Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and midfielders Lebo Moloto and Bolu Akinyode met with the media before tomorrow night’s game against New York Red Bulls II. Watch or read their full comments here.
Do the players naturally get the stakes of the game or do you re-emphasize it to them?
“I don’t have to say anything. These are the easy games. Saturday was a tough one: you’re away from home, comforts of your own building, your home turf, your home fans: all of those things make life difficult. And then, you know against a good side and then a side that don’t have loads of fans. The atmosphere has to be created amongst the group, and there are a lot of challenges of course away from home. But coming back home, playing against a side as good as New York, as effective as New York – they’re the top goal-scoring side in the East, I’ve said to a couple of people and probably before, the best development system in the country, probably, there might be one or two that question that, but they have a pipeline of players constantly – the only difference between one of the two more experienced players playing and not is of course their appreciation for the gamew, but it doesn’t stop them being positive, energetic, forceful. The way that they play and the first team plays is a really difficult style to play against. The players will be well and truly amped up for this one. My only hope is there’s a lot of people there to get behind us and push us on.”
Do you feel like seven of 10 at home to close the year will allow you to build some momentum?
“When we looked to the fixtures when they first came out, of course you look towards the end of the season and say, ‘we’ve got some serious challenges with travel and good away teams to play against. We’ve got to get ourselves in order to get points out of those games.’ I think that job – away from home – has been pretty much done to a good degree. We’ve got a very good away record. If anything now, having played less games, I think everyone wants to make sure that we finish with a good record. Our home form – and most teams’ home form – really dictates whether or not you’re going to win something, or you’re going to be in a good position come postseason. So seven at home, we’ve got some tough teams, probably none tougher, certainly at this point, than new York, and if all goes well, these games just get more and more important.”
What are the challenges in running through a top-of-table gauntlet near the end of the season?
“Well of course the caliber: you’re running into different challenges. New York and the style of play is very different to a team like Pittsburgh or Louisville. You’ve got different challenges. The positives that come out of it are that it should keep the players on a real good level of performance and attitude weekly. But I suspect as always with most teams: results are paramount in that. If we can maintain a good run of form, it keeps that momentum going to the next big game. And as I’ve just said, if we do our job right each game that comes along will be slightly more important than the previous. That, of course, is the challenge that we have to meet.”
How do you handle New York’s high-scoring offense?
“I don’t think they’re ever easy to keep off the scoresheet. They’re so positive in the way that they play. They, inmany cases, throw a lot of caution to the wind. The energy of the group is the foundation of the way that they play, and they ask an awful lot of the players going forward. It can leave them vulnerable. We caw in the game that got caled off, they =started like a train, went in front, looked like it could be a very very tough night, but on the counter-attack they can be a bit vulnerable. when you commit as many players as they do to attacking situations, teams like ourselves can take advantage of that. There’s no doubt about it: we’ve proven that, our goal-scoring record ourselves is admirable. In terms of keeping them off the sheet, it’s not often I’ll say it, but as long as we win the game, I don’t care how many they score.”
Is this the tough game with fatigue, or is it the third one in a week?
“This game’s not a problem, not at all. I think most players having had a week in between last week, and an away game with a bit of travel but not crazy, everyone’s looking forward to this one at home, a big occasion. It’ll be after this. You go towards the weekend, there’ll be an assessment of where bodies are at, soreness, hopefully no injuries to worry about on top of what we’ve got, and then really what the right group is to get a job done against a very stout and difficult Charleston side. And at this point, a side that’s had more success against us than any. I know we’ve probably played them more times than most, but having beaten us twice. Once we get to that point, I’m sure in the group there’ll be a renewed vigor to put the record straight there. It’ll certainly be – come what may, of course we’ll be all guns blazing tomorrow night to get a victory, and to put ourselves in a position to go top – but then we won’t want to relinquish that if it happens. The only way you can do that is by fighting off the challengers. You’re fighting one way or another: you’re fighting to close the gap, or you’re fighting to keep people away from you. So the season’s one long fight, it just depends in what way.”
How important could a home playoff game be?
“Oh yeah. Big. I think that’s in a lot of teams’ minds. The way the format plays out this year with 10 playoff teams, a first four – 7-10 having a one-off to get into the playoff run-in as it were – if we can somehow get ourselves first and foremost into that top four, then I think there will have been an achievement. But as we sit right now with 10 games to go, if somebody had said to me, ‘look, with 10 games to go, you’re in a fabulous spot, you’re sitting third, you’re two points off the top on the same games – there’s one or two teams with a game in-hand but you’re going to have to play most of them, Indy’s the only team that are obviously going to avoid us, but you’re going to play them, and now you dictate your future.’ I’d have taken that. And certainly with a team the way they’re playing as well.”
Does getting a half in against these guys (and not finishing it) change the way you approach them?
“No, at this point, to be honest, I think we’re heading in the right direction as a team. Even though we played 45 minutes the last time, at least we got an idea of what it was like, what kind of team they are. Having played them in New York – tied them – and the last game I think we were winning 2-1, I think we’re going to be going into this game highly motivated.”
