Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and team captain Dax McCarty spoke with the media about their upcoming trip to Orlando for the MLS is Back tournament. Read their full comments here.
Gary Smith: “I have to say, I’m very excited by it. I’ve just watched the live draw, and I thought MLS did a great job. Delighted that we’re back up and running again, and we’re all looking forward to some competition as you could well imagine. Honestly, I really don’t think it would have mattered what group we’d have been in: there’s a lot of unknowns about this competition, and maybe the way that teams will be ready for it, and some of the difficulties that everyone’s had to endure. But when I look at the three teams we’ll be playing against, of course they’re going to be very competitive. There’s some very difficult games there, but I’d like to think the way that we’re working, and some of the things that I think we’ll all be very pleased about in the way that this enforced period of time has gone for us, would mean that we can put on a very good showing. We’re looking forward to it; the guys have worked tremendously hard in these weeks that we’ve been off, and since we’ve been back in, and I would think that this is going to be quite an exciting tournament.”
Dax McCarty: “From my point of view, just to echo what Gary said, it’s a very exciting time for the players: now we have tangible games on the schedule that we can look to and start preparing mentally, physically, and emotionally. I think the physical work that has been put in throughout these last two months has been fantastic. I think we have a group that’s hungry and ready to go compete, and get back out on the field. As far as the specific opponents, I think they all are good teams in their own right, and they all present unique challenges. For me, obviously excited to be able to play against my former club, the Chicago Fire, a team that I played for for the last three years. Going from assuming that we weren’t playing them at all this year – because we were in the West and now playing them in this tournament because we’re in the East now – I think that’s just like a perfect microcosm of what this whole year in 2020 has been like: just complete unpredictability across the board. So now, to have three games against three good opponents in a super-unique tournament environment that MLS has never done before and to be a player that’s going to be participating in this for the first time ever: while the circumstances of it probably – how it came about – aren’t ideal, the fact that now we have something on the schedule, it’s a really exciting time for players because now we get to go and compete.”
Does having familiarity with Chicago – in a preseason friendly – help you prepare for at least one of the three games?
Smith: “I think the Fire are going through some big changes. The brief interaction with their coach was a very decent one: he seems a very decent coach, a really intelligent and decent guy. But they’ll have their focus, they’ll be trying to – or certainly will have been trying to – piece things back together again, given the troubles we’ve al had to deal with. I thought they had some really nice dimensions to their group in that preseason game. I actually thought we were well below-par on that occasion, and there are many different reasons for that in a preseason buildup. Not that it’s important anymore, but the guys had worked tremendously hard the day before, they were very leggy, and at this point, maybe that’ll be a little bit of a confidence-boost for Chicago, who knows? What we know is, it will be a very very different game and environment come either the ninth or further down the line against Chicago. But a game we’ll certainly be looking forward to.”
McCarty: “I think that you can only take so much from preseason games. Like the boss said, we had a fairly difficult few days on the training field before we actually played that game. So I remember vividly, how we started the game was extremely poor. Chicago took full advantage of that: they were bright early, they were energetic, they were physical, and they scored two goals right in the beginning of the game before we even had a chance to really wake up and get going. As the half wore on – because we played, I believe, two different groups in two separate 45-minutes – that first group, that starting group actually started to grow into the game, and actually started to impose our will on them a little bit more, and I actually felt really good about the way that we finished out the half the last 20-25 minutes or so.
“But like Gary said, you can’t really take too much from a preseason game: both teams are working on little things here and there. If Chicago want to look at that and draw some confidence from that, I’m sure that they will. Any little advantage that teams can gain, especially in a moment like this, they will try to. But again, for me, I look at this tournament as just a whole new opportunity to step back on the field and do something extremely unique that has never been done before. The fact that we get to play my old team, a team that I know well, in a fairly competitive environment, is exciting. They’re a new team, they have a new group – and I think even since that preseason game they have at least four or five new players that they have signed who have now been brought in that I think will be a big part of their team. So too many unknowns to really gain a whole lot from that preseason game, but I know that both teams will be up for it.”
