Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and two of his players spoke with the media after NSC’s 0-0 friendly draw against Swedish side IF Elfsborg last week.
Since some stadium_stuff immediately hit the fan immediately thereafter (as in the e-mail went out basically at the instant we all hung up the phone), I haven’t had the chance to post the presser transcript. Here it is:
Midfielder Dax McCarty and defender Eric Miller
Dax McCarty: “Really exciting to get out on the field against a real opponent, not ourselves, and get a 90 minutes in. Most all of us played 30 minutes. We’ve been put through our paces for the last two weeks with Gary, and have got quite a bit accomplished I think in our first two weeks.
“Now to actually see that come to fruition and to put in place the things that we’re trying to establish against a real opponent, it was a really positive outing for us. It’s always interesting to get on the field with a new group of players, and it’s not even the same as joining a new team, right? It’s joining – basically creating – a team from scratch. For the first 30 minutes, getting to know guys, getting to know their tendencies, trying to establish relationships on the field that will make us successful is the main part of the exercise, and I thought for the most part, it went really well.”
Eric Miller: “I agree with all of what Dax said., I think for us, we’ve been working really hard for two weeks here in camp, and for us to finally have a chance to kind of see our work come together and kind of see some of the stuff we’ve been working on in training finally come together against a real opponent that didn’t know exactly what we were trying to do – like we sometimes do in training – was really positive for us. It’s obviously a really important step for us just as a group against real opponents as we grow, we’ll be able to make the corrections.”
What are some of the things can you learn playing against a friendly opponent that can’t be learned from playing each other in a training format?
McCarty: “You can gain a lot from playing an opponent that’s not yourselves. It’s not just playing an opponent from MLS, it’s playing an opponent from another country with a different tactical setup, with a different approach to the game. Sometimes in preseason, we’re going to go through and we’re going to play against different MLS teams, and if you’ve been around the league long enough, you know certain players, you know their tendencies, you know how to defend them, you know how to attack against them. But when you play a team like Elfsborg from Sweden, we don’t get to watch much Swedish soccer. They’re all unique players: they’re guys where we don’t know how they’re going to attack, we don’t know howe they’re going to defend, we don’t know what kind of challenges they’re going to present to su.
“On the flipside, they don’t know how we’re going to approach them, so it’s really, truly a chess match. You try to see who can get the better of each other. The game ended up 0-0 so the positives were our shape – we’ve been working a lot on our shape and how we’re going to defend, how compact we want to be. We really limited the other team to very few chances. I don’t think Joe Willis or any of our other goalkeepers had too much to do. On the other side of it, the attacking side of it, that’s always going to be something that comes a little bit later in terms of those connections, and trying to click, and create chances and score goals. You see some positive play, we saw some really positive stuff from our backline through our midfield, to the strikers and the attacking players who created some good chances. It’s just a matter of getting on the same page as fast as we can.
Miller: “I think for me the big thing about being able to play an opponent, and especially an opponent you don’t know, is oftentimes in training, Gary will explain something beforehand, and as much as you try to be honest – if you’re on the other team – pretend like you don’t know what’s going on, at least at some subconscious level you know what the other team’s going to try to do, and it makes it difficult to try to do that sometimes. I think for us to play an opponent that knows nothing about us, that we can really do and try to do the things that we’ve been doing in training against a group that has no idea what’s coming. I think that’s really valuable – and the vice versa as well, as far as us having to deal with problems that we haven’t seen before, players that we haven’t seen before, and an entire team that we haven’t seen before. It’s a good thing for us to have to deal with and adapt to the things that we have to work on.”
How is the new team coming together?
McCarty: “Everything is new. Everything is unique. This is an experience that I’ve never had in my career, and one that I’m looking forward to. I think that once you start on this journey with a new team and a new coach, and a new staff, it’s all fresh. There’s a lot of excitement in the beginning, but then once you get on the field, it all becomes real. For me moving forward, the most important things are just establishing connections on the field, establishing relationships on the field between players that are going to be playing in similar areas – what I mean by that is how quickly can our centerbacks get on the same page? How quickly can our fullback and our wingers get on the same page? How quickly can our central midfielders and attacking midfielders all get on the same page in terms of how they want to play: the certain movements that Hany Mukhtar likes to make, the certain runs that our wingers and strikers will be making.