Was the Charlotte performance snapping out of a slump? Was there a slump at all?
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s a slump, considering the fact that we’ve not conceded – we conceded one goal in the last five games, and scored more than 10 goals. I didn’t thinkit was a slump, it was just Bethlehem, defensively you have to give them credit. They sat back, and we had a couple of chances – we didn’t have as many – but we could have utilized obivously just one goal, but it didn’t happen. I just think Red Bull game’s going to be different. They’re always high-press, they always have a lot of energy, so I think it’s going to be more open compared to the Bethlehem game.”
How do you handle a totally different style of team?
“That’s the reason we’re here: day before the game, try to prepare. I think we have the right tools to do the work. We’ve got our coaching staff helping us in terms of preparing us, the things we need to to going into tomorrow’s game, because every game is different.”
What does a win against Red Bull mean, especially given the standings?
“Honestly, we have like 10 games left. Every game is important at this point in time. If we win tomorrow, we just, as a team I think, we would like to win all the 10 games. If we do that, who knows, we might even win the league. So I think we’re just going to take one game at a time and see what happens. Three points every game.”
Has Gary talked about the stakes of the game?
“I think we all know. I think we all know what’s at stake. Like I said, the big picture is we played Charlotte this past weekend, and the whole focus was on Charlotte. If we start saying, ‘oh, we might win and be first,’ we have to take care of business first. If it means winning tomorrow, then that’s the way.”
Does the changing midfield change the way you have to play, does your role change?
“I think honestly it doesn’t change as much. Those guys have been – we have a team that’s been here for what, 6-7 months? Even if Ken hasn’t been playing in the midfield, obviously he still plays in the back, plays central, which is kind of like similar, considering the fact that the only difference is there’s a lot of pressure in the middle. I think we understand each other, we know each other, we know how each other move, we know how each other plays. I think last game Matt LaGrassa game in after not playing for a month or so, and we still were able to connect in the midfield.”
Was getting Matt back a nice reunion of sorts?
“Yeah, I mean it’s always good to have guys that – it sucks to get injured – it’s always good to have a full squad. It helps with rotation, it helps having 20 or 22 healthy guys that can actually compete. Irrespective of who’s playing or who’s on the bench, it’s good to have healthy guys that can actually have an impact.”
Have you talked to any of the guys who have had longer-term injuries this year about what your experience was like with a season-ending injury last year?
“Obviously I sympathize with them, but I let them do their own thing. We all deal with injuries differently. Some people, personally me, I don’t want somebody saying, ‘it’s going to be OK,’ when it’s for me to obviously push myself. So I just sympathize, and hope that they come back in time for the playoffs.”
Do you still have relationships with people in NYRBII from your time there?
“Yeah, there are a couple guys there: Chris Lema I knew from academy, a couple other guys I can’t think of off the top of my head but it’s obviously still the same coaching staff, and the coaches that I’ve known since I was 12-13 years old. I’ve been texting Ibra [Sekagya] the assistant coach the whole time, so we’re up for it, we’ll be ready to go.”
What do you take from the first half of the game played in Nashville a couple months ago?
“I think definitely the first 10 minutes was a little bit tough for us – went a goal down – but I think the way we battled back and ended the half was really good. We found some things on how to unhinge their press and the way they go about doing things, so hopefully we can carry on from there.”
How do you plan to handle that pressing system?
“I think we might have to go maybe a bit direct, playing in behind them a bit to start. Until the game settles down a little bit and there’s a little less energy taken out of the game, we can kind of settle in and try and control the game hopefully.”
Do they play differently on the road?
“No, it’s the same. It’s the same.”
What do you make of the team’s mentality with the stakes?
“We have – correct me if I’m wrong – 10 games left. It’s in our hands at this point. I think with 10 games, if we grab maximum points or as many points as we can, we’re putting ourselves in a good spot to hopefully win some silverware. We can’t dwell on games: they’re coming quick and fast. Take care of one job and on to the next, that’s kind of our mentality right now.”
How has the midfield pairing with Ken Tribbett gone?
“It’s been good. Ken’s a good footballer, intelligent guy. So we kind of just work off each other and talk through things, so it’s been fun for sure.”
Does your playing style have to adapt to having Ken rather than a different type of player next to you?
“I don’t think so. Your job stays the same at the end of the day. Everyone knows what their role is and what they have to do. If Ken didn’t known what he was doing, the coach wouldn’t put him out there, you know? At the end of the day, we know what we’re doing and we communicate, and we just work through it.”
What’s been the key to the recent run?
“I think we’ve been consistent. We’ve been consistent, we know when we do, I think we’re taking control of games, and hopefully we keep doing the same things.”
What does the stretch run of the regular season – with games against mostly top-table teams – mean for you guys? Beat the best to be the best?
“Absolutely, I think that’s what it is: to be the best, we’ve gotta to beat the best. We wouldn’t have it any other way, so we just keep going.”