How do you prepare for this tournament
Smith: “Well first and foremost, I think we have to make sure we’re in the very best shape, physically and otherwise, for this competition, and that started 3-4 weeks ago. Secondly, we’re gonna go into a format that is not natural to any of the teams that are playing in it. I certainly haven’t – with a professional outfit – played in a situation like this. So it’ll be very different, I’m sure it will for a lot of people. In terms of preparing for the games, in an environment where there are many, many restrictions still, building into this tournament in the amount of games or friendlies that we may be able to take, we’re still working in an isolated world, if you like, so we can’t just hop on a bus and go and play Louisville or Atlanta United prior to going down there. There are still certain restrictions in that manner.
“What I would say is, we have a limited time here – three games – we have a two-week tournament that we want to turn into a four-week tournament. Unless we doo well in those first three games, then we could be coming home fairly swiftly, and it’ll all feel like a bit of a whirlwind. So we need to be ready, we certainly need to be focused, in terms of planning for it, I know who we have now, and I can have a lot closer look at some of the footage – albeit limited in this early stage of the season, the first couple of games – and our challenge will be to get off to a good start. If you watch any of the big tournaments, and it’ll be ringing in everybody’s ears when we get down there: ‘if you can just get off to a good start we’ve got a real good chance of progressing.’ You hear it many times in the Euro Championships or World Cup, and that’s what we’ll be fighting for: get points under our belt.
“They also obviously count towards the regular season that will continue after this tournament, so there’s a big incentive, and at the end of it – as I think we’ve all seen – be it prize money for the players, or I think more importantly, including in the Concacaf for ’21 – it’s going to be, I would think, a huge incentive for every team playing down there, and for sure it is for us. The players will be ready for that. There’s already a real nice feel about the group. As Dax said earlier, we’ve got something to aim for now, and the planning will start straight away. No two ways about it.”
Have the logistics of preparing travel- and training-wise been ironed out?
Smith: “In answer to the first question, our mindset was to try and – as best we can – utilize our own training facility. We will be moving to phase three of training in the very, very near future, in the next couple of days. That’s going to help tremendously in the amount of work we can get through at our own training ground.
“But I think we all want to make sure that, in this long off-period, we’re able to get enough competition, be it amongst ourselves or down in Orlando prior to the first game. Whether it’s one or two friendlies, dependent on timeframes and the ability to play other teams. But I would think in the next couple of days, there’ll be a lot of information that comes out as far as who that first team is going to be, what day it’s going to be – I think at this point in time, I’m being told it’s going to be the 9th that we play – I certainly don’t who know it is yet. I have to guess it’s going to be either Philadelphia or Chicago, or else Orlando are playing back-to-back games, which is highly unlikely. So either one of those teams on the ninth, and I would expect some more information coming through pretty swiftly on that.”
Dax, are you and the players satisfied with the way the details of the tournament have ended up?
McCarty: “‘Satisfied’ is an interesting word, isn’t it? I don’t actually think about the logistics of it anymore, to be completely honest with you. I think it’s very public the frustrations and the difficulties we had in negotiating with the league. Let me just put it this way: am I more satisfied that the amount of time away from family in this tournament has been brought from originally almost a two-month proposal being down in quarantine in Orlando for two months to now a little bit more than a month? Yes, very satisfied that the MLS was able to come up with something a little bit more realistic. That’s definitely a positive.
“I think getting back on the field is just a mental weight that’s going to be lifted off every player’s shoulders once we actually start playing the games. There’s a ton of uncertainty in the world right now, there’s a ton of uncertainty in the sporting world right now, but just the fact that – like I said earlier – we have a target to look forward to, we have tangible games that the league is excited about and that our fans are excited about; players can put aside some of the… maybe… unfortunate circumstances of having to leave family for a long time and focus on being on the field and focus on being ready to play.
“You know, my son is 13 months old. I’ve gotten some unbelievable time in with him during this pandemic, which is a little bit of a silver lining in all of this right now. For me to be able to now re-shift my focus and the team’s focus to go down and play in this tournament down in Orlando to get back on the field for a month? I think that’s a sacrifice that I’m willing to make. I think my wife’s actually sick of me, so she’s ready for me to go down there and be gone for a little bit, too.”
What is your preparation in terms of getting ready for three different opponents on a short schedule?
