Je-Vaughn Watson was a late addition to the Revolution's preseason camp, but made an immediate impression on Head Coach Jay Heaps. After spending a week with the club in Arizona, the Revs traded their 2017 third round SuperDraft pick to FC Dallas for his rights. It was unknown how big of a role Watson would have on this squad, and fans and media alike wondered if the move was made simply for his versatility, or perhaps to fulfill his request for an east-coast move.
Although he arrived late to the competition, Watson beat out teammates Jordan McCrary, Darrius Barnes, and London Woodberry earning the starting job at right back, playing all 90 minutes during Sunday's match in Houston. The right back position is still wide open, with all four surely being considered to make starting appearances over the season. For most of the preseason, it was Woodberry who got first-team minutes, and it looked like he was penciled in as the starter. Granted, Heaps' first starting XI of the 2016 season was evident of experimentation.
Watson was not perfect on Sunday, but he was certainly a pleasant surprise among a defense that did not give Revs fans much to be happy about. His quiet, strong performance was rewarded as he made an appearance on the bench of the MLS Team of the Week (Watson's first TotW selection since September 2014).
Throughout Sunday's 3-3 draw against his former club, Watson was consistently able to keep up with fellow Jamaican international Giles Barnes on the Houston attack, exhibiting his exceptional pace not expected from a 32 year-old. On the ball, Watson shone as well. He covered his ground along the right side of the field, creating chances in the attacking third.
Heaps seems to have an affinity towards Watson, giving him the nod in Houston after praising his performance in the Desert Diamond Cup final versus Columbus. This sets him up to make more starting appearances down the road, but not before Heaps gives Watson's right back competition their rightful chances as well.
While initially surprising a group of Revs fans, Watson's start was understandable. Heaps is going to give all four right backs a chance eventually, and no right back had distinguished themselves from the other three by the end of preseason. The first few weeks of the regular season is when Heaps has the most leeway to experiment and determine his best XI, and Watson seemingly made sense versus Houston .
To begin, Watson appeared 41 times for the Dynamo from 2011-2012, and although they have since made significant changes to their scheme and their coaching staff, he is familiar with the environment. Secondly, Heaps saw Watson as the best matchup for Dynamo left winger Giles Barnes. Barnes and Watson are similar physically, and additionally have played together as international teammates for the Reggae Boyz (both Barnes and Watson were on the Gold Cup squad that reached the final). Finally, it is fair to assume that Heaps will elect to start a speedier right back (i.e. Jordan McCrary) next week to handle DC United's quick attacking group of Luciano Acosta, Lamar Neagle, and Nick DeLeon.
Now, going back to my original question, is Watson a long-term solution? My answer: I don't see why not, but I hope it won't be the case. I see Watson as somewhat of a last resort in an every-week starting role. As we have seen over his career and this past weekend, he is a reliable option, but is he the Revs' best one?
Being the optimist I am, I strongly believe in Jordan McCrary. I believe that after he becomes accustomed to the pace and physicality of the MLS, he will be a go-to option for Coach Heaps and will be a staple over the coming years. His youth is a virtue, and he will be able to develop among an otherwise experienced defensive group. With McCrary only having a handful of preseason games under his belt, however, my only basis for that comes from college scouting reports and a whim.
Darrius Barnes is another toss-up. Barnes has been a consistent member of the Revolution roster since 2009, but over the past few years has been stuck at the bottom of the depth chart behind the likes of Andrew Farrell, Kevin Alston, Jeremy Hall, and London Woodberry. In addition, Barnes missed nearly all of the 2015 campaign with a torn patellar tendon.
Both Barnes and McCrary are 2016 breakout candidates, and Woodberry has shown to be a formidable option as well. As I said, I hope that McCrary or Barnes will break out and distinguish themselves. I hope that one of them sets themselves apart and makes a name for themselves as the clear number one choice for Heaps.
For this to happen, Heaps cannot be blindly devoted to Watson or Woodberry, two reliable options. The next few weeks will determine whether he is willing to give his other right backs a legitimate chance, albeit riskier, or if he will play this season safe and start a back line full of veterans. If McCrary, Barnes, and Woodberry fail to perform and Watson is the last resort, however, he is without a doubt an above-average third or fourth choice.
Keep in mind, Watson made 22 starts on an FC Dallas back line last season that finished top of the Western Conference and conceded just 39 goals. Since Watson has joined the club, it is clear that Heaps sees him as a key factor in his plans. Despite his age, Watson is more than just another name on the roster, but as a player who can help the Revs contend among the top of the Eastern Conference.
That being said, if McCrary, Barnes, or Woodberry can find comfort and stability at right back and push Watson to a reserve role, I'll still be content. Jay Heaps has a plethora of right backs on his plate, and how he deals with them could dictate how the 2016 season plays out.