When Mark Watson heads down the tunnel toward the field at Blackbaud Stadium tonight, he’ll have to be mentally focused on which way to turn at the top of the steps.
For seven seasons — five as a player and two as an assistant coach — Watson would turn to his right, take the three metal steps down to the field and head to the Charleston Battery bench.
But tonight, the former Charleston Battery defender will have to remember that his bench will be on the left side with Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes. Watson has been an assistant coach with the Earthquakes for the past four seasons.
But old habits die hard.
The Charleston Battery will take on San Jose today in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup beginning at 7:30 p.m. at Blackbaud Stadium.
“I know at some point during the night I’m going to do it. I’ll unconsciously go to my right at the top of the ramp because that’s what I did for so many years,” said Watson, who played more than 100 games with the Charleston Battery from 2002-2007. “I might even sit down on the bench until I realize that I’m not supposed to be there.”
This is the first time Watson has been back to Blackbaud Stadium since San Jose head coach Frank Yallop lured the former Canadian national team captain away from the Battery in 2010. Watson admits there will be some mixed emotions before the opening kickoff. It’s nearly impossible to shrug off friendships that were built over seven seasons. But when the whistle blows to start the game, all that will be a distant memory, Watson said.
“I have so many great memories of the city of Charleston and the Charleston Battery,” Watson said. “You can’t spend that much time in a city and not get attached to it. I met my wife there, my first child was born there. Charleston will always hold a special place in my heart. With all that being said, we’re there to get a good result and to win the game.”
It’s been awhile since Watson has seen Battery head coach Mike Anhaeuser, assistant coach and former roommate Dusty Hudock and defender John Wilson. Those are the only three who remain from the club when Watson suited up for the Battery.
“It’ll be great to see those guys and catch up with them,” Watson said. “I don’t get to talk to them as much as I’d like because the job is so busy, so this will give me a chance to talk with them.”
Wilson said seeing Watson on the visitor’s bench at Blackbaud Stadium will take some getting used to.
“Mark is a quality player and a quality coach,” Wilson said. “He knows the game very well. As a player, he showed up every day ready to play. He was hard-nosed on the field, and I’m sure he’s got that same work ethic off of it as a coach.”
Watson and the Earthquakes arrived in town Sunday afternoon following their 1-0 loss to FC Dallas on Saturday night. The Earthquakes, who were one of the top teams in the MLS a year ago, have gotten off to a slow start this season.
While with the Battery, Watson was on the other side of games like this plenty of times. He was an assistant coach in 2008 when the Battery made it all the way to the U.S. Open Cup finals, only to lose to D.C. United 2-1 in the championship game. Watson knows the Battery won’t be satisfied with anything but a win.
“The key for us is matching the Battery’s level of intensity and play,” Watson said. “If we do that, we’re going to fine. If not, then it’s going to be a long night. I know how important the U.S. Open Cup is to the players, the fans and the club.”
After six seasons as an assistant, Watson, 42, said he’d like to become a head coach one day.
“It’s not something I’m obsessed with,” Watson said. “I want to be a head coach, but I like what I’m doing now. If it happens, it happens. You do a good job where you are, and that kind of stuff usually takes care of itself.”