RSL looking to rookie for help up front
Jamie Watson has yet to score a goal that really counts, or even start a game for Real Salt Lake.
But it might not be long now.
The 19-year-old rookie forward might have pushed his way into the starting lineup, with the way he played in the final half-hour against the Los Angeles Galaxy over the weekend. Although RSL was shut out for the fourth straight game, 1-0, and remained winless on the road this season, Watson again showed a level of work ethic and productivity that veteran Clint Mathis has strained to muster recently.
"Any coach would be happy with the effort he gives you," coach John Ellinger said.
Ellinger said it's possible Watson will get his big break at San Jose on Saturday, when RSL again tries to snap out of its road slump after falling to 3-7-2 with the loss to the Galaxy.
The team hopes to have midfielder Tiger Fitzpatrick and defenders Eddie Pope, Rusty Pierce and Marlon Rojas back for that game - Pope sat out the Galaxy game with a bruised right knee, while Pierce was nursing a hamstring injury and Fitzpatrick and Rojas stayed home recovering from national-team duty for their native Trinidad and Tobago - though it will be without defender Nelson Akwari. Akwari must serve a yellow-card suspension after picking up his league-leading fifth caution against the Galaxy.
In any case, finding some scoring chances up top remains the highest priority.
RSL has not scored in 421 minutes overall and 411 minutes on the road - that's more than 4 1/2 games, in both cases - and ranks with Columbus as the lowest-scoring team in Major League Soccer with just eight goals in 12 games.
The team used a new 4-4-2 formation against the Galaxy, with Dante Washington and Mathis up front and veteran Jason Kreis as an attacking midfielder. Still, it managed only one shot on goal - and none until Ellinger replaced Mathis with Watson in the 61st minute, moments after Mathis picked up a yellow card for complaining about a foul.
"Obviously, that's a factor," Ellinger said. "Just didn't want him to get another one, you know?"
Past that, Ellinger did not elaborate much on his removal of Mathis, one of the most prominent players on the team who had played every minute of the season except for a game a month ago when he suffered a back injury.
Yet it certainly raised questions about the immediate future of a once-iconic player whom Ellinger welcomed onto the team despite an enigmatic reputation - especially considering how well Watson played in his place.
"My goal has just been to do well enough to make it hard for coach not to put me out there," Watson said.
Consider that done.
Watson almost immediately created a scoring chance after entering the game against the Galaxy - just as he did when he and other reserves replaced ineffective starters (including Mathis) in a 3-2 comeback victory over Universidad Catolica of Chile in an exhibition game last week.
In that game, Watson entered the game at in the 70th minute and played a key role in all three second-half goals that brought RSL back from a two-goal deficit.
"He proved he belongs in this league," Ellinger said at the time.
Four minutes after entering against the Galaxy, Watson played a terrific cross to Washington, whose header caromed high off the crossbar. Washington outleaped Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartmann to head the ball again when it came down, but defender Todd Dunivant managed to clear it just as it seemed ready to cross the goal line.
"That's kind of the way things have been going lately for us," Watson said. "We've just been getting that half-bounce going the wrong way."
Ellinger said Watson played well but still is learning how to manage the ball.
"He can't make it to the corner, draw two guys and then lose it," Ellinger said. "He has to get the ball across. And if he can't do that, just lay it back or move into another space. . . . He'll learn."
Watson was a second-round draft pick out of North Carolina, and he could become the fifth rookie to start for RSL this season. No. 1 draft pick Nik Besagno made his debut in the midfield against FC Dallas, while Kenny Cutler did so, and handled it well, against the Galaxy. Goalkeeper Jay Nolly and midfielder Luke Kreamalmeyer started games earlier this season.
"It's always a possibility, just because we're in a funk right now," Watson said. "And things have to get changed. Obviously, you can't keep doing the same things if we're not winning."
RSL at San Jose
Saturday, 8 p.m., FSN