Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and midfielder Matt LaGrassa spoke with the media after yesterday’s 3-1 preseason victory against FC Cincinnati. Read their full comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Another very competitive preseason game. As I look at the fixtures that we’ve put together here – I may have mentioned it in my last press chat – we don’t really have any straightforward or easy preseason games, and there was a reason for that. I’ve always felt that good games, competitive games give you a great idea of where the team’s at, some of the problems that may arise, certainly the work that needs to take place. Another very competitive game. We had a bit of a mixture of players on the field – one or two guys like Hany and Dominique Badji and Abu – who’ve been carrying knocks or little illnesses, and those guys came through ever-so-well. Then of course, some younger lads: Jack was terrific, Miguel Nazarit came into the came for his first 45 minutes, and I thought showed ever-so-well. One or two little moments of course in possession, but overall I thought acquitted himself great against the Cincinnati first team for 75 minutes. Very, very pleased, lot of good display, some great energy. We’re really starting to set a little bit of a tempo to the games, which is important. I’d like to think that in all the games we’ve played so far, barring maybe a sticky 20 minutes against Chicago, we’ve shown pretty well.”
How has Jack Maher fit in with the squad early?
“There are things you never know when you sign someone of his talent – Jack’s a talented player, and a lot of clubs were looking at Jack in the collegiate draft, and we were fortunate enough to get him. He has an awful lot of qualities for a centerback. He’s quite athletic, he’s very composed on the ball, he reads the game very well for a young centerback, and he’s competitive – he’s a brave boy. A lot of qualities that you need to be a good modern-day centerback. The big question for someone like jack is: how quickly do you settle into a professional environment at the top level in the country you’re playing, and will your peers be confident enough and appreciative enough to accept you into the group? And I believe they have. I think we’ve seen a lot of real positive play from Jack. He’s been a breath of fresh air as a personality. As a young guy, he’s not been a shrinking violet and sat in the corner and tried to be his own individual: he’s mixed in well, he’s got a personality, and I think the players respect him for that. So I’m very, very pleased where he’s at coming in.”
How has the defensive pressure been able to come together in preseason?
“We’re a month into our preseason now. The Montreal game, I felt was a bit of a standard that the guys had set, and if you like raised the bar from the Louisville game, and this group that went out on the field – some of them maybe would have suspected they weren’t going to get as many minutes. The way that we’ve periodized the work, it made all the sense in the world for the players that were out there to play more minutes – and of course the lads that were in the stands to probably take the brunt of the minutes on Wednesday. So, I think a month in, the guys physically fit into their place. There’s of course going to be some fatigue certain days within the preseason regime that are quite heavy, and that can leave the guys quite heavy-legged. But I think these evening games as well: they’re under floodlights, it makes the game a bit quicker, there’s a slick edge to the surface – the fields here anyway are in great condition, but they’re quite firm – when you get a little bit of greasiness on the surface, it makes it so quick.
“I thought both teams played at a really positive pace, but for our group, the pressing element of it has been quite a focus in the last week. There’s still some things we need to polish off and make clearer, but one of the big components of pressing is a really determination and tremendous energy. If you play without those two when you’re trying to press, then you’re probably not going to get much success. The guys who were out there I thought they did very, very well – especially early on, I thought we should have been a goal to the good before we did actually score. We had, I want to say, numerous other chances that we could have made better of, or the referee might have seen in a different way. Because just before he gave the penalty, I was almost certain that Derrick got brought down for the one before that.”
Is your style of play almost an answer to the accusations of “defensive coach?”
“I honestly think – we’d like to think – that we’re going to be strong [defensively], but we’ve yet to prove that. The preseason games evolved very different to any league game. Guys played with more freedom and obviously less pressure. There are certain individuals that have probably kept themselves in better shape in the offseason, and they’re in a better place when they play in these preseason games. When everyone settles down into their league form, I still believe that we have a group that will be difficult to play against. But I’m discussing this the other day, and there’s a difference between being defensive and being organized.
“Defensive, you go out and you’re just happy to try and nick a goal if you can, play for mistakes, and you don’t play with an awful lot of purpose for the ball. If you’re organized, you’re difficult to play against, and you have multiple facets to your group after you win a ball: if you’re under pressure, you show a release. If you’re on top, you can press and you can win it in good areas.
