Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and players Dax McCarty and Dan Lovitz discuss their team’s 2-0 loss to Atlanta United.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Well first of all, I’m certain that the two-nil scoreline doesn’t reflect the way that the game unfolded. The stats will bear me out on the fact that we had, certainly, more openings and opportunities, but it’ll also bear me out in the fact that we were also nowhere near clinical enough when those opportunities came along, which is an achilles heel that we have at the moment, and somehow we’ve got to try and find a way to remedy that.
“In terms of the way that we applied ourselves, the fact that we come into this difficult field – AstroTurf is very slick, very different to the way that we probably will have to play ini too many places – and against a very technically-efficient team, of course. I think we limited them to two shots on-target in the first half, and one of them was a goal. So plenty of efforts, plenty of opportunities that we certainly were not clean enough and clinical enough with, but still managing to keep ourselves in a very good and efficient shape to restrict a good side. In terms of progression – and that’s the way I have to look at it – I think we’re moving in the right direction, do we need somebody who can find the back of the net? 100%.
How frustrating was it to not be able to get the ball over the line?
“Incredibly, incredibly. We were sitting on the line in the first period – and look, there was a little bit of a gameplan, certainly in our mind, the first 15 minutes we expected Atlanta to come out of the blocks and look sharp, and look bright. They haven’t played for five weeks, so you imagine there’s a lot of pent-up energy there. We had to get used to the surface. Our third away game in the space of 10 days is never easy. And the first 15 minutes really replicated that. But beyond that, there were so many opportunities to get in-behind, to stretch that backline – that to me looked a little bit disconnected in that first period – but unable to take advantage of it.
There’s so many other good things going on. However, if you cannot convert, at some point the bow has to break. Whilst we showed some very, very good signs, it really is a difficulty and a problem for us, and we’re just not getting the opportunity to get our noses in front, and to change the dynamic of the game.”
Can that chemistry develop with more games, or is tinkering needed?
“The time off has not helped anyone, and least of all us. A brand-new team – I spoke to Randall [Leal] at halftime, and he said, ‘I was expecting Dominique [Badji] to check off in one of the counter-attacks, and he didn’t.’ And I said, ‘listen, just stay positive, that relatioinship will build, and hopefully you get some reward for that.’
“But what I would say is, whilst of course we’ll continue to work at that and try and improve that, one of the bigger concerns – I think for me and for the group – is that we’re not working the goalkeeper enough. We’ve had 16 efforts at goal, only six on-target. There were some very, very good opportunities. The easiest one to look at is the last one, the last play of the game almost. Where Dave Accam has a nice opportunity to hit the target – not necessarily a goal-scoring opportunity – but certainly a good sight of goal. We’ve looked down the other end and seen Pity Martínez smash it in the top corner, and it’s smashed into the top layer of the stand.
“There you see in a real nutshell some of the differences in the quality in front of the goal. Look: there’s no criticism of the workload put in, some of the quality in possession, and even some of the moments to get ourselves in good areas. But for sure, we’ve got a lot of work to do in front of goal, and until we can trouble their goalkeeper more often, and with more quality, results are going to be difficult to come by. There’s no doubt about it.”
What was the particular difficulty with their turf, and did you guys have the opportunity to practice on your turf fields to prepare?
“We did – we have a turf field to get on. I spoke to the guys about this before we traveled. A lot of them said, ‘look, the turf field there is very different to any that maybe we’ll play on elsewhere.’ What they do here is they water it and saturate the surface, and it’s very, very slick, which makes the game completely different: the bounce of the ball is completely different. There’s no way of replicating that for us pregame, or in the buildup. And then in the second period, it dries out, and again, it’s a very, very different game.
“They control this facility, and they play it very, very well. It would not surprise me in the slightest if they’re not saying to themselves, ‘look, if we can get ourselves in front, we’re playing on a quick surface and we’ll really get ’em and catch ’em cold. If we can get ourselves in front, the game will slow down in the second half anyway, because the turf’s going to be dry.’ They’ve got a wonderful home record here, and I can see why.
“You put 50-60,000 in here as well, and I imagine it’s an incredibly tough place to play.”
How do you overcome playing better than the other team for large stretches, but not ending up with the result?
