Matanzas High’s Justin Watts has uncommon field vision for a defender. It helps that he’s a midfielder at heart.
It’s midway through the first half of the Dec. 7 soccer game between the Matanzas Pirates and Pedro Menendez Falcons. The score is tied at zero, but the Pirates have possession all night. Despite the frigid 35-degree weather, center back Justin Watts is sporting his long-sleeved jersey, with his sleeves rolled up on his arm. He isn’t wearing gloves, either.
On most teams, defenders such as Watts have one objective: Get the ball away from the goal. That mentality often results in a lot of long balls that are up for grabs.
Coach Rich Weber said his team’s style of play is shifting from a direct style to a possession style. That shift begins with Watts. Typically, the center midfielder acts as the team’s “point guard,” but for the Pirates, it’s Watts, the center back.
Against Pedro Menendez, Watts sniffs out a Falcons counterattack. He takes over possession from the Pedro striker and begins to move up field. His initial thought is not Get the ball out. Instead, it’s Find an outlet.
As Weber would say, “The ball never gets tired. Make it do the work.”
Watts is able to play the role because of his great vision, and his ability to see the field is directly related to his time spent playing in the midfield. That’s where he likes to play, in fact, but he said he will do whatever is necessary for the team.
A midfielder by preference, Watts has converted to defense for the Pirates. Coach Rich Weber said Watts’ speed and athleticism are unparalleled. That’s evident, as he tracks down a striker running onto a through-ball late in the second half.
After playing his first two years in Colorado, Watts relocated to Flagler County. Following his junior season, he trekked south for a tryout at the IMG Academy, in Bradenton. There, studying was a second priority to soccer.
He tried out for a week, made the team and then participated in three practices, but ultimately made the decision to stay at Matanzas. The tuition at IMG was nearly $50,000 per year, Watts said.
“It was a really cool atmosphere around there,” Watts recalled. “Most of the kids from those teams will have full-ride scholarships to college.”
But Watts has his chance to make a name for himself here — on a team that is changing its style and hopes to make a run deep into the state playoffs.
With Watts manning the back line and leading as a captain, those goals become more realistic.
While he was at the IMG Academy, Watts said he learned a valuable lesson.
“I wasn’t as confident ... beforehand, but after the tryout, I felt a lot more confidence and that helped me emerge as a leader,” Watts said.
Though the Pirates (6-3-2) eventually lost to Pedro, 2-0, Weber said a lot of positive things came from the game.
“(Pedro) loaded seven in the back and we pounded, but we couldn’t get one,” Weber said. “It was a very frustrating game, as we dominated possession and had some great opportunities.”
But the Pirates are growing, and the Pedro loss showed evidence of the new style.
“Our focus during the preseason was on defensive shape and distribution out of the back,” Weber said.
And Watts and his teammates are learning to make the ball do the work.
“(The possession style) makes the game a lot more fun,” Watts said. “You’re not nearly as tired because it’s not just kicking and running. It’s not like track meets. We can settle down and play the game how it’s supposed to be played and watched.”
T.J. Von Diezelski: 4 goals, 6 assists
Justin Watts: 3 goals, 1 assist
Josh O’Hara: 3 goals, 1 assist
Christian Benvenuto: 3 goals
SCHEDULE AT A GLANCE
7:20 p.m. Jan. 5 St. Augustine
7:20 p.m. Jan. 7 Nease
6:45 p.m. Jan. 10 @ Taylor