McCarty: “It’s going to be very exciting. It’s going to be unique. I don’t think many players have experienced anything like this. Obviously, if you have experience in a cup tournament, then you know. I was fortunate enough to be able to play in the Gold Cup, and Anibal Godoy has played in the Gold Cup – in multiple Gold Cups – and Brayan Beckeles has played in World Cups and Gold Cups. So we have experience in cup tournaments, but obviously in cup tournaments, obviously those games aren’t counting towards the regular season. I find that a super-interesting and unique scenario, where I don’t think you can take each game and just prepare each game one-by-one, and say, ‘OK, we picked up a draw in our first game, so maybe we can win’ – this is towards the regular season; these points are going towards the regular season. So I think there’s incentive to go out and try to win every single game.
“Obviously it’s up to the coaching staff to decide how they want to rotate, how they want to keep guys fresh. But as far as I’m concerned, I want to win this tournament. So if you ask me, I want to play every game as much as I can, as many minutes as I can, and go on to lift a trophy at the end of this, right? In order to do that, you have to get out of your group. In order to get out of your group, you have to accumulate points, and then the cherry on top is that those points will go towards the regular season. As far as I’m concerned, there’s just so much incentive to go out every single game and try to play open, exciting, attacking soccer to try to win games and score goals, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Did you feel it was important to be one of the first major US team sports leagues to return?
McCarty: “I think the thing, first and foremost, that the players were concerned about was safety. I think everyone can understand that, everyone can respect that: we live in uncertain times right now, and nothing is normal. In order for us to really feel good about getting back on the field, we wanted to make sure that MLS had ironed out all the safety protocols while we would be down in Orlando quarantining. I think for the most part, all the players are satisfied with how seriously the league is taking this.
“The safety aspect is very important, and then a very close second to that was getting to showcase ourselves again on the field. This is a short career: being a professional soccer player is a short career. Any time wasted for whatever reason is time that you don’t get back. As a player who is getting to the latter stages of his career, I want to play as many games as I possibly can. When I heard the tournament format was coming about, on one side, you have the fact that it’s not an ideal scenario in any stretch of the imagination, but then on the other side of it, you have tangible soccer games again. You get to go out on the field, you get go on the field with your coaching staff and your teammates, and you get to compete for a trophy. You get to compete for a Concacaf Champions League spot, and you get to compete for points that hopefully will count towards a playoff spot at the end of the season.
“For me, it was really easy for me to flip a switch in my head to say that these games are going to be incredibly important and that this tournament’s incredibly important. I for sure don’t take it for granted, and I know our player pool doesn’t take it for granted that we get to be able to do what we love for a living in times that lots of people don’t have jobs. There’s a lot of uncertainty in our world right now, so for us to be able to step back out on the field and do what we all love is certainly a blessing.”
What positives do you take from the two games you played to begin the season?
McCarty: “I, for one, have taken a ton of positives out of our first two games. Something that we need to work on is we need to stop giving up world-class goals. That’s something that I definitely think that we need to work on, because the three goals that we’ve conceded have all been tremendous finishes. But the good news is that they’re all goals that can be fixed from my perspective. Also kind of piggy-backing off of that point, we’ve been so solid defensively in our first two games. I’ve been so happy and proud of the way that our team was able to defend against two elite MLS teams, two perennial MLS Cup contenders with exciting attacking players. We were able to severely limit the amount of chances that both those teams had.
“Now on the flipside of that, our attacking play, it needs to get better. That’s something that we realize, that’s something that we recognize, and that’s something that I know the coaching staff and all of our attacking players have been working hard to make sure that when we get into good attacking positions, we do more with the chances that we create. Because we’ve been so solid at the back the first two games, like I said. Going to Portland, a place that’s extremely tough to play, and dictating almost the entire game, not allowing a shot on goal for 70-odd minutes whatever it was after Diego Valeri scored: these are all things that you have to take as big positives, especially as an expansion team. There are no participation points. Obviously we realize we lost both games and that doesn’t sit well with me, that doesn’t sit well with our whole teams and our staff, so part of the reason we’re so excited to get back on the field is to take those positives that we saw in those first two games and try to turn those into wins and into points.”
Have you had a chance to consider the logistics of advancing out of a differently-sized group than the rest of them?
(If you said, “hey I bet that’s Tim’s question, because I have already read his analysis of the situation!” you’d be right!)
