Nashville SC coach Gary Smith and two of his players met with the media this afternoon. Read or watch their full comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
Did you watch the games last night to see who you’d be playing in the first playoff game?
“Yeah, I did. I managed to see quite a bit of both. I started watching the Carolina game for obvious reasons – top seed, and at home – but quickly realized that was going to be a very tight game, and of course it went against them. I managed to see a reasonable amount of the other game. Listen – understandably so – they’re both teams competing, in both games, for the right to come into the playoff as a whole, and they’re both really competitive games.”
What did you take away from the Charleston game? Anything new?
“Not really, no. There’s been very little to choose between a lot of teams, especially the sides that are in the top ten. On any given day, I think any team can take any particular game. As far as now looking at Charleston – who were able to overcome Ottawa – I think you’ve seen all of the characteristics that you’ve seen in the past from Charleston teams. Mike [Anhaeuser] does a wonderful job and has done. I think he’s made every postseason – that’s a great stat. It’s not as if they’re a side that maintain continuity every year – there’s a lot of turnover of players, his recruitment’s excellent, and they themselves emulate, I think, the coach: he’s very well-organized, they’re very disciplined, they’re not just competitive, they have a nice dimension to them in [Zeiko] Lewis, [Kotaro] Higashi, you look at guys like [Nicque] Daley coming into the group who’ve not played loads but we fell foul of some of his exploits in the Open Cup, a lot of pace. They’ve got some really nice dimensions, and what we know is we’ve had some very very tough games against them, and I expect it’ll be exactly the same at the weekend.”
Is it encouraging to know they’ve played 120 minutes midweek and have to deal with international travel?
“Would I like to be where we are? Yeah, of course. It gives us a little bit more time to prepare. Yes, they’ll have more travel, and I’m sure there’ll be some sort of fatigue set in. But I think when those guys finally get to the weekend, they’ll put all of it out of their mind. He has the ability to rotate a few players, they’ve got a competitive group, and I think whoever comes in and plays, in whatever style he chooses to play, they’ll go about their business – they always do. They’re not an easy touch for anyone. What we have to try and inject into the game is the type of attitude and competition – cup competition – mentality that we have over the last two or three games. If we can start off brightly and get ourselves into a nice rhythm and groove, then we’ve proved we’re as tough as any team, as well.”
Is there an advantage in preparation when it’s a team you’ve seen so many times?
“It’s the same for both teams, you know? They’ll have a good insight into how we play, they’ll know some of our players – you know Forrest [Lasso] has played for Charleston, there’ll be no secrets between the two teams. It really is about in the postseason, and it is cup competition: there’s no way of recovering in the course of 34 games, you’re in or you’re out. It’s the guys that apply themselves properly, they’ve kept some sort of professionalism about their play – they’ve got to play in control, because otherwise you run the risk that there are other extenuating circumstances that can affect the game – and to show the sort of form which is why we wanted to finish the season well. Every team does, but we have. We’re in a good place, players are confident, they’ve got momentum, and those little nuances, and those details can be the big difference in games like this between winning and losing.”
What’s the training week breakdown as you waited to find out – and now know – who the opponent would be?
“Today’s always a big day looking at 11-v-11 play, trying to just pick out some of the characteristics of their team: A) that we might be able to take a little bit more advantage of, B) that we need to be mindful of, and careful of. When all’s said and done, they’re a difficult side to break down when they choose to be stout and resilient, as I’ve seen them. And they’ve also got, as I’ve said, some nice dimensions: they’ve got pace, they’ve got invention, and they’re also a very good threat from dead balls, as well. So, today’s really about getting our gameplan right, and making sure that the players are fully appreciative of how they need to start the game, what little things we’re after in those opening exchanges, how we tend to manage the game, or intend to, and of course, what difficulties we could run into and to be ready for.”
Does bad weather change your preparation?
“The players’ll be happy about that. We’re at the time of year anyway where the climate’s changed quite dramatically, the temperature’s dropped. It makes the game quicker; it’ll make it more competitive for sure. It’ll probably lend itself to being even moreso in a professional mindset and not getting too overzealous with challenges or the way that you try and impose yourself. But when all’s said and done, there’ll be 11 players on the field, the 10 outfield on each side will understand the nature of what we’re in. There’ll be, I’m sure, some very strong challenges, and there’ll also be some very good football. Both sides are really capable.”
How important is the home support especially in single-elimination games?
