Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith, winger/defender Alistair Johnston, and defender Taylor Washington met with the media after their team’s scoreless draw against FC Dallas. Read their full thoughts here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“It’s been an incredible day, I have to be honest. I mean, I missed the last one [Wednesday], but the experiences of this one will be with me for a long time. Coming into an environment where you’re sitting around in the locker room for what was, what three, four hours? It’s a tough start to an already-difficult week. Having had to turn around as quickly as we did, I thought the guys showed some fantastic endeavor again. And to be perfectly honest, it looked and felt as though we had the clearer chances, I think the shot count was 21 if I’m not mistaken. Whilst possession is something that you always expect Dallas to take control of, I felt for the most part they really didn’t hurt us: there were a lot of long-range speculative efforts, and yet again we keep a clean sheet, and we’ve taken four points from the venue that I think most teams would look at and say, ‘that is a fabulous return.’ So: very very pleased with the way the guys have acquitted themselves in such incredibly tough circumstances.”
Would you consider this outing a tactical masterclass after Wednesday’s match?
“I don’t know about that. I’m looking at the stats here: they actually had one shot on target all game. That, for me, away from home, is a fabulous statistic for us to be looking at. It means that, as a group – and there’ll be individuals that performed exceptionally well within that of course, but as a group – they’ve shown a real sacrifice to earning points away from home.
“This is a young group that’s finding their way and trying to find not only an identity, but a way forward. We can improve in all areas, as I said last game. I honestly felt as though we should have won the game tonight, and I think anyone watching it would have felt exactly the same. So I’ll have to be very, very pleased.
“I’m also extremely delighted for the guys that have got some minutes tonight that didn’t before. Full [starting] debuts for Alistair, for Jalil, a debut for Taylor Washington. It’s been a very, very good night again, and after a couple of good defeats in the early stages of the season, I feel as though we’re on a better footing. We’ve still got two exceptionally tough games away from home to come, but I think we’ve dealt with an awful lot, and we’ll be ready for Atlanta next week when that challenge comes.”
How did your players turn a game that was open through the midfield into basically stopping dead for FC Dallas once they got into the final third?
“Honestly, I think that’s a quality of the group we have through the core of the team. I’m really reiterating some of the things that I said after Wednesday’s game. If you look at the way that Anibal [Godoy] and Dax [McCarty] played together, experience they have, the competitive nature of those two, their understanding of those situations, and behind them you’ve got two very, very good defenders. Walker [Zimmerman] and Dave [Romney] are starting to form a very, very nice partnership and understanding, and of course Joe [Willis] I think is a very calming influence for the guys in that back line.
“And then you look around that, and you’ve got some real good performers. Jalil [Anibaba] had a wonderful game tonight. He used all his experience and put on a terrific debut for the group. Daniel Lovitz continues where he left off on Wednesday night, and again put in a wonderful effort. So, I’m starting to tell you about maybe the main contributors to maybe the way that we restricted a very talented side.
“Let’s not get away from it: they played with two center forwards, one of which is a DP, if I’m not mistaken, they might both be, I don’t know what categories they come into [Franco Jara is a DP, Zdenek Ondrášek is not]. Barrios out wide is an exceptionally good talent; he’s a wonderful player. When you think about the lack of opportunities, the lack of moments those guys had in the game, you’ve got to give tremendous credit to the players. Tremendous.
“I mean Tim, honestly if I tell you, we flew in today, when we got to the ground, after a little bit of time to relax, the heavens opened up. Then we’ve got to deal with sitting in the locker room after a long flight, a decent flight, and having to endure the mental and emotional issues of waiting to see if the game’s on. Listen, this group already, as a brand-new franchise and a brand-new outfit, have gone through some trauma that I’m not sure I’ve witnessed in probably 25 years of playing and coaching. It’s been remarkable.”
what has Alistair Johnston shown to earn his first start, and how did it go?
“Listen, I think we view Alistair moreso as a right back, but what he has shown us in a very short period of time is that he’s an incredibly genuinely character, and his quality and understanding of numerous roles is getting better and better. If you look back as far as his college career, he’s played central midfield, he is very adaptable, but most importantly of all, he’s a very intelligent boy.
“In the build up to this, when we looked to one or two things that we wanted to try and negate, knowing that this Dallas group are very flexible – they played a 3-5-2 last time; they changed their shape this time – they’ve got numerous players that can punish you at any given moment. For our guys they’ve got to stay on their toes, they’ve got to be completely focused and committed for 90-odd minutes.
“Alistair was able to take on-board exactly what was required of him, he applied himself fantastically well, and in fact, he actually had a couple of reasonable opportunities and supplied a couple as well. I remember the good save from [Dallas goalkeeper Jimmy] Maurer the first half, and a wonderful cross-field ball to Hany [Mukhtar]. The boy has had a terrific full debut and, if I was him, I certainly wouldn’t be going to sleep tonight. I’d be looking at that game again and getting excited all over again.”
