Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
Jamaica's search for a genuine midfield playmaker may be ongoing, but one Reggae Boy is willing to step up and embrace the demanding role.
Je-Vaughn Watson still must prove, however, despite possessing the technical skills, he is ready for the mental load that comes with dictating the national football team's creative style and tempo. With crucial qualifying games next month, his performance could influence the fate of Jamaica's World Cup campaign.
For Watson, the challenge is being at the team's hub, demanding the ball and conjuring goalscoring opportunities with the pass or dribble while under pressure from opponents and the international spotlight. But he's warming to the idea the playmaker's role may be his to claim.
"I'm just getting a feel of it," Watson explained on September 11, hours before taking the field against the United States (US), in a qualifier in Columbus, Ohio.
Four days earlier at 'The Office', he showed pleasing signs of what he offers as Jamaica beat the US for the first time.
"I was like on the ball like a lot for the game," Watson said, "and I see I am improving on it."
But in Columbus, Watson discovered the Promised Land is still out there. Before he was substituted in the second half, Watson and his teammates buckled under early US pressure. Jamaica reportedly conceded over 70 per cent of ball possession in the first half. The Americans created multiple scoring chances before securing a win.
With semi-final round CONCACAF qualifiers to come against Guatemala on October 12 and Antigua and Barbuda four days later and Jamaica locked in a delicate three-way tie atop Group A, it is unlikely the Boyz will unveil some unknown to step into the playmaker's role. Others, including Keammar Daley and Jermaine Hue, have been tried. No one has owned the job current head coach Theodore Whitmore relinquished after a decade-plus domination of Jamaica's midfield.
At 6' 1", 175 pounds, Watson is built to withstand the physical demands. He has good ball control and is among Jamaica's best passers. Watson is not short on poise and vision either. The task now is mastering the tactical approach.
"Being a playmaker, it's not like taking up the ball and dribble and doing whatever," Watson explained. "It's more like, in certain positions, using your head in the right space to make the right decision and make sure it don't hurt the team."
Like Spain leans on Xavi and Iniesta, Jamaica needs ingenuity from the traditional 'number 10' spot - imagination and craft to unlock defences. That quality was lacking in Columbus. Yet some believe the 28-year-old nicknamed 'Hacker' exudes it.
"Je-Vaughn is a very skilful player," said national teammate Omar Cummings who, like Watson, plays professionally in North America's Major League Soccer (MLS).
"He has some flair about him, but he also works very hard. That's an unusual combination most times. He's creative and confident."
Watson doesn't want to be tagged strictly an offensive player. He rarely scores anyway, with a pair of goals for Houston Dynamo in almost two MLS seasons and a single strike for Jamaica in at least 20 appearances.
"Playmakers … they don't like do a lot of defensive work," Watson explained. "But I would rather make the game finish nil-nil than we lost one zero."
He is being urged to do more, but Watson's potential has earned admirers.
"The quality is there to be a very good attacking midfielder," Shavar Thomas said of his national teammate. " … He covers a lot of ground … . Having a player like that, who can go at people, take on people, will create a lot of stuff for us. Offensively, it speaks volumes."
Recognition came before Watson's 2008 national debut, including from Christopher Dawes, a savvy Jamaica World Cup veteran who watched him emerge from Garvey Maceo High and later guided him at Sporting Central.
"He said 'You're like a cut above all the players that I've always coached or played with'," Watson recalled.
Now he must prove it. Watson said he'll play anywhere he's asked by club or country, but prefers roaming just behind the strikers.
"There you get a more free role," he explained.
For Jamaica Watson has already been assigned on the flank in a 4-4-2 formation and paired with another midfielder in a 5-2-3. In the first US game he flourished in a 4-3-3, part of a midfield trio that bossed the Americans.
It didn't work in Columbus. Watson knows he must consistently stamp his authority.
"(Whitmore) is always saying 'Hey, Je-Vaughn, why you don't keep the ball some more? Why you don't show up yourself some more?'," he said.
In recent months, Watson cemented himself as a national starter. He's more "established", but admitted caution in taking a more influential role.
"I don't want to like, try to be like the man to outshine a next player," said Watson. "So I try to keep it simple."
That is changing. There are signs of progress.
"I think I'm getting there," Watson said.
He may need to accelerate the learning curve. Jamaica's rocky outing in Columbus hints changes to the line-up next month. Yet Watson's skills suggest he may be around a while.
"My personality fits the role," he said of becoming Jamaica's playmaker.
" … Right now, I'm getting the feel of things and everybody is allowing me now to do whatever I want to do and I'm kinda free and more comfortable in keeping the ball and doing whatever."
It's why some are convinced Watson remains a key to Jamaica's World Cup fortunes. How big, remains wait and see.
"I don't know what the coach is looking for," said Thomas, "but I'm sure (Watson) can help us."
The question of finding Jamaica's playmaker lingers. The answer may already be in the mix.