PORTLAND, Ore. — One year ago, as San Jose left Portland’s Rose City Invitational, a slew of injuries to attacking players had then-coach Frank Yallop concerned ahead of the Earthquakes’ Supporters’ Shield defense. As the team struggled to replicate their 2012 form, Yallop’s premonitions proved true, with San Jose’s struggles eventually seeing the veteran boss move on from his place on the sidelines.
In stepped Mark Watson, whose move from assistant to interim head coach helped restore San Jose’s place in the Western Conference playoff race. Though the Earthquakes eventually fell short of the postseason, Watson’s results earned the former Columbus, New England, and DC United defender the full-time job.
Following Saturday’s preseason game against Jamaica’s Portmore United at Providence Park, Watson stopped for a brief Q-and-A with ProSoccerTalk.
PST: Last year at this time, it seemed injuries and the absence of Simon (Dawkins) were on coach Yallop’s mind. Can you compare the mindset now to the mindset last year?
Watson: I think we’re in better shape physically, in terms of injuries. Last year was incredible, just the number of guys who were out. It’s not that we don’t have little knocks, little injuries and stuff, but I think in terms of the first team players that are available, I think we’re in better shape. I prefer to have everyone completely healthy, but that doesn’t always work out like that.
On expectations for 2014.
Watson: I think we kind of feed off how we finished last season. We’re a really solid unit. We’re going build on that and try to get better. I think goals for this season, number one would be to try and make the playoffs. And then once you make the playoffs you look beyond that. Going into the season, making the playoffs in a very difficult Western Conference is our primary goal.
PST: You’ve replaced Rafa (Baca) with Jean-Baptiste (Pierazzi), and you’ve swapped out the fullbacks for new players. Do you feel there’s one particular area where this team is stronger? Which of your additions do you think is going to be most important?
Watson: I’d say in general we got a little bit better. We had to make a lot of decisions. It wasn’t always that we didn’t want the players, but when you work under a salary cap, you have to make things work on that side of it. We feel good about the squad right now, and I think everything’s really positive going into the start of the season.
On how San Jose stacks up to the teams that finished at the top of the Western Conference.
Watson: I’m not sure the exact math, but I think we finished the season two and three and four points behind [LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and Portland], so there’s not a huge margin there. We know they’re good teams. They’ve all gotten better, and we know that we’re going to have to perform very well to compete against those teams and get in the playoffs.
On matching up with the midfield strength of Portland, Real Salt Lake.
Watson: For us, like you said, we’re a solid unit. Do we spend millions of dollars on big name players? No, we don’t. That’s not an excuse.
We’re really happy with our team. We want to continue being a solid defensive unit and work on a few little things as far as moving the ball better, being a little bit more varied in our attack. Ultimately, when we get the ball, we’re trying to score goals, and trying to get service to our strikers who are very good at putting the ball in the back of the net.
PST: This is your first full preseason. What are your thoughts (on the experience)?
I feel good. I feel very fortunate in the fact that we have a great group of guys to work with. They come every day prepared to work and give you everything they have. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Whether anything about his first preseason caught him by surprise.
As a coach, you expect the unexpected. You have a plan, but it rarely goes to plan. There’s always going to be little injuries. We missed guys for international games and media tours – there’s always little things. I think you just stay the course and stick to what you believe in, and having a good solid, honest, hard-working group of players is usually a good starting point.