“These are all things that have to come organically, they have to come naturally. You can’t force it because the reality of an expansion team is that we’re all new here together. The quicker we can get on the same page, the better off we’ll be. I think right now, these first weeks, we’ve not only laid a foundation of fitness and a physical workload down that has been really tough on the players but will serve us well in the long run, but we’re also starting to establish these connections, in terms of tactically and technically how we’re going to play.”
What has been the specific emphasis through training camp so far?
McCarty: “The things that we really tried to focus in on these last 10 days have been how we build out with the ball as a group, from the back. When do we play short, when do we try to build out possession from our goalkeeper to our defenders to our midfielders? How do we create chances and move the ball into the final third? And then on the other side of it is also defensively. How are we going to set up when we’re playing in a little bit of a lower block, with a little less pressure on the opponent? The things that we saw when we took those principles into a game I think were incredibly positive.
“One thing was that we kept a shutout at the back in each 30-minute period, with, quite frankly, three separate groups. We saw a lot of the things and a lot of the principles that we’ve been working on defensively put into action on the field. We really frustrated our opponent – I don’t think our goalkeepers had to make many saves. Any goalkeeper will tell you, the easier their job is, the better the team is doing in terms of defending. As far as the possession and build-up, there were some really good things on the field. There were some connections being made, there were some really positive plays through the midfield up to the strikers where if we’re a little bit cleaner and a little bit sharper in the final third, we probably nick a goal or two to win the first preseason game. Those are kind of the little things that we’ve been trying to work on and establish a base in the first couple weeks of camp. I think from my perspective, it’s been really positive.
Miller: “I would say the first couple weeks we were working a lot on kind of our defensive shape. I think the last couple years, we’ve seen some teams come into the league as expansion teams and have kind of struggled with giving up a lot of goals, and kind of being pretty maybe soft and easy to play against at the back. I think for us, that’s probably something we’re going to be focusing on here throughout the season: trying to be a team that is not going to concede a lot, and be in every game that we’re playing. I think throughout the first two weeks we’ve been working a lot on that, and a lot of building out of the back.
“We want to be a team that can keep the ball, and be able to create goals. Obviously that’s going to come with time. I think similar to what Dax thought: during the game today, we were pretty good in both those aspects of the game. Didn’t give up any major chances, didn’t really feel like we were stretched thin at all throughout the entire game that I was playing, and when I was watching the other groups as well. Overall, we continue to build and we continue to improve as we go forward over the next couple weeks.”
What are the pros and cons of having training camp on the road rather than staying in Nashville?
McCarty: “The pros are… our coach would probably say that we get out of Nashville. It’s a good fun city, but for the most part, for me, there’s no downside to getting out of the city and to getting on the road as a group when you’re fresh and you’re new. You have to spend a lot of time together – and it’s not just spending time together on the field, it’s about spending time together off the field as well. The best teams that I’ve been on in my career, the teams have always been really close-knit not just on the field, but off the field as well. That’s where relationships really build, that’s where bonds form. Going out to dinner with guys, getting to know them, getting to know what makes them tick, getting to know their families.
“If there is a negative, the only negative is that I have a nine-month old at home, and my wife is not too happy when we’re gone too much. I get a little bit of grief every now and then from that. That’s the beauty of FaceTime, I get to see him on FaceTime, and for the most part, it’s all positive. The weather down here in Florida has been pretty ideal for training – a little chilly for Florida I’d say. For the most part, we’re on the field twice a day, we have excellent facilities: great fields, great weight rooms, excellent modes of recovery for our bodies. I would say 99% positive, 1% my wife yelling at me is not the most ideal. I’d say it’s all good.”
Miller: “Having the group all together is kind of the most important thing. There are some teams that do stay in their home bases: most of the teams that are really far in the South. I grew up in Minnesota and I even thought it was a little bit cold in Nashville when we were leaving – so I’m not sure it’s super-ideal to be playing outside right now. There’s obviously the weather factor, we’re at a world-class facility with everything we could want – our hotel is right by the field – guys are getting all the time we need to recover in between sessions. Just the ability to spend all day every day together is huge, because we’re a new team with 30 new guys that have to get to know each other and the ability to spend all day every day together is just huge: for on-field stuff, for off-field stuff. Hopefully we don’t get too sick of each other – we’re going home within the next couple days here – but then we’ve got a couple more weeks in Tampa.”
