Monday, April 12, 2010
One would be stretched to label a 23 year old professional soccer player as a well-traveled grizzled veteran of the game, but in the case of Jamie Watson, it is a perfect description.

Entering his sixth professional season, this one as a member of the Austin Aztex of the USL, Watson's resume paints a broad brush across the American soccer landscape and is full of the pitfalls that can happen to players who are given so much at such a young age.

But today Watson sees himself as a remade man and is adamant that he will never revert back to the kind of player he was when he first broke out onto the MLS landscape five years ago.

"In 2005, I was a Generation Adidas guy and was selected as the 13th overall pick in the MLS draft," Watson recently recounted to YA. "The biggest thing is that I wish I knew then what I know now. I was a U-17 and U-20 guy, had success at the University of North Carolina… I bought into the hype. I forgot everything that had gotten me to the point of where I was while at Salt Lake. I took everything for granted."

In three seasons with the Utah club, Watson appeared in 38 matches but only scored two goals, totals not expected of a player who was picked as the first selection in the second round of the draft.

Even despite his underachieving play, Watson remained convinced that he would remain with the team another year.

That expectation made his release in January of 2008 all the more stunning to him, but as Watson looks back on it, his departure from Real Salt Lake had a profound and positive effect on his career.

"For me, in hindsight, getting released was one of the best things to happen to me," Watson explained. "It was a wake up call. I was everything older guys hated. I had everything in Salt Lake. I had a house, a beautiful celebrity girlfriend and status in the community since I had really invested myself there.

"My contract was guaranteed for two years and then there was a two year option. I thought I was too valuable to the team and community to ever get released. But I got released and looking back on it now, I'm appreciative. It was hard to swallow. I was just 21 and about to be 22."

When the news came down, the shocked Coppell, Texas native admits that it was the first time he had second thoughts about his playing future.

"It was really the first time I had ever questioned myself," Watson humbly recalled. "I realized that it was just about results and performance. I had to sell my house, things with my girlfriend eventually ended and my relationships with friends in Salt Lake drastically changed."

The next several months brought about a long series of trials and travels that saw Watson try to latch on with clubs from both MLS and the USL, all of which proved to be unsuccessful.

Desperate to land a playing gig anywhere, Watson finally ended up with the Aztex Under-23 team of the PDL. In just half a year, Watson had gone from being a MLS player and a homeowner to sharing an apartment with four other guys in an amateur league.

"In 2008, I started camp with FC Dallas but then went to Toronto to try out there and was offered a developmental contract," he continued. "I told them no and went back to Dallas and was told there was no spot for me there. I then went to Seattle. They were still USL but would be moving up to MLS the following year. They told me that they didn't see me making an MLS squad. I also tried Portland, but there was no offer there.

"I then got a call from Bobby Murphy with the Austin Aztex PDL team. It was humbling. I went to play for the Aztex PDL team but had lost my professional status. I went from owning my own home to sleeping on a couch and sharing an apartment with four other guys all in the span of six months."

It would have been easy for the former Tar Heel to have packed up his bags and called it quits after such a precipitous fall.

But that was the last thing on Watson's mind and he contends his PDL experience made him even more focused and driven.

"I just had to tell myself to deal with it and make the most of it," he said of his time in the US' fourth level of soccer. "I found some mental toughness while playing in the PDL."

At the start of 2009, Watson once again tried to earn a deal in his hometown when he started the preseason with FC Dallas.

Despite performing well in exhibition matches, Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman opted to not offer the forward a contract. The decision disappointed Watson but much like his release from Real Salt Lake, he considers it a blessing in disguise.

"I personally think they should have chosen differently, but in a way, I have to thank him," added Watson. "I would have sat on the bench most likely while I was there. Sometimes bosses make decisions you don't agree with but in the end, it's actually the best thing for you and it works out."

