On Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, not many eyes will be on Mark Watson.
The nationally televised match-up between Orlando City and New York City FC will feature Kaká and David Villa, along with Frank Lampard and (possibly) Andrea Pirlo making their MLS debuts. The attention will be turned to the players on the field, and the three points at stake in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
But for Orlando City Assistant Coach Mark Watson, the game will mean just a little bit more. It will be Watson's first full game in charge of an MLS team (if only for a day) since he was fired as head coach of the San Diego Earthquakes at the end of the 2014 season. With Adrian Heath suspended for the game after being sent off last week against the New York Red Bulls, Watson will be tasked with leading the Lions into one of their most important road games of the season.
July has been a cruel month for Orlando, with the club seeking its first win since a 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids back on June 24. After Wednesday's listless U.S. Open Cup defeat to last-place Chicago Fire, Orlando City can't afford to let the free fall continue much longer.
That's where Watson comes in.
His task won't be an easy one against NYCFC, but the 44-year-old Canadian appears up to the job.
Watson enjoyed a nomadic playing career across North America and Europe, never making more than 70 appearances with any of the 13 clubs he played for. But his real home was in the red and white of the Canadian national team, with whom he is the second-most capped player of all time. Watson also helped bring Canada its most prestigious international trophy to date, as part of the Gold Cup-winning squad in 2000.
After joining the coaching ranks as an assistant with the Canadian national team, he got his start in MLS with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2010. It was in Southern California where Watson received his first head coaching job, filling in as interim manager for the Quakes after Frank Yallop was fired midway through the 2013 season.
He impressed many during his interim stint in San Jose, nearly rallying a floundering Earthquakes team to a playoff berth, and was brought back in 2014 as a full-time head coach. That season proved to be less successful, and Watson was fired at the end of last season.
He joined the Lions as an assistant during the off-season, but will be tasked with managing the club on Sunday in New York City. The last time Orlando City faced NYCFC, Watson earned a suspension for entering the field of play.
So what can Orlando City fans expect from their skipper-for-a-day?
Well, after replacing an ejected Heath last weekend against the Red Bulls, Watson made a couple adjustments to try and help Orlando find a late equalizer, subbing in Bryan Róchez and Pedro Ribeiro for Lewis Neal and Corey Ashe, respectively. Don't expect to see Róchez in the starting lineup against NYCFC, but it will be interesting to see if Watson elects to give Ribeiro a run-out in Orlando's three-man midfield.
The big Brazilian is capable of playing up top as a lone striker, but with Cyle Larin looking to build off a goal against Chicago on Wednesday, it's unlikely Watson sits him for such an important match. And as a forward-midfielder hybrid, Ribeiro gives Watson the ability to start a player with the offensive finesse of a second striker, even if he's playing out of the midfield.
Tactically, Watson has been flexible throughout his career, which should suit him well for a one-game stretch as head coach with the Lions. Operating mainly out of a 4-4-2 with San Jose, Watson expressed a willingness to mix it up when his team struggled, often crowding the midfield to create turnovers and spark the offense. It will be interesting to see how he matches up against MLS veteran Jason Kreis, his opposition on the sidelines at Yankee Stadium.
Sunday provides an opportunity for Watson to show he belongs in Orlando, and perhaps give any other teams with head coaching questions around the league something to think about during the off-season. In reality, he's actually in a pretty good spot.
If he outclasses Kreis and leads Orlando to their first win in a month, Watson will be seen as a promising young manager perhaps worthy of another shot. And if he fails, well then he's just filling in right?