Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith sat down for a Zoom meeting with reporters this afternoon. Read his full comments here.
“Well, it’s wonderful to be back, first and foremost. It was a pretty disappointing period of time down in Orlando, as I’m sure everybody could imagine. The group went down there to compete, had prepared incredibly well to show as well as we possibly could in difficult circumstances, and unfortunately were unable to do that. So I would imagine you could all feel for the players and everyone that was stuck down there in isolation under some pretty difficult circumstances.
“Great to be back, good to be back today on the field, and the guys have certainly looked a lot more vibrant and energetic since we’ve been back. They are looking forward now to the restart, if you like, to the schedule – a home-and-away schedule that we’re all hoping takes place in the next month or so.”
What was the team’s mood during and immediately after the team meeting letting them know you’d be withdrawn from the tournament?
“It’s never an easy situation when you’ve got a group of players – and we still had, I think it was 18 fit and healthy individuals – that had trained incredibly hard. I think that’s something that not everyone would have seen and understood. Every group that’s gone down there had to prepare in the best way possible. We’d made a conscious effort that the best work we could do, given some of the restrictions we had, was to be uniquely physically prepared. The players had put as much effort into the month leading into the Orlando tournament as any group I’ve probably been around. It wasn’t easy, and the players realized that it was going to be maybe more of a grind than usual, but they got through the work, and they were in great shape.
“When we were finally told we were being withdrawn from the tournament – especially as, I think to a man, staff and players, but more importantly players of course, they were adamant that they wanted to continue. They were adamant as though they had enough bodies, they were in a good enough place physically to deal with the rigors of the games that were going to be thrown at us. I think they felt as though – the guys in isolation who were not well or who had tested positive, would be more than willing to come out of their restrictions and come and support the group again as soon as they could.
“It was a very, very deflating time, I’ve got to say. I think only by getting back home and being around natural and normal surroundings have the guys, emotionally, been able to get themselves back into a much better place.”
What was the timeline after learning you’d been withdrawn for the tournament, and what was it like upon return to Nashville?
“Once we’d been withdrawn from the tournament, the group was still undergoing daily testing to keep track of where everyone was at. We were very very limited as to what we could do and where we could go. In fact, it was really only under MLS guidance that we were able to leave our rooms or the floor that we were on. For the most part, it was just for 20, 25 minutes a day for a walk for some fresh air.
“As the time progressed until probably just a couple of days before we left, they were able to find us a more secluded spot around the resort that we could go out for a couple of hours – socially distant – we were allow to sit outside, listen to some music, read a book. Guys had some very simple games and outside things that they could enjoy. But that was as good as it got.
“Food in your room. We didn’t eat together at all while we were there. So, you can imagine that for a group of people that spend their life in a team, and are together an awful lot, it was very difficult to spend so much time on your own. And of course just as importantly, to be inside and not outside. Losing fitness day-on-day, it was a hugely frustrating time for everyone.
“When we left Orlando and came back to Nashville, we had to serve out the remaining period of our quarantine, and everyone would agree that if we could get back to either our own homes where it was possible for us to stay – I’ve got a guest bedroom which I stayed in for the remaining four days, and other guys that weren’t as fortunate, the club did a wonderful job of making sure that they could go somewhere that they could stay away from their family, children, parents, or whatever issues should there might have been should there have been a problem.
“As far as I’m aware, there were no problems, which was great. Just the fact of getting home and being in an environment that is understandably more comfortable, pleasant, it was certainly good to be back.”
What have you been told about a potential schedule for when the league returns?
“I don’t know an awful lot more than I did, probably, as we went into the tournament in Orlando. That picture that’d been created for me – certainly to plan for and to have in my mind while we were down there – was a home-and-away schedule that would possibly see us play nine home games and nine away games. To this point, that’s really what I’m working on. The start date for that was not set in stone, but was going to be around the middle of August if not the third week in August if possible.
“As far as our work and our preparations go, we’re very much into what can only be described as a third preseason for the group. When you’re limited as we were to no work at all for three weeks, the guys went from being – what I like to think was – one of the fittest groups in Orlando to one of the most inactive groups for three weeks. There’s a lot of sharpness, match fitness, and general mentality towards the work that’s lost.
