How important is it to have officially clinched the playoffs?
“It’s great to know that you’re in the playoffs. I think the statement that went out really encapsulated the way that we all feel. There’s been a bigger focus. Yes, you can only move incrementally, and make small strides, and those strides have been made towards a postseason, but our focus has always been on ‘can we win the Eastern Conference?’ and of course if we do fall short of that, ‘can we be in the most positive position possible to try and have a solid run in the playoffs?’ I think by aiming for the title, then we should put ourselves in a great spot. Very, very pleased. It’s good work from the group. With five games to go, it’s a massive improvement on last year, but there are big expectations around the group, so I’m not going to say that we achieved what we set out to, because we haven’t yet.”
Does Pittsburgh’s proximity to you in the table make this one of the most important remaining?
“I would say as big as any at this point. It really is an important juncture, I feel, for probably both teams. A victory gives us a six-point buffer with their couple of games in hand, so it puts a bit more pressure on them. A draw probably keeps them in the stronger of positions, and a defeat is quite damaging for us in the charge for the top four. So yeah, it’s a big game. everyone knows that. I think the mentality and attitude of the group’s been great – you saw that on Tuesday night. It wasn’t easy having five, really full-fledged starters out of the side. The rest of the group stepped up well, and I think the determination and that willpower to try and make something happen was there for all to see again. It doesn’t do a lot for my stress levels, as I said afterwards, but a victory gave us exactly what we needed towards this weekend.”
Does giving up two late goals to draw in Pittsburgh impact the way you prepare to see out the win this time?
“There’s been a lot of changes in both groups – not necessarily personnel for them, but I think certainly where their form was at in that point in the season when we played them. They’ve been on a terrific run. They’ve gone from being a side that in the early part of the season that started very slowly, and have picked up momentum fantastically, and they’re really in the spot that you would expect them to be fighting for, not just the playoffs, but a real top-three, even championship spot. So, I don’t think in terms of planning, much changes. Our bodies that we’ve added make a big diference to us. You can see by the way that the team’s performed: goals conceded, goals scored, results, eight wins out of the last 11 games is a good return. I do think that we’re certainly in a mentally strong position – I can see that in the group. Certainly like one or two of those lads that we’ve seen on the touchline. Daniel’s in a much better position for the weekend, to get Derrick up and running, Cameron’s looking good for the weekend as well. We’re starting slowly but surely to get towards what could be our strongest lineup, and that only bodes well for what comes next.”
Will Lebo be ready?
“He’s fine. He’s going to be great.”
Looking at the last five games, seeing that this is the last home game before that only away contest, do you try to put on a bit of a show?
“Honestly, when you start getting into the sharp end and the business end of the season, I think all teams always want to entertain. If you look at the way the game unfolded the other night, I honestly thought the first half, we – with some omissions from the group, and a lack of connections at the time – still managed to offer up some good enough chances to get in front, and it does change the way that the game unfolds.
“This side’s not easy to play against. Bob’s made a living out of building very strong, organized groups who are very capable. He knows this league inside-out, he knows what it takes to be in the playoffs time and time again, and he also knows what it’s like to win a championship. So, no one’s expecting an ewasy game. Will it be a free-flowing, open, exciting game? Unlikely, really unlikely. Will we see a lot of the ball? Quite possible. Will we create many changes? Again, I’m not expecting many. So their record tells us they’ve lost four games all year, they’ve had a lot of draws, they’re very, very tough to play against, and I don’t expect anything different.”
Does this time of year lead to more slip-ups from teams at the top dropping points to lower-table teams?
