Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and goalkeeper Connor Sparrow met with For Club and Country yesterday. Here’s what they had to say.
On preparing for nicer weather in Florida next week:
“I’ve got family members down there, and they’re constantly telling me how nice the climate is. We’ll look forward to that, given the way that things have changed here. I think we’re going to get into a few poor days – low temperatures – which to be honest, at this time of year, guys are going through a lot of work. To stay out of that really bitterly cold weather and come inside is really helpful. It should be a really god week next week.”
Differences from last year’s Florida trip:
“Well, the experience is a nice thing. 14 of the guys have been there with our group. I’m sure some of the guys that have joined us will have experienced IMG before. I honestly think it’s a great environment for us to be laying all of the foundations and team ethics that we’re looking for towards the season. The difficulty in this weather and being on fields that are not the natural dimensions that you play on mean that you can’t quite get the right dynamic when you’re working distances and understanding. We’ve got all the facilities that we need down there: great fields, good surface, equipment will come down with us, and a couple of good games. We had three last year, I felt that two would be enough for us this year, with a little bit more time to work as a group, and really use it – given that they’re our first two games – really use it as a serious part of training, rather than looking at players, having to really take those games as maybe more important. Not to say that any game’s not important, but I want to use it as part of our buildup work more so this year.”
Past week of training
“They’ve shown a terrific attitude. I said it last week: good shape, most of them. We started this week with a slight change to our schedule. We add in strength and conditioning work: so three days this week they have three sessions. On Tuesday and Thursday they have double sessions. There’s an awful lot of work going on. It’s a lot for their bodies to deal with, but that’s why we’ve sent them offseason programs. They needed to come back in good shape, and the guys that have will be able to deal with that workload and push on, and we’ll be in really good physical form for the opening game. For the guys that haven’t – for whatever reason: I know one or two have had injuries, Lebo for example was getting through the final stages of his knee injury, so therefore he was unable to do the work that was necessary, so it’s going to take him a little bit longer to get to that point. It’s been some really good work, great focus. When you come from outside to inside, you get a different perspective, can sometimes lose a little bit of focus, but they’ve been great.”
“We’ve not had a bundle of competitive games, so what you saw today was probably one of only a couple of sessions where we’ve had that sort of setup. Danny and Connor have settle in very nicely. They’re great lads, they’ve worked very well with Matt, good personalities in the initial glimpses of being around both of them. They’re actually very different to Matt in terms of physical presence. I would class them as more of a modern-day goalkeeper. They’re nice size, but they’re very athletic, they’re quick, quick off their line, nimble on their feet, and extremely agile. That’s not to say that Matt’s not, but he’s got a much bigger, much stronger, and maybe a tad more physical presence to his game. I knew that before the two guys came in. Both very good with their feet, which I think is a massive part of the modern game. I’m very pleased with them so far.”
Will Matt and Connor both get significant time?
“Matt was terrific last year, I know everything I need to know about Matt, and in terms of where they sit in the grand scheme of things, we certainly want to be a team that we’re winning games, and there’s no dropoff whoever plays. I need to come to a bit of a conclusion in my mind as to what and how both guys be kept mentally and physically in the right place. I certainly want to be knowing what Connor’s capable of. So therefore, he needs games. He needs minutes, and he’ll certainly get those. Planning and working out how those two guys have the season will be something that I can really come to terms with as we get towards the first game. That’s without saying neither of them are going to have any physical problems or issues, and that’s saying they’re fully healthy and available to go, which of course we hope. Plenty of time for me to work that out.
Does playing multiple styles of keeper change the strategy?
“Not necessarily. I think the other guys need to be aware of that, but what the group are fully accustomed with is Matt’s style. Having had a year around him, the vast majority of them will understand what he’s about, what he’s capable of, when he can take some pressure off of them. That experience in itself stand for an awful lot: especially with a first-year group last year, that sort of presence was vital as I felt – as with guys like Kosuke and Michael Reed who have seen it all before and been around a lot of environments. They were great players to lean on last year for a lot of the group. Connor will be different in the respect that he does have other qualities, he is capable of other things. His biggest challenge right now is making sure that he sets really strong foundations in the group, and that the guys have got a nice trust for him. The goalkeeping position is such a difficult one: you make a mistake, and invariably it’s a goal. He’s got to make sure that all of the good form that he’s had up in Salt Lake and with the Monarchs is quickly bought into this group so the guys are comfortable working with him and know what he’s about. In many ways, that’s what preseasons are for: for different players, different challenges in preseason, and that’s really it.”
Is it relieving to see Lebo Moloto able to play?
“It’s great. He hasn’t lost his ability – when I say that, his first touch. He looks really comfortable to come back from that injury nicely. Yes, there’ll be times we’ll have to coax him through. He looks in good shape, and we’re really pleased about that.”
What made Nashville the club he wanted to join this offseason?
“The future that this club has, and the opportunity to be a part of it, honestly. Coming from being on an MLS roster, that’s obviously a goal of mine that I want to get back to. This is a great opportunity for that: to show what I’m capable of this year, and hopefully make the jump.”
What can you learn from a different style of keeper?
“I think I can learn a lot from Matt on the mental side of the game: just his body language, when he makes mistakes, what he does correctly – can pick up all of those things. I think the most important thing is the shot-stopping. He was up for Golden Gloves [top USL keeper] last year, that obviously is very difficult to do. Not many people are up for that. I can kind of model my game in that regard off him.”
Who has impressed you among teammates in just a week of practice?
“I was excited to see Cam when he got in here. He’s obviously new to the team as well, but with his track record last year and the previous year, being on a championship team two years in a row, I’m just excited to see how he rose his level in training.”
Difference between last year’s time with an MLS2 side versus an independent USL team?
“The one thing I would say that I’ve definitely picked up on now is that it’s us: everyone who’s in the locker room now, this is the team. No one will be coming down, and no one will be going anywhere up. It’s comforting to know that the group that’s in here now is what we’ll have for the rest of the season and going forward.”
Can you build stronger bonds in that situation?
“Absolutely. It’s kind of like that, but we’re both all in it together. We know it’s a year: it’s a year here, and hopefully we’ll get more in the future, but this year, we’ve got to come together and get things done.”
What’s the dynamic with Pickens as both a teammate and the position coach?
“It’s definitely unique. I wouldn’t say it’s weird. For me, it’s definitely taken some stress off in terms of training. He’s in, he’s running the drills with us, and he’s working in the drills with us. It’s comforting, you know what I mean? You don’t have a coach who’s watching and trying to analyze everything. He’s serving balls to us, he’s rotating in with the group. It honestly doesn’t feel like there’s a coach out there watching us, and I think that’s important from the mental side of things: it helps you focus, it takes some anxiety out of the way.”
Would you say your reflexes are the strength of your game?
“Yeah, that’s obviously one of my strengths. I try to put myself in positions where I can showcase that, where I can use my strengths and my abilities. I think it definitely is one of my strengths, but I think more important than the reflexes is putting myself in the right spot to make that reaction save.”
Is that something that can be trained?
“Absolutely. We did a drill today that was a quick turn, set your feet, and then do what you can. I think a lot of it comes from the mental side of things. I just like to be dialed in: if you’re dialed in enough, and you’re focused in the moment, your instincts will take over. That’s kind of how goalie training is: you train instincts, and you hope that they show in a game.”
Was joining this team the first time you met Kharlton Belmar since he scored on you in the US Open Cup last year?
“I think so. It’s water under the bridge. We’re on the squad, sharing the locker room now, so we’re on the way forward.There were a couple jabs in there [laughing], but that’s what you get.”