“Tonight, I think we’ve shown again that we can win the ball in good areas. As you’ve said, Dominique’s opportunity that he’s failed to hit the target with was based on pressing the ball and winning it in a good area. We’ve scored from a set piece, which is obviously another big area of productivity for any team. There have been numerous moments aside that where we’ve shown terrific energy and edge to our game. I hope that in the process of this preseason, and of course as the league season unfolds, this whole notion of ‘we’re a defensive team’ is put to bed, and we’ve now scored – what is it, eight goals in four games and conceded three or four? – we’re on the right track. I’d like to think that people see us as a very competitive group, and it’s our challenge and our job to make sure that we show the right talent to win any game.”
Does your mindset of focusing on the process of improvement versus building confidence with wins change at any point during preseason?
“I don’t think so. I think winning’s a habit, full-stop. The one thing that I think all coaches want to see is a group of players that are determined, and they’re not going to give up and squander leads or victories when they’re in sight. For a brand-new team, you’ve got to find the right personalities that want to fight for that. There’s certainly an edge that has to be created in training to try and make that a part of everyday life and the fiber of the group that goes out on the field, and I think we’re seeing that now. We had a very, very tight game against Montreal, we edged it one-nil. We’ve had a very competitive game tonight,l and found our way to score three goals. There’s some nice things that are going on, but finding a winning formula is of course a very big piece of any puzzle when you’re in a team. But I think leaning towards the start of the season, yes we have to get the right balance. I think we’re edging ever closer to what a first group might look like, there’s a good amount of competition in the squad – which is fabulous as well: everyone should feel under a little bit of pressure: it brings the best out of people – and at this moment in time, if you’d have said to me, ‘look, you’re a month in or just over, this is what you’re going to see and this is how the team’s going to perform,’ I’d have been very, very pleased. We’re nowhere near what we’ll be capable of further down the line. In terms of building the right foundations, I think we’re on the right track.”
Midfielder Matt LaGrassa
How did the pressing and intensity manifest themselves against Cincinnati?
“Any time we’re able to get on that front foot, I think the players enjoy it more. When we can win the ball closer to their goal, a lot of us will have more opportunities to score. That’s something that we’ve worked on in training, and it’s something that a lot of our players have the quality to bring. I think you saw that today: Cincy was looking to build out in a lot of situations, and we were able to press them, win the ball in their half of the field, and create goal-scoring opportunities from it.”
What happened on the play where you received a yellow card?
“They’re preseason games, obviously you don’t want to get anybody hurt or anything like that. But I saw an opportunity to fit in that front foot. The pass was a little bit soft, I saw an opportunity to slide on the ball, I went through the ball. The referee didn’t like it that much, and obviously gave me a caution. But moved on from there.”
Do any feelings from the USL rivalry linger, or is this a New Cincy and a new Nashville?
“I don’t think a ton of the guys that were around when we were playing the USL side are still around – maybe a few here and there. Being around Nashville as long as I have, I’m obviously well-aware of how much it means to the fans, and I think some of the other guys that have moved along from the USL side are as well. For me, I want to go out there and win every game, but I think maybe there are some feelings that still linger about Cincinnati.”
Is there a relief as a member in the team seeing the stadium situation settled?
“Yeah I think it’s just been great for the city and for our club just to watch it build knowing that it happened, and just finally have that reassurance that the stadium’s getting built. Just a really exciting time for soccer around the country, but definitely in Nashville. It’s exciting that it’s growing: obviously there’s been an announcements about the ticket sales for the first game, and it’s just a great time to be in Nashville, and playing soccer, or be a fan of soccer, for sure.”
What’s the difference between last preseason – preparing to be one of the top teams in USL – versus an expansion preseason this year?
“I can say for me personally, I think having worked with Gary and a lot of the staff before, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of schedule and that kind of thing moving into preseason. I would say this preseason actually is a little more reminiscent of the first year that we had in Nashville, where we were all kind of from different places, coming together and a lot of the emphasis is just trying to get chemistry with the guys around you, and a lot more reminiscent of what we dealt with there.”
Matt LaGrassa photo from file. Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country.