“I think you’ve got a couple of things that have happened. One, to your point: there’s a little bit more pressure for the teams at the top who are fighting for a championship or a top-four spot, because they know what that can offer them come postseason. You’ve got teams like Louisville who we should certainly not write off: they’re in a really good vein of form. We’ve got to play them, it’s a local derby. They’re a game in-hand on us, but certainly one slipup somewhere makes that game against them almost identical to the one we’ve got this weekend. I think you’ve got a lot of good, quality sides, well-matched sides in the top six or seven of this league. There’s not an awful lot to choose between the teams. Below that, I think you’ve had some sides that have dipped in and out of form. Teams like Birmingham that have started off poorly with a brand-new franchise and have found their way and a bit of their identity. And then you’ve got the teams that have had a difficult season for the most, but have just relaxed a little bit more. There’s not so much tension about trying to fight for playoffs, they probably know what their fate’s going to be, it’s given an opportunity for some of those guys just to maybe – certainly with some of the two teams – some guys who have not got a lot of experience, and were finding the fight for playoff and postseason a little bit too much. Well now, they’ve got a bit of experience, they’ve found their way a little bit more, and maybe that opportunity to relax has given them the platform to play.”
This will be Pittsburgh’s first time playing at First Tennessee Park. Does that give you an advantage?
“They strike me as a team that adapt pretty well to wherever they go. I think there are some certain nuances to one or two of the teams that have bigger fields, wider fields, I know they had an issue down in Carolina – but they did have a player sent off as well, and it was all square before that. But those field can sometimes, if you play on a tight field like they do, have a little bit of an issue. I don’t see them having a problem at our field. I think it helps us, because I think when we go to Nissan, yes it’s a big occasion, I think the group coped far better with that occasion, and I’ve seen a gradual progression from the Pittsburgh game, to Cincinnati last year, and then the win against Indy. That progression has been nice playing at the Titans’, but it is a bit of a neutral venue for both teams when we’re there. This venue is something we’re more used to, it’s something we’re more capable of achieving on. We’ve had good results, we’ve finished games well, the fans get behind us – it is a tighter environment – so to that degree, I think it suits us better.”
Defender Forrest Lasso
You’re one of the few guys who wasn’t with this team for the last Pittsburgh game. Have you had a chance to catch up on the scout?
“First time playing them this year – obviously in years past, I’ve been playing against them. I’ve played against them probably four or five times since Bob’s been under control of them. They’re a good squad: they’re very organized, super-defensive, they know how to shut it down. They have a system that they execute pretty perfectly. I kind of know how they play, I’ve watched them a little bit this year: I love footy, so I try to watch as much of it as I can. They’ve got a good squad, and it’s going to take a special 90 minutes to break them down. But I think if we go out and we execute as we’ve been told and as we’re planning, we’ll be all right.”
Does knowing that your offense will have limited opportunities increase the pressure on the defense?
“Definitely. I think in my four or five years playing against Pittsburgh, I think I’ve only scored more than two goals on them one time. Besides that, it’s always the 1-0, 2-1 maybe draw a game – it’s always pretty tight. If they go ahead early, it’s always that you’re kind of fighting uphill. With a team that’s so defensive, where you have to kind of break them down, you’ve gotta understand that you’re not going to score right away. You’re going to have to be a little patient, and the pressure’s going to be on. As easy as it is to get frustrated, you’ve got to be patient, and you’ve got to kind of fight through it. The defensive sides like Pittsburgh are going to do that and they’re going to test us a lot. So we know that – it doesn’t matter who you play – we don’t want to concede first. We know that against Pittsburgh, that if they do go a goal up, they’re going to make us pay for it.”
Does you have come down from an emotional high midweek, or worry about a quick turnaround?
“It’s obviously a day or two shorter than normal, but come Wednesday or Thursday, we’re all out here excited, smiles on our faces, feeling pretty good and ready to get back to work. We know this is an exciting time of year: we have just a handful of games left, a lot of points to grab, and hopefully with a lot of those points comes some silverware. We know that it’s a little shorter turnaround, but at the same time, we get to play another game, which is pretty exciting, so it’s hard to complain.”
Do you see your ability on set pieces particularly important against a good defensive team like Pittsburgh?
“I kind of walk in personally – I can probably speak for a lot of defenders – you walk into every game you’re like, ‘oh, this would be cool if I could get on the scoresheet today and help the team out.’ At the same time, scoring is great, I get more thrill and more excitement than maybe denying someone else a chance to score. That’s our job as defenders: we want to keep the clean sheet, we want to give the guys in front of us – the Daniels, the Camerons, the Lebos – give them the chances to score and win the game for us. Personally yeah, scoring’s always great, but as long as we get the result and we do our job defensively – it’s hard to say – who cares.”
