The Earthquakes were a tiebreaker away from making the Major League Soccer playoffs last season, but even that scenario seemed unlikely when the team swapped coaches in the middle of the schedule.
Mark Watson starts his first full season as coach with the season opener Saturday against Real Salt Lake, and already feels what the team did after he took over in June stands as something to hang his hat on.
It was certainly enough to remove the interim tag from his title, not to mention the team advancing to the CONACAF Champions League quarterfinals, as he signed a multiyear contract in October.
The Quakes’ 11-5-3 record after he took over put San Jose in a tie with the Colorado Rapids with a 14-11-9 record for the season, but Colorado’s edge in goals scored gave the Rapids the tiebreaker and the postseason berth.
Goalie Jon Busch said the change after Watson’s arrival started on defense.
“When Mark took over last year,” he said, “we really started putting the emphasis on staying organized defensively and staying in our defensive shape and being hard to break down. I thnk that’s continued through [the] preseason. ... I think that’s the biggest thing. Offensively, when we can possess the ball, we want to possess the ball. If we want to go forward directly, we have the option to do that, too.”
With a fresh infusion of young talent this season, it’s safe to say the bar has been raised. Expectations are already high for J.J. Koval, the team’s first-round draft pick, who should provide an offensive complement to star Chris Wondolowski. With 11 goals last season, Wondolowski reached double digits for the fourth straight season, just the 11th MLS player to reach accomplish the feat.
“I think we’re going to see some surprises from J.J. Koval, our first-round draft pick out of Stanford,” Watson said. “He’s someone that we really like and we were really happy to pick up with the ninth spot. He looked really good in preseason, and I think he’s got a bright future hopefully he’ll get some chances to prove himself this year.”
Eartquakes vs. Real Salt Lake
WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Buck Shaw Stadium, Santa Clara
TV: Comcast SportsNet California
RADIO: KZSF (1370 AM)