SAN JOSE -- Mark Watson wanted to play basketball while growing up in West Vancouver, Canada.

"Basketball was his first choice in high school," father Keith Watson said. "He went to junior college meaning to play basketball. Basketball was his game."

It turns out the Earthquakes' new coach was shooting at the wrong goal.

After exchanging a backboard for goal posts, Watson became one of Canada's most decorated soccer players. Now the former guard brings a wealth of playing and coaching experience as San Jose's second coach since the team re-entered Major League Soccer in 2008.

Watson will make his MLS coaching debut Saturday when the Earthquakes play the Colorado Rapids in an attempt to reverse a 1-5-5 slide less than a year after winning the Supporters' Shield.

Watson, 42, assumed his first head coaching job last week when replacing mentor Frank Yallop on an interim basis for the rest of the year. He is a candidate to win the position, but team officials also are conducting an international search.

"It does motivate you," said Watson, who lives in Campbell with his wife, Hannah, and two young children. "I don't take anything for granted."

Watson gave up basketball in his first year at Capilano College in North Vancouver and has not looked back, making 78 appearances with Canada's soccer team. The Canadian hall of fame defender also played five seasons in England's lower divisions as well as Sweden and MLS.

When it comes to coaching, Watson is a disciple of Yallop, a two-time MLS coach of the year. They were teammates on the Canadian national team in the 1990s. Then Watson coached under Yallop on the national team from 2004-06 before coming to San Jose as the chief assistant in 2010.

The past week has been fraught with emotion because of those close bonds, but Watson has tried to push sentiment aside while facing the daunting task of changing the Quakes' fortunes.

The team might look different despite the long history with Yallop.

"He knows his own mind," said Watson's father, a former soccer player who once coached his son. "He has strong opinions. He's not afraid to tell you straight to your face if he doesn't like something."

Former teammates and coaches offer similar refrains about Watson's playing style.

"If you're a forward, he's a guy you don't want to play against," said former teammate John Wilson of the Charleston Battery.

"Mark demonstrated a tenacity and willingness to go into almost any challenge," added Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, who coached Watson on the national team. "He was a hard, hard player -- your prototype center back."

Although he played on Vancouver youth teams while growing up, Watson largely went unnoticed until he was 19. Olympic coach Bruce Twamley spotted him with the West Vancouver Trollers and invited Watson to try out.

According to Watson's father, it happened only because the youth national team was training at Capilano College where Watson happened to be playing. At the time, Watson also had a good-paying union job with B.C. Ferries.

But corralling strikers proved more appealing than ferrying customers around Horseshoe Bay.

Watson's soccer career skyrocketed after Twamley's "discovery."

"He was a late developer," said Twamley, who later hired Watson to assist coaching Canada's Olympic team.

Watson learned technical skills playing at English club Watford in his 20s -- too late by European standards.

"I learned how teams play, not thinking of the game as 20 players, the ball and the grass," he said.

Watson wasn't the fastest player but was so smart that he rarely got beat by speed, Charleston's Wilson said.

But now Watson finds himself in a different kind of sprint. The rookie coach has little time to prove he's the right man to shepherd the Earthquakes into a new era.

  • The Earthquakes waived rookie midfielder Abu Tommy, who showed promise in the preseason but never appeared with the first team, the club announced Friday. Tommy, 23, played 199 minutes in three Reserve League games.

    Saturday's game
    Earthquakes (3-6-6) at Colorado (5-4-5), 6 p.m. CSNCA