“I do think that the run-in has been very helpful for us. I know we played at Nissan Stadium against Carolina, but I think it helps the continuity of the week – it’s not just the matchday. You get into a rhythm of how you’re working, times, what you’re trying to get out of each session. Whereas when you’re traveling, it can kind of just put you out of your stride a little bit. The guys will be used to staying in their own bed, and preparing in their own way at home, and then being here at a particular time. The fact that we get the chance to play in front of our own fans – and of course everyone’s hoping that the first playoff game in club history at home brings supporters out in their droves – because when this place has got a good crowd in it, and some noise, it’s as good as any. There’s a lovely atmosphere. It will drive the players on, it inspires what will already be a particularly competitive game. I just think it will give it that extra cup edge.”
Does the attitude of the team get an impact from the knowledge that this could be the end of the USL road for them with this club?
“We’ve contended with the MLS shadow behind us all year, so the players knew from the very outset that they were going to be in the best possible position to show what they’re about, and be in front of the coaching staff: myself, who’s going to be moving forward with the MLS group. We’ve had periods in the season where particular players have been disappointed and frustrated when they feel as if they’re on the outside looking in. We’ve had periods of the season where those same players are now back in the frame and they realize that there were two jobs going on this year. The first one was to be as competitive as we can as a functioning side, but secondly, to make sure not that everyone got the best possible opportunity, but that the competition was good enough to be able to rotate the team, and certainly to give them a fair crack of the whip.
“So there’s been loads of emotions, I think we’ve come through all of those. We’re at a point in the season – and I think you saw that maybe four or five games ago – where everyone went from, ‘OK, maybe I’m not sure, maybe I am sure in my mind where I sit in the grand scheme of things. But I’m now going to roll my sleeves up, and we’re going to get on with the business in hand, which is to finish the season off well, and to achieve what we can. Maybe something that some players will never have the chance to do again, which is to win a championship.’ I don’t know where people will go or what they will do. What I do know is that this group, throughout, has conducted themselves fantastically. As far as I’m concerned, day-to-day, they’ve been extremely professional, they’ve worked hard, they’ve never ever shown on the field that there’s any issues, even if they did have some off the field. We’ve contended with injuries, and to some very influential players, and we’ve always been able to go about our business in a very competitive fashion. We’re at a point where all of these guys now see – in the team or out of it – that ‘I’m part of something quite special. When I look back on this whether I’m here or whether I’m somewhere else, it’s going to be something that I remember with fond memories.'”
Do you feel like the team being able to worry about the product on the field rather than worrying about where they stand with the MLS future?
“Maybe. I would – if you asked those players, I bet they’ve all gone through a particular period where they felt as though they were out of my plans, and therefore out of the future plans. That was the connection. They always looked and felt as though, if they weren’t in the team, because I was moving forward, they were out of the plans completely, which wasn’t ever the case. I’ve had two jobs to try and do. I think we’ve done a very good job to date as a functioning team, as I’ve said, and as we move forward, we’ll certainly find out what players make that jump, and who can be part of the next part of our history, and who won’t be. But that won’t be for a little while yet, hopefully. And when it does come around, I don’t think any of them can look back and say either they weren’t able to show what they were about, or they weren’t functioning as a group in the right way. Because that’s as big as anything: if you’re not working as a group, how does any one individual show what they’re about?
“So there was quite a lot to contend with early on, and it’s not a shock that, for some guys, it was quite difficult to maybe wrap their heads around – I know it was for me early on, running two teams, or trying to build the foundations of one and work day-on-day with the other.”
Do you think the energy and urgency has remained level, or does the playoff push increase it?
“I think we’ve certainly shifted into a new gear. The last three games at home, we always highlighted as an opportunity, come what may, once we qualified for the playoff to say, ‘look, the only way we can prepare for this, in our way, is to try and create the environment and atmosphere that you’re going to see come postseason.’ The fact that those games were in conjunction with chasing for the Eastern Conference regular-season title just added to it. It was another dimension to the run-in that I think gave the players a little bit more of a shot in the arm, and a bit more passion to the game. That’s lent itself nicely to what we’re now going to see.
Midfielder Matt LaGrassa
Does the playoff feel like a whole new season with the single-elimination format after a long regular season?
“Yeah, luckily for us, I think we started to replicate the environment of playoffs the last couple games of the season, because we were competing for a title obviously. So I think you saw us kind of flip that mindset a couple games ago. There’s always a different feel, it’s one game, and anything can happen. You’ve got to be good always, and take advantage of the opportunities that you have.”
Does the knowledge of this club going to MLS add pressure to perform in the playoffs?
“I mean, this is obviously the last opportunity for the fans to see a USL team here for now. I think we’re focused on what we’re trying to achieve. The pressure honestly comes from us being a two seed, more so than being the MLS club. We’ve done well all season, we’re going to be playing at home, and we’ve put that pressure on ourselves.”
Is there individual pressure to prove that guys deserve the opportunity to go to the next level?