“A big part of our preparations now has to be a real building process of getting the guys’ minds back on track and focused. Physically, working through those levels and those foundations that can offer us the best possible opportunity to compete. What we do know is that, unlike most of the teams in MLS, we’ll only have played two games and that was five months ago. The rest of the teams, as we’re seeing, at the very least are playing three games, and will have trained to a very good degree down in Orlando.
“The only team that is probably in a similar spot to us isn’t in our conference, so we’re not going to run into them. It’s not an easy environment or position to be in, but it’s one that we all understand, and realize that if we’re going to get any form of success out of this season or enjoyment, then we’ve got to be ready again come the middle of August.”
How do you feel like the team is different from it was when last you played?
“There’s an awful lot of work that’s gone on on the training field and to that degree, I feel as though the players certainly have a lot better understanding of my expectations for the group, and I think they have a lot better understanding and appreciation for one another, as well. The real difficulty comes when you’ve not played many competitive games, and you don’t have the tools or the resources to draw on when you go through difficulties.
“It’s a lot different: resilience in life is very different to resilience in a soccer match. We can be resilient in the environment we’re currently being in: Everyone cope well with their isolation, with the monotony of being indoors, the lack of activity. That’s being resilient. But it’s not the same as going into a game and being under pressure for 10 or 12 minutes in your half, and dealing with an awful lot of attacking prowess from a team, or going a man down. Going a goal or two down or being in a tough environment that you’ve got to try and rally yourself and others around you to get through.
“A lot of the teams that we are going to run into have that historically in their groups over the course of seasons. That’s one of the tough hurdles to always jump for brand-new franchises.
“So whilst I’m more than happy and comfortable with the character the group’s shown – they continue to do so: we’ve had a very good day again today, and everyone looks very much on track to be ready for the middle of August, and I’m sure we’ll be looking forward to competing, whoever that’s against – but in terms of knowing what the team A) is going to be with such inactivity, and B) how that evolves in a limited season, it’s very, very difficult to guess or to really understand at this point in time. We need to get into it, and really find out a lot more about ourselves as we play those games.”
What has been your training program (and will be your training program) in Nashville?
“From Monday when we were allowed to go back onto the field – the group needed to be tested twice after the quarantine and get those results back before we were allowed to compete again as a group back on the training field. We were able to get hose results back prior to Monday morning’s session. So we started Monday. First training session, as I’ve said, in three weeks of almost complete inactivity.
“Monday and Tuesday were very much days of getting the guys into a mental and physical place that feels familiar without going crazy because of the reaction that some of the guys may have had. They were still very fulfilling days. Physically, they got through a fair shift. Monday/Tuesday, that’s really what I wanted to try and achieve.
“We have to test three times a week: we go in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to cover those protocols, which allows us to train as a full group. Really, the main thrust of what will be a month to prepare for the home-and-away schedule will be about making sure the foundational pieces of the group – so: what do we look like when we’re defending deep, and the group and the team as a whole, roles, and a real understanding of what their individual work is. What do we look like when we’re creating? What do we look like when we’re pressing? And what do we look like when we’re building? Really, there are four main topics – there are others – but the four main areas that most teams want to be as efficient as possible, working at those things for one week only – as you can imagine – doesn’t make anyone perfect at what they’re trying to achieve.
“I do think given some of the work of what we’ve already done, it re-emphasizes again to the players what we want to look like, how we want to approach games, and just generally that confidence within the group that they can deal with most situations in the game. It’s not an ideal world, that’s for sure. But then, not much in the last five months has been ideal for anyone. We’re going to have to try and make the very best of it. I do believe that the players have made the very best of everything that they’ve tried to be involved in at the moment. It’s just been an incredibly crazy period of time. There’s no doubt about it.”
How much of the MLS is Back Tournament have you been able to watch, and has the quality of play been what you expected given rustiness, etc.?
