record. Credit has to go to the players as well as Mark and his staff. He's tightened things up and got us back on track."
In the 19 MLS games in which he was in charge as the "interim" head coach, Watson guided the Earthquakes to a 11-5-3 record and the best points per game average in the league. The left-for-dead Quakes fought back to nearly make the postseason, finishing the year with 51 points and missing out on a spot in the playoffs due to the goals scored tiebreaker with the Rapids. Along the way, the Earthquakes won their CONCACAF Champions League group and will play in the knockout round of the tournament next March. They ended the year with a 16 game home unbeaten streak in MLS.
"I've felt good about the time I've been in charge," said Watson. "The players have done very well and I'm fortunate as a coach to work with a great group of players. They've given me everything they have every day and the things I ask of them on the game days they keep doing time and time again."
Just how impressive was the Quakes turnaround under the stewardship of Watson? In the final overall MLS table, San Jose finished tied for the 7th best record overall with playoff qualifiers New England Revolution, Houston Dynamo, and Colorado after earlier in the year stuck in the standings 4th from last.
"You look at what he's done and there's a huge case for him to stay," Busch continued. "The numbers speak for themselves. We were in a very big hole when he took over. You have to tip your hand to Mark and what he has done with this season in where it was to where he got it. It was a great job."
For an MLS veteran like Busch, it was easy to see how effective Watson was at the job, and the goalkeeper, who was named the 2013 Earthquakes defender of the year at Sunday's gala, knew from the moment the rookie head coach took over that the team was in good hands.
"Some of the attributes Mark has are that he is very detail oriented," Busch explained in a lengthy testimonial for Watson. "We go over a lot of scouting tape and the sessions are very detailed for whichever team we are getting ready to face. You can see that on the field. We are prepared for everything, we are very organized. He leaves no rock unturned. It's a nice feeling when you go into a game knowing exactly what you'll be facing. For me that is the biggest thing. The discipline he's brought into the team. We are in every game now and it is great for me to see it from the back four."
A big key to the Earthquakes second half turnaround in which they posted the best record in MLS was a disciplined defense. Newcomers Clarence Goodson and Jordan Stewart added to an already seasoned defensive corps, and Watson meshed them all together into an effective cohesive unit. Over their final 9 games in all competitions, the Quakes allowed only 2 goals and posted an unbeaten record of 7-0-2.
"He's absolutely made the case," said Goodson of Watson deserving the head coaching job on a permanent basis. "We're the best team in MLS in the second half of the season. I think the coaching staff has done a good job of getting us into the position we were in. I think everyone has been happy with the way we have been able to turn things around."
Goodson's arrival following the U.S. Men's national team's Gold Cup win in July certainly helped propel the Quakes on their late summer run up the Western Conference standings, but the defender was quick to point out that the team's resurgence was a product of the leadership Watson provided.
"Mark's been very good," continued Goodson following last Tuesday's team training session. "Mark's done a great job. All the things that the team wasn't doing in the first half of the season to what we are doing now, full credit has to go to Mark and his staff."
With the near-miss of qualifying for the postseason still fresh in their minds, the Earthquakes look ahead to the 2014 season with renewed expectations for success. And having restored the team's faith in their capabilities, Watson will deservedly be there to lead them forward.