Nashville SC didn’t get the desired result yesterday against Pittsburgh, but there’s more to grow from. What did coach Gary Smith, goalkeeper Matt Pickens, and midfielder Lebo Moloto have to say in the aftermath?
Smith: “As expected, a very tight and competitive affair. I’ve watched an awful lot of Bob lilley’s teams when he was at Rochester, and this Pittsburgh team was no different. In fairness to them, they came in very, very well-organized. They showed a lot of determination, and I think in general, it was a really, really even game. I’d like to have said that we were able to break what was a good defensive unit in the first period, but that wasn’t the case. Then in the second period as the game opened up a little more, I think you saw both teams have one or two opportunities, but sights of goal were at a real premium. This man next to me made an absolutely world-class save from one of their best opportunities, and this man on the other side of me had probably the best effort for us at the best post that was likewise cleared off the line for them. In general, a very, very hard-fought game, a step in the right direction for us with a point, a clean sheet, and some good periods in the game, but certainly plenty to improve on.”
How were you able to build energy in the second half?
“Honestly, we were two teams that were matched up identically in terms of shape, which is always tough. They played with three centerbacks and wingbacks, and it’s really a case of finding space and individuals making a difference against their opponent. For large periods of the game, it was extremely competitive. There were limited goalmouth opportunities or activity. I’ve looked at some of the stats, but without studying them, I would say that actual penalty-box entries, efforts at goal or shots on target were not high, and the game was played in the middle third. A lot of endeavor, energy, determination from both teams. And the one thing I would say for us, because really that’s what I need to study, is how do we – at home, and we’ve not played here before – how do we take advantage of our home field, and how do we create that home advantage?
“The fact that we’re going to move to First Tennessee in two weeks’ time is great, because we know the environment’s wonderful, but again we’ve got a first, and somehow, slowly but surely, we have to make that homefield a real advantage to us. The fans have been incredible today, and to your point, I think honestly what we’d spoken about pregame was just really trying to get the fans out of their seat. What are going to be the instances that are gonna really get them behind us? Set-piece opportunities, real positive play, lots of momentum and energy, and of course some individual moments. Against a good side, that’s tough, and our best moments came from set-pieces, or second-phase set-pieces.
“To be honest, whilst I’m frustrated, and disappointed we didn’t take all three points, as we all are, slowly-but-surely I’m starting to see what will formulate the group moving forward. And it was always going to be a bit of a work in progress. There’s huge expectation around this organization and team, and that sometimes is really difficult for all of us to deal with, but nevertheless, it’s something that we should aspire to. It’s not something that we should say ‘OK, we haven’t won today, and that’s good enough.’ We wasn’t to win, we believe we’re better than we’ve really shown with the ball, and hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to achieve that.”
How do you improve finishing in the final third?
“I think scoring a goal in general is the toughest part of soccer. Groups can be set up to be destructive, and disrupt play, but scoring goals and being creative are very, very difficult. So that rapport, that understanding, the connection that these guys have in that final third – I have a very, very talented guy sitting next to me, and we have extremely talented players that play in that front line. But to get them on the same page and to feel and feed off of each other in vital moments is going to take a little bit of time. What you’re seeing is a group that have come together very very quickly, they’ve got a good concept of how we want to play, and the foundation of what we want to achieve, which is possession, it’s energy, and it’s being as positive as possible whilst being constructive.
“We can smash it from back to front, and we can get big guys on the field, and look a group of really determined and hard-working players, but Lebo is not that type: he’s very talented, very intelligent, and that takes a little bit more time to nurture and foster within a brand-new team. So you’re right: in the final third, we looked a little bit lackluster. Very little created in open play, but what I will say is, as a group, we’ve put a point on the board, we’ve got a clean sheet – which unfortunately we weren’t able to achieve last week – we take a step forward in that respect, and we have plenty to work during the week on that front line again.”
How did you stay involved in the game when there wasn’t much action in your end in the first half?
Pickens: “Just staying focused and having concentration. I think whenever I need to do something to kind of get the tables turned in our direction, I try to do what I can do. Luckily for us, we kind of weathered their storm in the second half. They came close a few times, and you could kind of see them pushing and pushing forward a little bit. We withstood that, and I think that maybe gave us a little bit of a platform to kind of go on and have our own attack after that: which you saw in the second half: we had some chances. We got forward, we started putting together some passes here and there. This is a work in progress like Gary said. We’ve got a good foundation, and we’re still trying to create that identity little-by-little and game-by-game. Taking a step in the right direction again, so it’s back to work on Monday and looking forward to the next game and working on getting that three points.”
You showed plenty of emotion at certain points?