Dallas' refusal to sign the 23 year old opened up another door and so it was off to his old stomping grounds of North Carolina where he landed with USL-2 club Wilmington and found a stable environment that summer.

"I was then contacted by Wilmington coach David Irving," he noted. "They were the first team to contact me and I just made it clear that all I wanted was to play and score goals. I didn't want any more rollercoasters. David gave me that chance and it was the best decision I ever made. I led the league in scoring and would be upset with myself if I didn't score a goal in a game.

"It wasn't glamorous playing in USL-2, but I did what I had to do. I saw how good I had it in MLS after playing in the PDL and USL-2. You can't appreciate the good without having the bad."

Watson led the league in scoring with 12 goals in 16 games and helped the Hammerheads earn a regular season USL-2 title.

His play was noticed by the Aztex who, by this time, had become a USL-1 franchise. The Lone Star State native returned to Austin and finished out the 2009 USL-1 season with a respectable two goals in six matches.

The club brass was pleased with those results and offered Watson a contract for 2010 plus a club option for 2011. Watson says he is happy to be playing for a coach, former Everton legend Adrian Heath, he admires and that it will be very special for him to be able to play in front of those close to him, especially his younger brother who has special needs of his own.

"I'm extremely happy here in Austin. This is the option I wanted to choose. I have a great relationship with Adrian and [Aztex owner] Phil Rawlins. Adrian makes me a better player. I like playing for him play for him. Guys want to play for him and he's very personable. I respect what he did as a player and can relate to him."

"I can't wait to play in front of my parents and my siblings. My younger brother Brett has cerebral palsy and he's in a wheelchair. It limits my parents so they haven't really been able to just pack up and come and watch me play. Now in Austin, traveling with Brett down from Dallas is doable."

One option that Watson was never able to explore was plying his trade overseas. He ascertains that he would have considered a move to Europe but that frankly, he never had the right contacts to get a foot in the door with a European club.

Nevertheless, Watson said that he still hopes one day to play abroad and would not limit his choices to clubs across the Atlantic.

"My ambitions are to one day, years down the road, play abroad and not necessarily in Europe. But right now my commitment is to Austin and to the Aztex. In the past, had I had the connections, I would have gone abroad. A lot of Americans would like to go abroad, they just don't have the contacts or connections. That's the hardest part about finding a job overseas."

The onset of the 2010 MLS season has brought about a whole slew on young players looking to make a quick impact on their new clubs.

It would be easy for people to draw parallels between Watson and many other up and coming players like Jack McInerney, a 2010 MLS SuperDraft first round pick with the Philadelphia Union.

Both starred for the US Under-17 team, participated at U-17 World Cups, were Generation Adidas contract players residing at the Bradenton US youth soccer academy and now, both have been selected as high picks for expansion franchises.

If there was one piece of advice that Watson says he would give McInerney or any other promising young player, it would be to not settle and to always remake yourself into a better player.

"I would tell [McInerney] that whatever you have done to get here, don't settle on it," he asserted. "Don't think that's enough. That's when it all starts to slip away. Always think about what you're doing next. Stay grounded and learn from others. Bradenton kids get sheltered. Thirty kids are told that they are the best. It can be easy to think you've done enough when you haven't."

When it is all said and done, the dream that truly keeps Watson going forward is the one where he will be able to suit up for the Stars and Stripes.

After being a regular for the U-17, U-20 and U-23 teams, the owner of 10 international goals has now gone several years without any national team caps.

However Watson remains undeterred and says that one day he believes he will fulfill a vision he recently had where he played for the US national team in the same stadium where his professional career began.

"It was weird to start not getting called into U-20 camps," he concluded. "I always felt like I belonged at each YNT camp, but now I understand why… I still have ambitions to play for the USMNT team. I had a dream the other night that I was playing for the USMNT at Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake and I hope to make that come true one day."

Watson will look to tally his second goal of the season this Friday when the Aztex take on AC St. Louis.