What we said at the end of 2016:
Jared Watts had a breakout year at center back for the Rapids. After trying to fit in in 2014 and 2015 as a defensive midfielder, Watts established himself as the starting CB alongside Axel Sjoberg, and was consistently very good throughout the year. His passing out of the back was excellent, and his speed, technical ability, and emergency tackling helped to form a critical element in Colorado’s league-best defense.
2017 Counting Stats: 20 GP, 18 GS, 0 G, 1 A, 1490 min, 4 YC, 2 RC
2016- 73 Clearances, 14 Blocks, 52 Interceptions, and 31 Tackles
2017- 46 Clearances, 11 Blocks, 30 Interceptions, and 24 Tackles
Season Highlight: In the last game of Pablo Mastroeni’s tenure, the Rapids went on the road to Dallas and got a 0-0 draw. Dallas squandered a couple of golden opportunities, but were also unable to breakthrough Colorado’s fierce defense on the night. Moreover, the game began with Axel Sjoberg partnering with Jared Watts at CB, but Sjoberg would have to come off at the half, making way for Kortne Ford. The discontinuity of defensive partners didn’t seem to faze Watts, who recorded 3 tackles, 5 interceptions, 7 clearances, and 3 blocked shots; that’s a lot of defensive actions for one player.
Season Lowlight: Let’s all process the worst moment of the entire 2017 season together through something psychologists call ‘exposure therapy’. Watch this video again. No, do not skip it. You need to re-experience this.
Now re-watch this video, I dunno, a dozen times maybe. Then check to see if you are experiencing heart palpitations or depression. If you aren’t, good! You’ve started to get over the horrible season that was 2017 for the Rapids. If this video still makes you sad upon viewing, rewatch it again and again, with breaks for Pumpkin Pie or a cask-strength shot of decent scotch, until it no longer sends you into fits of tears, indescriminant screaming, or a general soul-crushing malaise. Since there really wasn’t a moment worse than this in our season - losing a 1-0 match, at home, against a putrid and awful DC United team that finished dead-last in MLS - if you can get over this atrocious own-goal, then you can declare yourself officially over the 2017 season.
I know this because this is how I got over the Joe Nasco red card game of a few years ago.
Wattsy’s season began with getting an assist in the Rapids first game of the season. On a corner kick, the ball caromed about in the box madly, and Watts booted it nearly straight up in the air. Dom Badji got a head on it, and the Rapids won, 1-0, against the Revolution at home. It looked like the whole season was going to be peaches and cream for us that day. Oh, how naive we were.
That was basically the best of days for the Rapids, and for Watts. While we had hoped Watts would build on his successful 2016 season, instead, there was only regression in 2017. In 2016 Watts was the ‘ground man’, sliding and blocking when the ball wasn’t cleared in the air by his CB partner Axel ‘Swedish Missile Defense’ Sjoberg. This year, Sjoberg went down with an injury in just the second match of the season, and the Rapids had to pair Watts up with Bobby Burling instead of the Big Swede. That partnership wasn’t as successful. And the Rapids proceeded to go winless through the first 7 matches of the year after the home opener.
In a number of matches, Watts was not the main problem, but he wasn’t the solution either. In a match against RSL on April 15 , on a corner kick that the Rapids struggled to clear, a ball bounced out from the far post to the top of the 18. Watts wheeled around in the box, with his arms swinging at his sides, just as Albert Rusnak fired a shot that hit Watt’s left hand. Red card. Penalty. PK converted. Three minutes later, the Rapids would concede another goal to Brooks Lennon, and suddenly the Rapids had converted a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss. Watts’ small error was a significant part of the collapse.
Over the next three games he played, Watts was solid as the Rapids lost to Orlando City and Vancouver, and got a win against San Jose. And then, in what might be called ‘Season Lowlight: Alternate Selection’, Watts was responsible for all three goals that the Rapids conceded against Chicago in a 3-0 road loss. He mistimed a headed clearance that gave Nemanja Nikolic the opener; lost his man completely in the box on a give-and-go that ended up a David Accam goal; and then, late in the game, whiffed on a long looping pass to Michael DeLeeuw, resulting in Nikolic’s second goal. It was, as the English commentators like to say, shambolic defending from the usually reliable defender.