Pickens: “You know, you have to be sometimes. That’s – naturally, I don’t like to do that too much – but when I start to see things kind of take over again and again in a game where they’re getting a little bit of pressure there sometimes where there needs to be a little punch. I think the timing was right for it, and like I said, we got to withstand that pressure. There’s some times where you’ve just gotta get the guys going. That was one of those moments. We withstood it and moved on, lived to fight another day.”
What did you see on the shot on which you nearly scored?
Moloto: “Yeah, I mean I seriously thought it was going in. They were all pushed up in front, and I felt like it was a good cross. It would have been nice if it would have went in. I’m pretty sure we’d be talking something else right now. I would have been happy if it would have went in.”
It seemed like that set piece was one you guys worked well multiple times?
Moloto: “What happened was the first chance I got, I hit the target. As soon as Ryan was going to take the second corner kick, I kind of just went to him and said, ‘hey, I’m always open at the back post. Just hit it at the back post’ because everybody was on the first post. The second one, I hit it with the left, it came back, should have controlled it. Overall, like Coach Gary said, it was a good game, tough game, and we were pretty close a couple of times.”
What did Tucker Hume provide up top?
Smith: “Absolutely. There’s so many moving parts in that front line. We’ve got a lot of talent. These guys have got different abilities. I did look at the physicality of their group and felt not only would Tucker supply us with a slightly different dimension, but also he looked bright when he came on in Louisville. He’s had a good week. He’s one of those guys that not only is he extremely determined and awkward to play against, but as I’ve said numerous times, he’s also very talented with the ball at his feet. He’s great link-up play, and honestly, there were a couple of candidates in our side that would have been man of the match, but I think he’s up there. He led the line very, very well, and he’s certainly put himself in a very positive position.”
What kind of chemistry can you and Hume build?
Moloto: “I think in terms of creating goals – like coach Gary said, it’s not easy – it’s just a matter of being on the same page, communicating. One of the things that we’ve talked about is he told me, he said, ‘hey, nine out of ten I’m going to win that ball. SO every time I win it, just make sure ytou make a run in behind.’ That’s going to help us in terms of building that chemistry too, is that communication.”
Did Ropapa Mensah provide a spark when he came on?
Smith: “Michael [cox] can count himself pretty unlucky that he’s not made the field today. What I looked at was in a brand-new group, what did we achieve last week and what were the positives to come out of last week? Part of my job is not only to construct the right style and shape, but it’s also to make sure that the guys that are in the group, in the roster, if they’re going to do well, if they’re going to make a difference, then they’re going to see that they’re going to get an opportunity.
“I thought Ropapa came off the bench last week, he showed good determination on a difficult day on a difficult surface. Along with Tucker, they made a bit of a difference. I just felt that, again, on a day where we’re playing against an opponent that looked physically well-equipped, very well-organized – not taking any credit away from them because they set themselves up extremely well, and it really is in the shape of a Bob Lilley team, good foundations. They work tremendously hard. I just felt that Ropapa might offer us something going forward. He’s got that raw, no-fear approach to the game. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out. But there were moments – it wasn’t certainly for lack of effort or determination.
“To look back at the game now, as we’ve seen it evolve, it was a really hard-fought game. They were a tough side. We met them head-on at times, as Matt said, they had their moments, and we did too. Whilst I would have loved to have got three points on the board, and scored a hatful of goals, the reality is professional sport is not like that. You’ve got to have enough about you as a group to get through those tough times, and today was a tough day. We’ve tried to give as much as we could without losing the game, knowing that we’ve got a tough nut to crack. Honor’s even, we move forward.”
What sort of energy did the crowd give you?
Pickens: “It was brilliant. This was what we like to see as professionals playing a professional sport. You want to see people come to the game that are into the game, that come to see us put on a performance. In a way, we feel like we let them down a little bit not getting three points, or not giving them a goal that they really wanted. They were really lively today: every time we got forward, every time we got a corner you could hear them going. Even at the final whistle, you could almost hear them, go [sigh], because they wanted more. That’s great to see. You want to play for people that care. I think they showed that today for us.”
Smith: “If I could just add to that, I thought the support was terrific. I’ve said all along there needs to be a relationship that’s built between players and the fans. Today went a long way towards that. I think the players felt – as Matt said – the feelings that were i the crowd, they got behind us when we got on top, they tried desperately to raise the group, which was fabulous. When Matt was keeping the ball out of the other end, the got behind it – there was a great reaction. They really tried to help us out in some difficult times. That relationship hopefully as we move forward, will create a bond as we go back to First Tennessee Park that can make a real difference, and create an environment that we can be more successful in.”
What was it like to square off against your former team?
Mensah “I felt great. There’s a couple of guys that I still talk to like Romeo Parkes, and it was good to see familiar faces. Last year, I played in the Western Conference and I never got to play against Pittsburgh. I know we still have another game in Pittsburgh, so I’m looking forward to it; I’m excited.”