“I’ve seen nearly all of them, Tim. Since we’ve been back training the morning games have been difficult to watch because we’re out on the training field ourselves. But I do honestly think that it’s probably what every coach expected. There’s been some very good things that’ve happened; the consistency of those very good things has not always been there. There have been some very strange things to happen. You’ve seen teams that we would’ve expected to have done well, have not done well. And maybe the environment, the time that they’ve played, the difficulty of coming back off of a long layoff: there can be all sorts of reasons as to why it hasn’t quite worked out for those teams.
“The teams that we all probably would have said will have done well – the easiest one of course, is Atlanta. There have been teams that you might have looked at and said, ‘well, really don’t fancy them much at all.’ But if they were able to prepare reasonably well, the environment there was quite a leveler. No fans, neutral field, the fact that the games were being played at strange times to accommodate the weather and TV. It just wasn’t a very usual setup, so it created a very level playing field, and there have been one or two of the unfancied teams that have really come through well.
“I think what we’re probably all seeing is that, as the games go on, you’re starting to see something that represents a more natural feel to any given game. That’s really coming about because the players are getting fitter, they’re feeling sharper I’m sure, they’re getting used to the climate a little bit more and their surrounds, and the competition themselves is heightened up, and they’re able to physically rise to that situation. I’ve enjoyed most of the games. There’ve been time that I’ve shaken my head and thought, ‘how does that happen?’ There’ve been some really difficult scenarios for teams, but there’s been some really good stuff as well. Teams that I haven’t seen an awful lot of that, when the game’s finished, I’ve really felt as though they’ve done a very very good job, and something to remember for the future as we possibly run into them.”
Does watching the games knowing that you should have been there hurt?
“Honestly, regarding sport – we’re not talking about anything else right now – there’s not a worse feeling. Everyone was ready to play: mentally prepared, physically prepared. We’d all got ourselves ready to go to Orlando, and really go for it and compete. I thin kthe players, if you asked them, would certainly feel as though they were not offered or allowed the opportunity to show what they were about and how they’d prepared. For that, I’m sure they’re bitterly, bitterly disappointed.
“To watch the games, and to try and evaluate how we might have competed, it makes life even worse. I do think there have been a lot of occasions – I’ve looked at a lot of games and felt as though we certainly wouldn’t have been out of place. Even with the group in somewhat disarray, there were a lot of players in our group that I think were more than capable.
“The other factor is, when you’re sitting at home on your sofa and you’re watching games from the comfort of your living room, it’s also very very difficult to put yourself in their shoes on the field. In high temperatures, real humidity, early hours. Those early games they’re up early having their pregame meals. It’s really not a natural course of events for any of those players. It’s easy for me to say from a distance that we would have competed well, but it would have just been nice to have been able to show that.”
Is the full team back to training, and do any potential limitations to that roster affect how you’ll have to rotate the squad when the regular season returns in August?
“Pretty much everyone’s out on the training field and training and working now. We have a player who’s still had a difficulty and is not a part of the group. We’ve got pretty much everyone out there – we’ve got one or two injuries, but nothing that really affects the group massively.
“So I think with a month to prepare, we’re going to be in a really good place. Don’t have an issue with that. The real challenge for us will be getting into the games, and making sure that we’re able to navigate those games competitively. Then of course, once the group has competed, it’s the reaction to that game that’s going to be more difficult than anything else, because their bodies are just not used to playing at that level.
“To your point, I’m sure there’ll be a little bit more rotation than usual, but I certainly won’t be changing the team just for the sake of it. I will be certainly putting out the most competitive and the most productive team on any given day. If that means that there are players that get an opportunity that might not have come before, then that’s great for the squad, of course. Depending on the schedule, as well, we may well see some of the younger players – who in any normal season might not have seen the field an awful lot – get their opportunity. That can only be good for them and the club as well.
“So out of an adverse situation, when one difficult arises or one door closes, another one opens. The door opens for opportunities for others, certainly for players that are trying to prove themselves. I don’t think that’s an issue for the group. I’m more than comfortable with every player that we’ve got in the squad. When all’s said and done, I think we all want to see this remaining period of the season get under way, and completed. 18 games certainly would feel like a real win for us at this point if we could get it going.”