When the Rapids selected Jared Watts with the 33rd pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, many pundits speculated that Colorado had picked a late gem, a player who could potentially step in and play in his first year. After all, Watts was one of the top defensive central midfielders in the SuperDraft, and that was perceived as a position of need for the Rapids.
However, with other central midfielders already in the squad like Nathan Sturgis and Nick LaBrocca, and trialists José Mari and Juan Guzman finding time in the defensive midfield spot, Watts was moved deeper on the field. While center back was not entirely new to the North Carolina native, it was an unfamiliar role.
What has surprised the Rapids coaching staff, and perhaps Watts himself, is how fast the rookie is taking to the position.
“We feel he’s developing very nicely through preseason and he’s done everything that we’ve asked of him all the way through,” said Rapids assistant coach Steve Cooke. “From defensive midfield, he’s basically just dropped back 10-15 yards and he’s able to see the game in front of him. His passing is very good, and he’s reading the game superbly well and looks like he’s played that position all his life.”
Watts also feels relatively comfortable with the switch.
“I got to play a bit of center back with some youth national teams, probably 4-5 years ago, and a little bit in college, a couple games when guys got injured,” said the rookie. “I’ve felt good there [in recent games.] Personally, I just try to do simple things, whether it’s reading the game and winning balls and playing simple, or just trying to be in good positions, winning 50-50 balls, balls in the air, and things like that.”
For Watts, dropping 15 yards from defensive midfield into the back line is less of a difference than might be expected.
“You can maybe read the game a little bit more,” said Watts about center back. “The game almost slows down a little bit. Not to say that it’s slow at all, but it’s just a different angle, a different view, and everyone is in front of you. You get a different view of the game, how to read the game.”
Rapids legend Pablo Mastroeni is also familiar with both positions, having started his MLS career as a defender before moving into the defensive midfield role that fans know him for. The Special Assistant to the Technical Director, currently overseeing first team activities, thinks that Watts has a special attribute that makes the transition easier.
“Jared is one of the smarter soccer players that you’re going to come across, and tied in with that smartness is the ability to adapt to different situations,” said Mastroeni. “Having played that deep-lying midfield for most of his life, there’s a lot of processing of information that goes on; now he’s just doing that a little further back, obviously with a bit more responsibility.”
As for whether this switch to center back will be permanent, Cooke thinks that Watts can be adept at both positions.
“We see this as something that he’s adapted very well to, and we also feel that it’s something that he can do maybe in the future,” said Cooke. “The ability that he shows in that ‘number 6’ defensive midfield role is what he’s now showing at center back, So I don’t think it’s that big of a change. We’re really pleased with him.”
Watts’ willingness to learn a new position and desire to work hard for the team has made an impression on the coaching staff.
“He’s one of the better competitors that I’ve seen at such a young age,” said Mastroeni. “I’m excited about his development. He and all the other guys have come in and injected a great amount of enthusiasm to the group. It's just great being part of a group that is so determined to achieve great things this year.”