Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and three of his players met with the media after Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Birmingham Legion. Watch and read their comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Well obviously, I’m delighted to be bagging the three points tonight. The game really unfolded in a fashion that I expected: our wide flank play was very good, we looked bright and purposeful from dead-ball situations, and in the first half, I felt as though we deserved to go in a goal to the good. Second half was a slightly different picture. They, I thought, started to deal with our wider threat better. I think Tommy changed shape a little bit, and the game looked liker it was really petering out to a nil-nil draw. There were some substitutions, as you saw, to just try and jump-start something more exciting and positive. My hope is in the end, it worked. Because Ropapa out wide does a wonderful job one-v-one out wide versus their fullback, earns the corner. And the rest you know.
Delighted. We’;ve got a lot of players out. I felt as though there were times we missed Lebo [Moloto]’s technical ability and creativity. Daniel [Ríos] and Cameron [Lancaster] are arguably the best forwards at USL level, and of course we’re missing the captain [Michael Reed] and Derrick [Jones]. They’re big players to try and continually keep filling those cracks. I thought the group did a wonderful job tonight to get a victory out of what really looked like it was going to be a draw.”
The goal seemed to come from a straightforward set piece
“It was. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Jt wasn’t really a training ground movement. JD’s delivery to the back post looked like it caught them a little bit by surprise. We have some good targets in there, some big bodies, and in the end, one of them counted. Seen it multiple times where teams break the deadlock or win a game in such a tight affair off a set piece, and that was obviously the case.”
With the emphasis in winning wide play, how did you assess the overall midfield?
“The first period, they played in a shape and a format that we might have expected. They’ve had some joy and they’ve been in a good run. It offers wide areas as a bit of an outlet or a staging ground for attack. We’d worked and looked at trying to take advantage of that in the first period, I thought we did that well. Alan [Winn] looked bright, got in some really good positions,m caused the fullback a lot of problems. Likewise Kharlton on the far side. Final ball, final shot, effort, wasn’t quite where we probably would have liked it. I felt one of the biggest issues given the change in the dynamic of the shape of the team was when we did get into some good spots, not enough players breaking into the penalty area, not enough targets. And Kenny and Bolu are very similar guys in more of a foundational role in that midfield. did a great job, but you lack that extra body getting higher up the field. But that’s the consequence of players being out, and they did a wonderful job – the pair of them – and in the end, it was enough. And that’s what we needed: we needed it to be enough.
Matt Pickens’s 100th clean sheet, what has his presence meant to the first two years of this club?
“I think the word there is ‘presence’ that he gives the group. With his experience, and physical stature, and vocality back there, I think he’s – if you look back at his career and what he’s achieved, he’s one of the top goalkeepers, or one of the best goalkeepers I’ve seen in the US in my time. The ability for him to continually move his career on and the amount of games that he’s played I think is testimony to the professional nature of the world that he works in. Tonight’s performance probably wasn’t one of his most outstanding: he did what he needed to, he made a couple of important interceptions and saves, and when called upon, he did what he does and has done for 100 times before that: he’s kept a clean sheet.”
Does this team have a knack for that last-second winner?
“Let me tell you: it does nothing for my stress levels, the inner anguish that you feel on the touchline. The delight and the sheer exhilaration of scoring that late, knowing that you’ve pretty much won the game, is amazing. But I had 90-odd minutes of tension and turmoil sitting on that bench. We got five games at home here. We want to keep the pressure on the top groups. We still feel that there’s an outside chance of the Eastern Conference title. To keep in that race, you’ve got to win: we have to keep the pressure on. It’s not in our hands now, but if we don’t keep the pressure on, then the teams above us go into their games knowing that the world’s a much more comfortable environment to work in.
Birmingham are now going to be at home to Indianapolis on Friday. As far as I can tell, they’re going to win that game. Birmingham have been on a terrific run, they’ve now lost two on the spin. I can’t believe anyone in that group’s going to want to lose the game. So now all of a sudden, there’s a little bit more edge, I believe, in the Birmingham side. Looking at their group, they’re a good side. They’ve moved on. Speaking to their manager before the game, he’s seen some real positives – and understandably – in the run they’ve been in. So this is a good result tonight with players out. It wasn’t an easy game, it never was going to be. I’m sure they were aware they had two very very tough games. They’ve got to win the next one. And if they can, then tonight’s result will be worth even more.”
What can you take from this game into the weekend’s Pittsburgh game?
“Of course. There were some good performances. The first half, for me, was the more positive display. We’ll have some players coming back at the weekend. Daniel has had 20 minutes tonight, which is a nice step forward. I would hope that Lebo and Derrick are a
step closer. And slowly but surely, I think we start to piece together a group that looks like a championship-winning team. Now, is that an Eastern Conference-winning team? Maybe, but I certainly want to be in as good a position as I can be to have a very decent run in the postseason. The Pittsburgh team we’ve got coming in has always, under Bob Lilley, are extremely difficult to play against. They’re doing a terrific job, they’re in a great spot. But what we know is: if we can take care of them, however that comes about, then we do ourselves another massive favor in the step towards a conference title possibly and a top-four spot.”
Defender Jimmy Ockford
How good was the feeling of getting the game-winning goal?
“It feels amazing: it was a hard-fought battle from all of us and we grinded it out to the last seconds of the game and pulled off the three points. It was just, which was amazing.”
When the team was lining up for the corner kick, were you anticipating that it would be your ball?