Smith: “Not really. Again, I’m hoping over the next 24-48 hours to really have a bit more of an in-depth discussion about what it means for us, what the schedule looks like, when are those games. We know we’ll play Philly or Chicago on the ninth or close to it as our starting game, but who’s our next opponent? What you get beyond that is what happened in the game before as we move down these three games. You’re going to find that teams that don’t get off to the sort of start that they would have liked become that much more – I would say – open and aggressive, to really try and put their mark on the group. As far as where we sit and how we progress, I’m going to have to find out a little bit more, Tim, on what that means in the group – in the four-team groups, I suspect that it’s going to be the top teams, and then in our group I guess you have to say the top team has to go through, and then I’m suspecting it’s going to be the next two best points tallies wherever they are around the remaining teams. So the challenge is to be top if we possibly can, and that’s what we’ll all be fighting for. But as part of the process, we certainly want to be in the shakeup for the knockout rounds if we possibly can.”
Do you have to keep both the regular-season and tournament implications of this event in mind when making coaching decisions?
Smith: “It’s quite a unique scenario really isn’t it? If you think about it, any tournament that you go into doesn’t affect the regular season, so therefore the choices and decisions you make as a coach – who starts, who comes off, who the inclusions are off the bench, what the shape of the team is, how aggressive you want to be – really, it all filters and funnels into the tournament and not the regular season. I guess there could be scenarios where we’ve done ever-so-well in a game, it’s coming into the latter stages and it’s all square. Do we go for the win because we want to progress in the tournament, or are we wanting to add points to the regular-season tally? I have to say the emotion of being in a tournament would probably lend itself to being more aggressive and progressing, but there’s a lot of time between now and the tournament starting.
“I think we’re all very, very pleased that this has got itself on track and we are going to be up and running, and today’s draw has made it that much more real. Rather than talking about what group we’re going to be in, we take one step closer, and we’re now talking about the teams that we’re going to be playing against. That in itself is a real positive step. It’s something we can all keep in 8mind as we now edge our way towards the eighth of July when it kicks off.”
Does hopping back into playing with a crucial tournament make it tough to have the chemistry right away?
McCarty: “Yeah, it’s not going to be easy. That’s going to be, probably for my money, the most difficult part of getting back to play competitive games so quickly. The fact that we still aren’t in full-group training yet, we still have to practice social-distancing, even in our small groups, we haven’t been able to do anything competitively against each other in a very long time. That’s obviously going to affect not just our team, but every team. Where we have a little bit of a disadvantage – along with Inter Miami – is that we are an expansion team, like you said. We inherently don’t have those reps together that other teams do.
“Now, with all that being said, I think that you saw the foundations in the first two games of just a really, really, really solid back six: a back six that are all honest players, that all work for the team, that all want to do things the right way in order to make us successful. I’ve said this numerous times when I’ve been asked about the world-class players that I’ve been lucky enough to play with: I think that good players that can read the game and that know the game well, it’s always going to take them a little bit less time to really start to get to know each other’s tendencies again. So with a guy like Godoy, the preseason that I was able to spend with him, and the first two games that I was able to spend playing with him, I already feel like I have a really strong connection with him: what his movements are, what his tendencies are, the types of passes that he likes to play. A guy like Walker, I have a strong comfortability with him in terms of trusting him in my backline: to be able to lead the back four, to be able to organize, to make sure that things are tidy at the back. These are all things that go into it, right?
“And nothing can ever replicate live game reps, but the thing that gives me a lot of solace and a lot of satisfaction is the fact that we have so much experience. The group of players and the team that Gary and Mike Jacobs have put together, we’re a team that, I don’t think when we step back out onto the field, it’s going to take us a long time to really get to know each other again and to click. So that’s something that I’ll take as we move our group into full-team training, and then hopefully – I’m not exactly sure what the schedule is yet, or if we’re going to be able to get a competitive preseason game in before this tournament starts yet, but if we do – we’re going to have to have guys that are extremely focused, and have to have guys that want to get up to speed very quickly. So that’s going to be the goal before the first game of the tournament.”
Dax McCarty photo (Zoom screenshot!) from file. Fear not, he has since learned about landscape orientation.