As Mark Watson and Ian Fuller stepped onto the field Saturday night at Blackbaud Stadium for Orlando City SC’s match in the Carolina Challenge Cup, the pair couldn’t help but get a little nostalgic.
Not so long ago, Watson and Fuller, both assistant coaches for Orlando — Major League Soccer’s latest expansion club — were players and assistant coaches for the Charleston Battery.
As the two made their way to the Orlando bench Saturday, they took time to catch up with some familiar faces.
It was almost like they’d never left.
“You look around the stadium and see all the friends that you made while you were here and it’s impossible not to think about all the great times,” Watson said. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been away, I’m always so happy to come back here and see everyone. I loved every minute I spent here. No matter where I am or what club I’m with, the city of Charleston and especially the Battery will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Watson spent nearly a decade with the Battery as a player and an assistant coach from 2002-09, leading the club to a USL A-League national title in 2003 as the team captain. Fuller played with Charleston for five seasons, leading the team to the U.S. Open Cup finals in 2008 and scoring the game-winning goal in the USL Second Division championship game in 2010.
While both have moved on to bigger things with the MLS and Orlando City, the Battery and Blackbaud Stadium will always feel like home.
Watson and Fuller will face their former club Wednesday night as Orlando takes on the Battery in the second round of the Carolina Challenge Cup beginning at 7:30 p.m. at Blackbaud Stadium. New York City FC will play the Houston Dynamo in the opening match at 5 p.m.
“I spent five years here and that’s the longest I was with any club until Orlando,” said Fuller, who played for the Battery from 2006-10. “I haven’t lived here in almost five years, but this place will always feel like home.”
The irony of being back in Charleston this week, serving together on the same MLS coaching staff, isn’t lost on Watson and Fuller. Watson and Fuller worked together before as assistant coach and player for the Battery for four seasons.
“It wasn’t that long ago that Ian and I were on the opposite bench trying to help the Battery win this tournament, and now here we are working to try and beat them,” Watson said. “I’m pretty sure back then that Ian and I never thought we’d be where we are today working together on the same coaching staff for an MLS team.”
Charleston Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride in seeing Watson and Fuller working together.
“I know how hard they’ve both worked to get to where they are today,” Anhaeuser said. “They are both great coaches and know the game very well. I’m really proud of both of them. To think that I might have had a small part in their success is very gratifying.”
For the past five seasons, Fuller has worked as a player-coach with Orlando City SC head coach Adrian Heath. He had played for Heath with the USL’s Austin Aztex and then moved to Orlando when the club relocated to Florida. Orlando won two USL Pro Division titles in 2011 and 2013. Fuller wasn’t sure if he’d be retained when the club made the transition from the USL to the MLS.
“I tried to prove myself to Adrian every single day,” said Fuller, a former collegiate star at Clemson. “There was no guarantee that I’d come back when we moved to the MLS, so I wanted to prove to Adrian that I could get the job done. It wasn’t until late last season that I knew I was going to come back as an assistant coach.”
Watson was in the MLS as an assistant coach and a head coach with the San Jose Earthquakes. Watson, who had been an assistant coach with the Earthquakes since 2010, took over as head coach in June 2013. The Earthquakes finished with an 11-5-3 mark, the best finish of any MLS club.
Watson wasn’t so fortunate in 2014. Injuries and a limited budget took its toll as the Earthquakes limped to a 6-16-12 mark. He was let go at the end of the season.
“It was a humbling experience because at the end of the day it falls to the head coach to get the results,” Watson said. “Injuries and a willingness to sign players are variables that every coach faces. The bottom line is that everyone’s competitive and everyone wants to win.”
Watson wasn’t out of work more than a week before Heath reached out to him about an assistant’s job. With Fuller’s endorsement, Watson was hired.
“I didn’t know Ian was on the staff when I took the job,” Watson said, laughing. “No, Ian has been great to work with. I probably would have preferred to play a few more rounds of golf before I got back into coaching, but once I knew the direction Orlando was headed it was an easy decision to come here.”
In the matter of a few short years, Watson and Fuller have gone from working in the second tier of soccer in the United States to coaching the likes of an international star like midfielder Kaka, who was the FIFA’s player of the year in 2007.
“Even before Orlando joined the MLS, Adrian had talked about his plans to bring Kaka to the United States,” Fuller said. “I’m a young coach and to be around a player like Kaka has been amazing. He’s been amazing to work with. He’s a total team guy and he’s tremendous with the younger players.”