Do you guys take special pride Matt Pickens’s 100th career clean sheet then?
“Extremely. We owed Matt that 100th one for about three or four games now. I kind of always had talked to him like, ‘this is the one, we’re going to get it for you man, you deserve it.’ I think as soon as that final whistle blew on Tuesday, I just immediately turned around and started looking at Matt, because that’s a rare, rare achievement. For someone to be able to to that, it’s huge. He’s had what, four or five clean sheets since I’ve been here? So to be able to be a part of that 100th with him is special. It’s an honor, it’s humbling, but we want more. We want four or five more before we finish up the year.”
You clinched playoffs on Wednesday. Does that reduce pressure?
“Yes and no. I think you’ve got to be appreciative, you’ve got to be grateful every time you make the playoffs, because at the end of the day not every team does make the playoffs. But at the same time, we kind of set a standard. Obviously I came in a little late to the picture, but as soon as I got here, you could see throughout the group that we had a standard, we had the playoffs – while we are grateful and appreciative that we’ve secured a spot – that was almost the standard from the very beginning since day one. So we knew that that was something that we wanted to achieve. I kind of said earlier, we have bigger aspirations and bigger dreams than just the playoffs. So we’re thankful we’re there, it’s the first step in trying to achieve what we want to achieve, but I think for us, for the coaching staff, the club, the community, there’s a lot more that we want to win.”
What is the larger meaning of the team’s ability to find a late winner?
“It speaks a lot on character. I think in the past four-five-six weeks, we’ve rotated a little bit, maybe had a couple injuries, three games in seven days – whatever it may be – we’ve had a couple things that we’ve had to maybe shift around, and you can tell that whatever the group is, whatever the player that gets called upon, they get the job done. It might be the last minute, last second, last chance, whatever it may be, but everyone has that thrill to win, that thrill to be the hero. We also know at the same time that it doesn’t have to be one guy. It can be a collective unit, so, this team knows that we have the talent. Everyone here knows that we’re damn near… we’re good, simply put. And we remind ourselves sometimes part of this sport it you don’t always win, sometimes the better team loses, but I think we have that mentality that it’s going to take 90 minutes, we’re going to have to grind for every second and know that it could be the last second of the game, essentially a buzzer-beater, and if you get the chance to win it, you can win it.”
Forward Kharlton Belmar
Alan talked after the game about a sense of disappointment that the forwards didn’t score, despite the win. Is that something you felt, too?
“I think any time the offensive corps doesn’t get a goal, we can all be a little disappointed about it. At the end of the day, it’s about the result, and getting a result. As attacking players we want to score and get goals, and contribute with assists or whatever you can do. In that sense, yeah, I can be a little disappointed.”
Does Pittsburgh’s defensive strength mean you have to be more precise with your chances, since you know there will be fewer of them?
“That is definitely on the forefront of my mind with that process on the attack. Obviously we’re going to go out and try to create as many chances as possible, and hopefully try and make something out of them. Strong defensive team, I think it’s very imperative that we take our chances when they do come. Again, in whatever way we can contribute – defensively as well – it’s just going to be a collective effort. Whoever gets the goal, at the end of the day you get the goal, get the result, that’s all that matters.”
Is it exciting to get Daniel back for the stretch run?
“It’s great to have Daniel back. His goal-scoring record speaks for itself, and to have a guy like that up front is always going to be beneficial, no matter who’s player behind him. We’re happy to have him back, and hopefully he gets the job done for us as well.”
With the playoffs clinched, how exciting is it to have that settled, or is it just one step in a process?
“I think on a surface level it’s great, but I think at the end of the day we all wanted to win the Eastern Conference right out, and win in the playoffs as well. It’s a good feeling: one goal accomplished, and we’re pushing for the Eastern Conference title.”
Does the proximity to Pittsburgh in the standings make this one of the more important games left?
“At this point in the season, you’ve got to get up for every game, but it’s even more important knowing that this is a team that’s directly challenging with us. It’s that much more important to get this job done.”