“I had a good feeling it could’ve come my way and I was just ready for it. You know, I was going to win my battle and I did and I couldn’t really see what happened after I headed it and, yeah I saw it in the back of the net.”
How did you evaluate the team’s defensive performance en route to Matt Pickens’s 100th clean sheet?
“I think we were all very strong. I mean, we didn’t really give them too many chances. We kept them in front of us, communicated well, and Matt Pickens behind us is – it’s a nice cushion, for sure. He’s strong in the air, he’s a great leader for us, and with his experience he really helps us. He comes up big numerous times and he has [tonight]. He has 100 clean sheets now and that’s great for him. Well deserved.”
Especially in the first half, it seemed like you and Forrest ended up cutting out a bunch of dangerous balls close to the goal. Is that something you expected to have to do?
“Yeah, we knew it was going to be tough and we just had to be ready and in good positions at all times. No sleeping from the backs, so I think we showed that well and we were always in a good spot.”
The team has 50 goals on the year after your tally tonight, what’s the upside, especially with Daniel Ríos’s return?
That’s great: It’s great having Ríos back; he’s been a huge part of this team. He’s getting his fitness back as well, slowly but surely. He’s always dangerous up there. He’s a good all around number nine: good at holding the ball. Obviously, he’s still in the Golden Boot race so I can see him coming close to that with these remainder of games.
You’re going to catch him in that Golden Boot race, right?
I’m coming for him: coming for his spot. Sorry Daniel.”
Goalkeeper Matt Pickens and winger Alan Winn
100 clean sheets demonstrates you’re a good goalkeeper, but what does it mean to you to have that accomplishment and longevity?
Pickens: “Yeah, I don’t know about “a good goalkeeper,” but I’m an “old goalkeeper.” Listen: I’d be disrespectful or selfish if I didn’t have an ode to all of the players and teams that I played with that have worked their tail off in front of me. Every 100 of those shutouts including tonight as well: the guys did a good job tonight. Above all, I’m just happy about the three points. It makes it sweeter than just having a point this time of year. Moving in the right direction, got the monkey off our back, now we’re just going to keep going.”
So you’re taking it to social media then?
Pickens: “No, no social media here. I’m going to check on my kids, make sure they’re sleeping, and go to bed and wake up and get ready for Saturday.”
What did you think about the overall performance of the defense?
Pickens: “Good. We’ve been playing pretty decent defense. Something that we’ve gotten better at this half of the year. Guys like Alan that come on the field are able to help in the possession, break lines so we’re able to get out of our defensive half a little easier. That helps, so it’s good to have him on the field tonight, and same with [Kharlton] Belmar. Those guys, these two have athleticism and that frightens teams. They’re going to drop back and make it easier for us defensively when they’re on the field.”
Alan, what did you think of your ability to find plenty of space on the wings against Birmingham?
Winn: “I try and anticipate that every game. That’s my role out in the wing is to try and isolate myself with that right back, or even that central midfielder, whoever I’m facing against. It worked pretty well in the first half. Obviously, didn’t execute with an assist or a goal. Then it transitioned a little bit in the second half, but it kind of slowed down. Definitely could do more, do more of that: that is what I want to do each and every game.”
Do you look at your performance and say, “I got the first part done, but didn’t finish with the final ball?”
Winn: “That just comes with the challenge, right? If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. It’s just keep pushing, keep chipping away, keep chipping away. It’s one of those games where it didn’t happen, but we have guys like Jimmy that can put the ball in the back of the net in the 90th minute. That helps going forward.”
What changed that made Birmingham more competitive in the second half?
Pickens: “They’ve gotten a lot better, they’ve gotten a lot better since the last time we played them. I think the last time we played them, they had a few injuries. They got a couple of guys back. They’re more athletic, they’ve got a little bit more bite to them which is hard. It’s hard to deal with building out and getting pressure going forward. I just think that we did start the game well, and I thought they actually started the half off a lot better. When they go into half with it 0-0, they’re thinking, ‘what we need is a goal, and we’ve got 45 minutes left in this game,’ so they’re still in it. Mentally, we knew there was going to be a little push from them. They’d just played Friday night, so we knew there was going to be a little bit of die-off probably towards the end. It’s typical of teams who only have a couple of days rest. Credit to the boys that recognized that and pushed on a little bit more to get three points.”
Is there almost some regret in not getting a goal from the front line and needing a centerback to bail you out?
Winn: “I don’t ever see opportunities like that as regrets, just more as gateways to get better. You always have these things where it doesn’t click all the time, but that just propels you like, ‘OK, maybe I need to better in this aspect, or be better in this whether it’s defensively or offensively. Sometimes it happens, and it’s great. But there is never regrets when it comes to not being able to do your job sometimes because sometimes it helps reflect a little bit and think, ‘OK, what do I need to do to be better the next game.’ Hopefully it’s Saturday.”
So what do you need to do to be better Saturday?
Winn: “Score. That’s it. Score and assist. Everything else is good, but just get that final product.”
What have you been able to learn as a young guy from Matt Pickens, who is in a very different stage of his career?
“That he stretches all the time. It’s crazy; I don’t understand it. I stretch a little bit, and then he’s stretching the next 30 minutes, and I’m like ‘you know what, I’m done.’ I’m sweating and he’s still going. That’s one thing I’m taking away – stretching and ice baths and all the recovery, good stuff.”