Gary Smith spoke with the media after his team’s 2-0 victory over Charlotte Independence Saturday evening. Here’s what the gaffer said:
“The focal point for the group really coming into today’s game was to be as positive, to be as purposeful, and to try and start to create and form some foundations for home advantage. That, I thought, was prevalent in the first 45 minutes: the team was very bright. We pressed the Charlotte group very well. I thought we won the ball in some nice areas and certainly created some opportunities. The goal was a terrific effort from Alan Winn.
“The second period, I felt Charlotte slightly changed the dynamic of their group. They took a couple more chances. They had some joy once or twice playing out of the back, and that started to affect how we defended. I certainly felt Charlotte edged the possession and maybe some of the more adventurous play in the second period. But overall, I’m absolutely delighted with the way the players have attacked the game, the mindset and some of the quality . more so in the first period. We’ve also shown a different quality today which is when we’re under pressure, we’ve shown some great resilience, some very determined defending and that in itself starts to form good camaraderie and an appreciation that, when you’re in front, you’re going to be difficult to beat. That’s not a bad quality to have, so I’m very pleased. Two goals in open play, which is great news. Another clean sheet: also great news. And some really good performances again, so we take another step in the right direction.”
Shutting out a team that had been offensively dominant in previous games:
“They certainly played some better soccer in the second half, and they found more of a rhythm. It was part of the gameplan to constantly break up that cohesive play that they have. They’re a talented side: albeit three home games, but they’d won two and drawn one, and scored plenty of goals and confident. So part of the plan was to make sure that we were as bright and forceful as we could be. I think when they had their best period in that middle part of the second half, I thought we showed some real determination and desire to, in last-ditch moments – which there were – to put our bodies on the line. Matt Pickens has been terrific again. His save from the free-kick was absolutely world-class. It’s a combination of factors in the end: a resilient group, some individual defending, some bravery, the goalkeeper’s extremely talented. But that’s his job; that’s why he’s here; that’s why he won a championship in 2010, because he is a top-class goalkeeper, and that is part of our team, and he’s done his job again. His job is to keep that goal intact. I’ve been with Matt a number of years now, and he does that as well as anyone. There were a combination of things, but of course pleasing again, it’s a confidence boost. The players feel as though they’re capable of weathering some pressure and better quality from an opponent. We’re not going to outplay teams for 90 minutes. Every team has a spell in the game where they’re on the back foot. This team know how to deal with that at the moment, which is great.”
Alan Winn’s goal
“Firstly, it is an absolutely terrific goal. Alan’s a naturally right-footed player, comes inside on his left foot, and strikes an absolutely terrific ball across the face of the goal and into the far corner, and it really does change the face of the game. If you’re in front, there are things that I can do, the team can do, there’s a confidence within the group, there’s an appreciation of better possession, and just working a team over rather than getting a little too anxious. That was the first thing. The second thing is, Alan brings a fearless approach to attacking. He wants to run at defenders, he has almost seemless end to his energy: he just continues to work tirelessly throughout the game – on both sides of the ball. He’s great going forward, but he’s also a real tenacious individual coming back defensively. He’s brought a terrific dimension to our attack. At the moment, it’s going to be difficult to take him out of the team.”
Does Winn’s presence allow Kosuke Kimura to play better?
“The only change today was Ryan James coming out and Kosuke coming in, and that was no slight on Ryan: he’s performed very well. I just felt that with a little bit more experience down that right-hand side, and I know Kosuke will want to get forward and join in. I honestly thought that combination would cause some problems down the [defensive] left-hand side, and in the end it’s worked out that way. We’ve scored our first goal from it, whether it came from a combination of the two or just an individual. But I always thought that Kosuke’s appreciation and guidance and just that tad more experience to offer to Alan would serve us well, and it did.”
Was the heavy dose of high-press a plan we’ll see more of or a matchup situation?
“I honestly felt that we could take advantage of a team that want to maintain the ball. They have got a good philosophy. Their coach, Mike Jeffries, I know. He’s a good coach, and he wants to build his teams through good possession. If we could win the ball higher up the field and just disrupt what they were about, it was going to be our best opportunity to one, put them out of their stride, and two, as I said at the start, try and build some sort of home advantage. What sort of team do we want to try and be at home? This is our very first league game at First Tennessee Park. We have another 14 games here. I need to quickly work out – and so do the players – what the benefits of being here are going to be.
“It’s the best field that we’ve played on so far, unequivocally: great surface, it lent itself to our style of play, and at times to theirs, because they want to play soccer too; they want to be in possession. But in general, I want to try and be aggressive at home. I want the crowd to feel as though they can get behind us, that we’re going to put teams under pressure – whether that’s through our high pressing when we can, or a dynamic attack – either way, I want to be bright and purposeful.
“If you noticed in the second period, on a couple occasions, Charlotte did a great job of playing around us, did a really good job. That starts to just, depending on the stage of the game, position you’re in as a team, starts to maybe ask a question as to maybe, ‘what do we need to do right now to make sure that we win this game?’ From a standpoint of where we want to move towards as a team, yes: we want to be as aggressive as possible, and that will of course be determined by the type of team we’re playing against. With or without the ball, we want to be positive.”
Taylor Washington came off injured, what’s his status?
“Taylor had a little bit of an issue with his hamstring. One or two of the guys were shouting at me that he had a problem, and I couldn’t work out why, because he seemed to moving quite freely. When I managed to grab Taylor’s attention, he said he was fine. Then he had the collision, and our head athletic trainer went out, I just said to her, ‘can you just find out if there is a problem?’ And she, ‘he’s got a little bit of a problem with his hamstring,’ which enabled me to get somebody ready, and to introduce Matt LaGrassa.”
Having a player like LaGrassa on the bench is a good situation?
“Not just Matt, but the guys that I look at down the line who, in all honesty, could be part of that first XI group any time. If you look at the guys that I’ve brought on today, Matt LaGrassa is a top-class midfield player. Ropapa Mensah has just scored what really is the final nail and winner in the game. David Edgar’s an international. They’re three great players to be able to bring into the game. I’m very fortunate at this point in time that I’ve got such strength on the bench, and in many ways, you’ll have heard the same: that you’re only as strong as your bench. When I look down the bench at the moment, we have a very, very good group of players, and some of them are not making the game at the moment. But I think over a period of time that you’ll see that we might need to freshen things up a bit, keep some sharpness, and when you’ve got good players, you can do that.”
Five of the next six games are on the road
“I’ve looked at the schedule, as you might imagine, and this is the toughest period of the season, bar none. You’re right: five out of six away and then the champions at home, so the next six games are pretty tough. Indy have started off very well. They’ve just won 1-0 today. I watched the game last week, against Cincinnati, which was very, very tight, they performed well. It doesn’t look an easy environment to play. But what we have is good confidence, we have a group of players that have taken another step in a positive direction, and I think we’re slowly-but-surely looking like a group of players, a team, an organization on the field that we can all be confident and excited about. There is no doubt about it that the five away opponents – any away game in this league is very difficult; It presents so many different dynamics and challenges – there isn’t an away game in the league that you’ve not got to prepare fully for and be majorly aware of what the home team is going to bring. My honest thoughts about the next period of time is, given our form, given the confidence in the group, I see no reason why we shouldn’t come away from these games with some real positives.”