How important is it to get the two Designated Players, Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal, involved in the attack early in the game?
“They’re probably – they’re certainly – as talented as anyone in the group. They’re two players that we’ve put an awful lot of weight on their shoulders. Hany was moved inside into a position that offered him the opportunity to connect with Randall as much as anyone. Statistically, Randall and Hany have had a great connection and have created some of our best opportunities. I think we lacked a little bit of sparkle and real positivity on Wednesday night,. That’s taking nothing away from the efforts and endeavors, but we did look a little bit stale at times.
“Tonight, I felt as though the changes made a difference to the group. Hany was involved. The end-product wasn’t always where he or anyone else might have liked it, but that’s where we are: we’re two games into a brand-new season having had five months off. You can’t expect these guys just to flick a switch and get back to where they were five months ago. I think we’ve made some positive strides again tonight, the statistics tell me that we have been more effective going forward – which is something we’re always looking at and working hard to try and improve.
“It has to be balanced with the fact that we still need to make life difficult for a very good opponent, and away from home. And we were able to to that. So: a clean sheet, a point, four points out of two games, a venue that most teams probably don’t get to much out of. I think we have to be very, very happy with that.”
What did you guys do to occupy your three-plus hour delay? Re-emphasize a gameplan, do other things to take the guys’ minds off it and let them relax?
“No, it’s such a long period, and you’re really not sure, Tim, how it’s going to pan out. We had a couple of times that we thought that there could be a break that we could get out, and you get some more lightning or a wave coming. It seemed like the clock just kept ticking and we really weren’t going anywhere.
“I’ve got to tell you: the attitude of the players: [Dallas] had a very nice-sized locker room, they played some head-tennis, I even noticed a game of hangman going on, there were all sorts of things, there’s music. To be completely honest, I think it’s a time – from my experiences here in the US of weather delays – if the players can keep themselves mentally in a positive place, and ready and understanding that there’s a job to be done afterwards – which I think they have to a T – then we’re moving in the right direction.
“Three hours or more is a long time to be cooped up in a locker room. They’re desperate to get out and play, and they’re just waiting their chance. The big issue is flicking that mentality and now saying, ‘it’s time for work,’ and they got it just about right.”
How has your team been able to succeed through the various types of adversity they’ve faced, despite its youth?
“Honestly, I put it down to one thing: and it’s really strong characters, good characters. There’s no other way around that. If you’ve got the wrong type of personalities in the locker room, it doesn’t matter what you do, or how you go about your business: there are things that will throw you out of your stride. This game isn’t all sweetness and light; things don’t run as smoothly as you want them to. We’ve certainly seen that over the last five-six months and you need individuals that are prepared to knuckle down, roll their sleeves up at the right time, work hard at the right time, show some respect for others at the right time, and just generally be good human beings and go about their work in the right fashion.
“I think the recruitment of this group, to this point, has been spot on. There’s growth to be had, certainly in our game and there’s improvements that will come along the way. I think if you look at the foundations at this point, we’re in a very good place.”
Right wing Alistair Johnston
What were your feelings about your game and performance?
“Getting your first start’s obviously a pretty big one. For me, it was just not letting the guys down: I’ve worked really hard in training for the past three-four months now. When you’re playing alongside guys like Walker Zimmerman, Dan Lovitz, Dax McCarty, and all those kind of guys, the biggest thing is just that you want to play well for yourself, but you also want to show that you belong with those guys. That’s all I was trying to do.
“Steve Guppy [assistant coach] gave me some great advice before the game: he said, ‘just be the hardest-working player out there, and no one will have any complaints with you.’ And that’s all I tried to do tonight.”
What sort of mental adjustments do you have to make playing different positions in back-to-back games in your first two pro appearances?
“Just the adjustments there: again right-back to right-mid, I kind of knew what I was going to be doing. But at the same time: I am a pretty attacking right-back and Gary’s always pointed that out. So, moving me to right-mid wasn’t the craziest switch, I’d say. I’d call myself a defensive right-mid in a lot of ways, a lot of aspects there, and that was kind of my role today, just let Jalil stay tucked-in and do the work defensively to get back and help out. So, for me it really wasn’t as big of a switch as a lot of people would think. It was just now that I had more licence [sic] to get forward and I needed to get up there to help out [Dominique] Badji and guys like that up top to really fill up the attack. That was kind of the biggest thing, I actually had more of a licence [sic] to go forward. So, for me it really wasn’t that big of a difference at all.”
How did you manage to make the progress to get your first start at this early point in your career?