“Everybody wants to perform, and whether it’s going to be here in the future, or at another club, I think these types of games and the big moments always define players and define careers for players. That’s where that added intensity comes in these games for sure.”
What do you have to do to ensure survival and advancement?
“I think we’ve just got to keep doing the same things that have made us successful. Obviously Charleston presents its own challenges. We can’t skip any parts of the process. First 10-15 minutes, there’s a certain job that needs to be done, then the next period of the game, and you just have to go through those steps, not allowing the pressure to get to us, and really do what’s been making us successful all year. We’re on a good run of form, not a ton has to change, but it is going to be a little bit different atmosphere, for sure.”
Did you watch last night’s games?
“Yeah, both. I had them both on the screen. You can tell watching those games and how tight they were and the way that both teams battled back to tie the game at some point, that’s just playoff soccer. Nothing’s going to come easy, and we’re obviously going to respect Charleston as they come in: they’re here for a reason, so we’ll do everything we need to do.”
How do you feel the experience of playing Charleston so many times this year will prepare you?
“I think in the times that we’ve played them, especially here – whether it was in the Open Cup or in the regular season – I think they were very organized defensively, got into some blocks, and wanted to make things difficult on us. I think we expect to see something similar. You saw that really against Ottawa last night. I thought Ottawa controlled a lot of the game and created probably more opportunities, but Charleston made things difficult, and the game dragged on, and they were able to get the result.”
What’s your approach to leadership and doing your part in the postseason?
“Really, we’ve got a great group, all-around. I think our midfield’s really come together with a string of game all together. Bolu’s been great, Lebo’s been very good. You go down the lineup: everybody’s really stepped up when we needed them to. I’m just trying to play whatever role is necessary for me in each game. Sometimes it looks more like an 8 where I’m getting into the box more, and sometimes I hold more – it really just depends on the game. Everybody’s really stepped up down the line. We’ve got a great group and I think we can achieve something special.”
Is there a revenge factor after Charleston knocked you out of the Open Cup?
“Honestly, I think it was so long ago now and a lot of things have changed: we’ve got different personnel, they’ve got different personnel. I think it’s going to be a completely different type of matchup, and it’s going to be a battle. Like I’ve said, they’re going to make things difficult for us. We’re going to have to do things right, and hopefully at the end of the 90 minutes, we’ve got the job done.”
Midfielder Bolu Akinyode
Is there pressure with the single-elimination nature of playoffs?
“No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve been in a good run of form, and I think we’ve just got to take it as another game. Whatever pressure there is there, it’s the one we’re putting on ourselves. I think we’re in a good run and we’ve been playing well, and hopefully we just keep that running. Four more games, hopefully.”
Is there added pressure from the MLS future of the club?
“No, I think whenever you go out there, you’ve just got to perform. Individually, as a team, as a group, we’ve been doing this for a while now. I think the group has been together – a core of us – for a while now. So I think whenever you step on this pitch, of course there’s a natural pressure that comes with having to deliver for the fans and all that, but I don’t think there’s anything added going into the match.”
What do you have to do to replicate the winning result from last time out against Charleston?
“Yeah, I think that was a game where we played really well, I thought. I thought we imposed ourselves from the start; they scored a goal against the run of play. If we come out with that same mentality, same attitude on our own field – we’ve been here for the last three weeks now, we’ve had some nice moments – if we come out with the same mentality, that should set a good platform for us going forward.”
Has Charleston changed at all?
“Not really. I think they’re a club that’s been around for a while. Since my rookie year, they’ve played pretty much the same. They’ve had a decent amount of the same core. So I think they’ll come out, they’ll fight, they’ll battle, they’ll work. They’re a blue-collar team, and we’ve just got to be ready for it.”
How do you feel your skillset complements those around you, and how important is the spine of the team to your success?
“We’re – I kind of look at it like the back six: the back four and then me and Matt [LaGrassa] in front of them – I think we’re a group that have to do a lot of the dirty work for the rest of the guys. I think we have fantastic ability going forward with the wingers, Ropapa [Mensah] and Alan [Winn], and Daniel [Ríos], and Lebo – those guys give us so much going forward that we’re the stability in the core of the team to hold us back. If we have one part going forward, and we don’t get the other part on the other side, it could be an ugly game.”
What does it say about the overall strength of this defense that it seems most goals against have come outside of the run of play, and how can you prevent those counter-attacks?
“I just think we stay tuned in, we stay locked in. I think getting that first goal has been huge for us at times and moments. If we look back to the Charleston game, Matt might have had a couple chances where if we put it away, the complexion of the game’s changed a little bit. But I think it’s just being disciplined, being locked in, being focused for those 90 minutes.”