Head coach Gary Smith
“A few thoughts on the game really. Honestly, I’m not sure that I could have picked a more ideal and decent opponent to play against. It was a competitive game, we’ve obviously not had an awful lot of competition together as a group. I’ve heard a couple of the guys speaking here. They seem quite pleased and comfortable and confident in the way that things are moving. It looked very much that way from the touchline. At this point, we’re just not going to have all the pieces of the puzzle together. A big part of building a group, of getting through preseason and being ready to compete at MLS level is making sure that we’re efficient and appreciative as a group in a number of different areas. The guys have told you that we’ve worked hard physically, because that’s a big part of getting ready. We’ve looked at an awful lot of relationship-building as we come out of the back, and what that looks like for the group in supporting each other and breaking through lines – which I thought we saw some decent signs of – and we’ve also looked at what we look like as a group defensively: what are our roles, what are the expectations, and not only did the first group fulfill that very well, but I thought that there were some nice signs in all three groups. So as this preseason goes on, we start to effect some of the other areas, and hopefully higher up the field what we look like in front of goal, and how we’re going to create chances, because of course, that’s a vital piece of what we need to be looking at towards 29th of February.”
What is the status of the three players who are in camp but didn’t play in the friendly (David Accam, Jimmy Medranda, and Daniel Ríos)?
“Well, all the guys for different reasons have got slight problems. If it had been a competitive game, no they wouldn’t have been. They were unable to play, and then take part. So everyone that you’ve seen out on the field today was capable of fulfilling competitive 30 minutes. When I look around the group, and you’re missing a couple of bodies – of course Randall [Leal] is away with his country, Miguel Nazarit is ready to come in to camp but has been been a little bit slow through the process of getting here. So we’re still missing some bodies here, and when I look at the guys that have competed here today, I think there are some really nice signs. I don’t think anyone is going to get overly excited at this stage, but I think what we all wanted to see – and I believe we’ve ticked that box today – is that A) physically we’re in a really comfortable spot, we’ve got a nice foundation, and B) there’s been some really nice signs of how this group are going to come together, and the type of identity that we might build.”
How did you evaluate the forwards – and their flexibility in positions – in a scoreless draw?
“[Abu] Danladi played through the middle, and [Dominique] Badji played out wide. But it’s simple: these guys that you’re talking about are very versatile – it wouldn’t be strange to see either of them swap again. I’m getting used to those guys, they’re getting used to understanding what I’m after, and what the team’s going to need. What I do know is that both of those guys have shown some really exciting and encouraging signs. I’ve seen them play, of course, but there’s nothing like being around them every day. That’s why being in camp for so long is so important. What I will say is, in the brief spell that we had Randall, looks incredibly exciting, very talented boy. I’m very very pleased with how he connected with the group. I think you’ve seen some signs today of what we might get from Hany. Bright, technically excellent, sharp, got a trick, creative, all of the qualities that you want to see from an effective No. 10. You have to remember we’re very very early stages of not just the team being put together, but also in their preseason. They’re finding their way, but again, some very encouraging flashes from a lot of that front line.”
Does this game tell you specific areas you need to work on before playing against Atlanta United Feb. 29?
“I think we’re just too far away. I watched a small piece of Atlanta – they played Philadelphia yesterday, and we trained. As we looked back across, they were playing, so we all stopped and watched for a period. Atlanta are a little bit in front of everyone else getting ready for their Concacaf games. Their style of play – even in that brief glimpse and of course of what we know of them – will be different to the way Elfsborg have played. Again, different leagues, and of course different individuals. I don’t think anything we’ve seen today is going to relate to what we see against Atlanta.
“For us, it’s really just building the right foundation. Every time that you can look out on the field and see some encouraging signs, it gives you the opportunity to move forward, to be more positive in a different area of the game, because there certainly will be – as we move towards the 29th – little sections of our work and pieces of our work that are not just going to fit together that easily and that simply. It’s the forward-giong, creative individuals always tend to be the last piece that you see that clicks. Defending always is a little bit easier because you’re disrupting play, you haven’t got to try and create and finish the most difficult thing in the game, which is to score.”
Been too long since I’ve broken out a ‘Gary Smith presser stock photo’ from the ol’ file. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country.