“I think the biggest thing I’ve tried to show – and I know that this coaching staff really values, especially out of a defender – is just consistency. It’s really tough as a young player but especially as a defender, you see it with Jack Maher and stuff: it’s tough to break into a backline when you’re keeping clean sheets like this. So for me, it was about the showing in practice that I can be a part of a backline that can keep clean sheets, and I can be consistent. They don’t want to see a roller coaster out of me, they want to see consistent progression. For me I have kind of taken that as a pretty personal goal, and something that I’m trying to kind of accomplish in training and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it over the past couple weeks. They’ve been great with pointers, tips, helping me take those next steps. I mean it’s made a world of a difference, because I’m stepping into these MLS matches, I don’t feel out of place, which is a great feeling.”
Gary mentioned two specific plays from you: your shot that was saved, and a big cross-field ball to Hany. What did you see on those plays and how can you build upon those key moments to continue progressing?
“The simple one, the shot, is ‘take the safety off.’ I was like ‘you know what? shoot this one low, hard, let’s see what happens.’ It was a good save, a strong hand, but it felt right to [Leal], and I thought, ‘you know what, it didn’t go in, but that’s about as goos as it’s going to get.’
“[The other] was a questionable cross. In my mind, it was definitely a driven cross that I saw Hany cutting to the back stick. The cross-field ball, Hany gave a great shout, he’s one of the quieter lads, so when I hear him yelling, he must be really open. So I ping that one over to him.
“Those two chances – and hopefully being a little more decisive. Obviously, guys like that – Randall, Hany, Badji – they’re the guys that are scoring tons of goals in training, and I’m the right back normally serving them balls, so just taking those next steps and being more confident in the box. Like, ‘hey, if I get a yard, let’s take a shot and let’s bury this.”
You have a different haircut than you did in Wednesday’s game…
“Brayan Beckeles never forgets, and he realized this was my pro debut on Wednesday. He came at me pretty quick with the treatment scissors that he stole from our trainers. So right after the match, I’m just kind of sitting there taking it all in. I’ve made my MLS debut, and all of a sudden, he’s standing there laughing in Spanish [jajaja] pretty much, this guy is just something else, and he’s taken three lumps out of my hair.
“I’ve never seen a reaction like that from the rest of the changing room; they were absolutely losing it. It was good comedy. I’m OK with the shaved head, my mom’s not exactly excited about it, ecstatic either. But that was the case, and I think you might see another one coming up in the next couple days when some photos get released. It might be Taylor Washington losing a few strands of hair off the front of that mop.”
Do you have a personal identity or character within the team?
“I mean my fit, I know what people expect from me and what you’re going to get when you put me on the field is that you’re getting 110% effort, it’s going to be complete, honest work. I’m not going to take a play off, and that’s going to be my bread-and-butter.
“As for the role in the team, Walker is definitely Jack’s father. Different fathers have been thrown around a little bit, but no one’s completely claimed me. That’s fine, I’ve no complaints about that. But we have a great group. I mean my right-back group’s one of the top ones: I’ll go down and remember Eric Miller and Brayan Beckeles forever. I can’t speak a single word to Brayan Beckeles, and yet we have great conversations every day. He’s just an older version of me: he’s just a wise head, and I get a lot of information from him, and the same with Lovtiz at left back.
“We have a great group, and I’m just trying to learn from these guys consistently, and continue to grow.”
Left back Taylor Washington
How does your first MLS appearance feel?
“It’s crazy. I was drafted in 2016, I think, and never made it onto the bench. To be able to come to Nashville in the USL with hopes of MLS, and to eventually play for this team that I’ve grown such a strong affection for, and a fanbase that – this whole city has my heart – it’s overwhelming. Especially doing it on my birthday, it’s probably the best birthday gift ever. I wish we could have gotten the result of a win, but I think the boys fought extremely hard. We come away with four points in two games, which I think is great.”
After your year with Philadelphia (the league website says you made the bench every game – this turned out not to be true!), how relieving and exciting is it to get that MLS debut?
“I actually never made the bench when I was at Philly – that’s a great stat though, I’ll take it. But the feeling of being able to step on the field tonight, especially at a time where the team was knocking on the door they needed a lot of energy. I thought, this is the chance to help the team win and you know, I think to do it in Nashville where I’ve been here three years, it means way more than I think words can probably express. Yeah, it’s a crazy, overwhelming feeling, like to have the feet wet now, it’s a great stepping stone to continue to work hard to help this team.”
What was your thought process as you knew you were named to the bench for the first time, and then having to wait almost four hours to actually get into the stadium?
“Yeah, I think, you know this whole week has been crazy. The minute that we had the weather delay, Walk[er] and Dax were the first ones to be like ‘hey, this could be happening in any thirty minutes, be ready, be tuned in.’ And all the guys were able to keep the energy and the spirits up: we had soccer tennis going. We had a great vibe in the locker room and when the time did come, we were all prepared and everyone’s faces were ready to go to battle. So, am I happy the lightning stayed away? Yeah, for sure I was praying extra hard.”
Alistair Johnston photo via Zoom. Styling by Brayan Beckeles