That game was on May 17th. Over the next 9 matches, Watts was only selected for the Starting XI once, as he was clearly (and justifiably) buried deep in Pablo Mastroeni’s doghouse. He wouldn’t start for the Rapids again in consecutive matches until July 29th and August 5th. Later in the season, under interim coach Steve Cooke, he’d play five times alongside Micheal Azira or Nana Boateng as a defensive midfielder, but did not distinguish himself in that new/old role either. Late in the season, Watts picked up a red in a match against Montreal for a studs up tackle; it was a really dangerous tackle that could have snapped Chris Duvall’s leg in two. Shortly thereafter, Watts had shoulder surgery and was shut down for the year, although he should be back and fully healthy for 2018.
Watts’ sudden regression after a strong 2016 is all a little hard to understand. I’d like to think that the miscues were all subtle and the result of a bit of persistent bad luck: Watts was an inch behind here, a hand just barely in the wrong place there, etc. But sports is always a game of inches, and as they say, ball don’t lie.
Being an effective defender in soccer is, to my mind, about controlled chaos; about balanced recklessness. You make an emergency slide at just the right moment. You leap at the ball without leaping into the man. You constantly ride the line of being just physical enough to regain the ball, but not so physical that you draw a foul. It is a cursed and near impossible tightrope to walk.
This season, Watts couldn’t find that groove between aggressive and subtle. In 2014 and 2015, he was a clattering mess of aggressivity. In 2016 he was perfectly balanced between forceful and disruptive and cool and collected. And in 2017, he was never quite active enough, not assertive enough, and not quite there enough. It’s like he evolved from ‘Speed Metal’ Watts to ‘Led Zepplin’ Watts to ‘Sentimental Ballad Adult Contemporary Watts’. Not good.
My evidence is in the key stats above. From 2016 to 2017, Watts’ playing time declined only 9%. His number of clearances declined 37%, his blocks declined 21%, his interceptions declined 42%, and his tackles declined 22%. You can’t isolate Watts’ performance from that of his teammates, and perhaps tactical adjustments and not playing next to Sjoberg and trading Sam Cronin impacted the way Watts played. Maybe. But to my eye, Watts just wasn’t as active and aggressive. He stepped tentatively, or late, or not at all in too many situations. Maybe he was carrying a knock. Maybe he lost confidence. Maybe he was distracted. I don’t know. What I know is, he wasn’t great this year, and we lost a lot more games this year, and he played a significant role in all the many times this year I put my head in my hands at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
All this leaves us with some critical questions, namely: can Watts bounce back? And if he does bounce back, will he do it with the Colorado Rapids?
On the first question, no one can know. And on the second question: signs point to no. Between Watts’ extended span on the bench and Padraig Smith’s pronouncment that the team will “turn over 9, 10, or 11 roster spots”, Watts’ future with the team looks doubtful.
In addition, Korte Ford improved throughout the season, and looks to have supplanted Watts at starting CB. Watts late-season switch to d-mid implies that perhaps the team was tinkering with other ways to make use of him for 2018. However, Watts doesn’t really have the tools to become a box-to-box midfielder with attacking chops the way Padraig Smith implies the team would like to go to. So it’s hard to see how the four-year MLS veteran from Wake Forest slots into this team, except maybe as a backup CB.
Perhaps Watts needs a change of scenery in order to rediscover the mojo that made him so effective in 2016. Remember, he was a key brick in the six-man wall of the 2016 Rapids defense that set the MLS record for fewest goals allowed at home. He was a certifiably good defender once. He can be again, but maybe not in Colorado.
Abbie’s 2017 Grade: B as a defender, D as a midfielder
Rabbi’s 2017 Grade: C