“I think if you’re saying an expansion team, what immediately springs to mind is a team that’s lacking cohesion, understanding, and structure, and I don’t think that’s us. What we’re looking at here, is a group that are in ridiculously extreme circumstances where we’ve been stop-start, had lots and lots of time away from each other. We’re going to take some time, obviously, to find a real pinnacle of our play in any department. But when you look at what’s going on in the final third, it’s not that we’re not creating; it’s not that we’re not actually a very decent unit defensively. What is is, is a feel and a sparkle from individuals who haven’t played for a long time, and what we’re seeing – certainly from our guys – is that lack of goal appreciation.
“I’d be more concerned if we weren’t creating chances. I do also think that, to maintain confidence in the group, we have to at some point convert. Otherwise, what we will start to see is a group of players that get despondent about the way they’re playing, and their ability to actually make chances, but not get themselves in front. I certainly don’t want to happen, because we’d have even bigger confidence issues then. And I think it’s far too early to be worried about that. But it certainly is a concern. I wouldn’t want to see this go on too long given the way that we’re performing and creating.”
How do you see that changing?
“Let’s look at the main areas of creation – and just as importantly, execution. You look at tonight’s game, there’s a lot of weight put on the shoulders of Dominique Badji, Hany [Mukhtar], and Randall. And for those guys, would we say at this point that they’re firing on all cylinders? Three games, after not playing five months. I think even the biggest critic of us would be saying that these guys need a little bit more time to find their footing, and certainly get into a rhythm.
“If you look at some of the better opportunities that came along, it was from working into space, and getting beyond, and then quite frankly, running out of quality in some excellent situations, and even overloaded situations. We could also point the finger at, we didn’t make enough from set pieces: from corners, from wide free kicks. And yet again, timing of delivery and the runs that are made, the ability to find the right spot and area that we’ve practiced and worked on, is not quite coming at the moment. We’re just missing that spot, we’re just missing the opportunity.
“There’s loads of work to be done on this, and as I’ve just said, my despondency comes from playing well away from home, and yet getting beat two-nil. Did we deserve to get beat two-nil? No. Did we deserve to get beat one-nil in Portland? No. But if you don’t score, you don’t convert, there’s a chance that this happens. Yes, we have to correct this, and yes it’s going to be a process that we have to keep pushing. Do we need some additions as well? Quite possibly, and that’s something that we’re constantly looking at to try and continue with our development as a team.”
How did you evaluate Dom Badji’s performance?
“Listen, he spearheaded the attack incredibly well in the first half. They changed shape in the second half and brought in [Miles] Robinson. And you know, he’s a top-class centerback at this level. It certainly made life a lot more difficult for Dominique, and whoever we’d have played in there. But you’re right: there were some terrific moments. His movement, his ability to get beyond, his timing. Was the pass into him always right? Well-weighted? Into his stride?
“There were numerous situations where we had an overload, and the ball was played behind somebody, and it’s stunted an attack. We got into good positions and the final pass across the goal wasn’t accurate enough. There were moments where we had efforts on goal in good positions, and didn’t hit the target. When we have bodies in and around that area for something spilled.
“I thought he was terrific. His workload and his appreciation without the ball was very, very good. I’m not criticizing anything that anybody’s done for the team and the team effort. But at some point, as we saw from Pity Martínez today: he wins the game for them. Did Pity Martínez play as hard as Randall Leal or Dax McCarty or Hany Mukhtar? I would say no. I might be overly critical – I didn’t study him – but I would say no. But he’s just won the game for them.
“Their style of play allows him to have a little bit more freedom. But when it matters – they have six shots on goal, they didn’t have a shot on target until they score late on – yet when the moment came along, with ice in his veins, he smashes it in the top corner and finishes the game off. It’s over. That’s caliber; that’s quality. That costs a lot of money, and they’ve got two or three of them in their team. One of them [Josef Martínez] is injured at the moment, and the other one’s just won the game for them. It’s a frustrating situation.”
Midfielder and team captain Dax McCarty
“Frustrating night. Obviously, being on the road for the third game in a row, we wanted to follow a similar script to the FC Dallas games, but we also wanted to open our game up a little bit more, try to have a little bit more possession, maybe try to have a little biit more control of the game and take advantage of our opportunities.
“But obviously it didn’t go our way tonight. Two moments of quality from a very good player from their end, and on the flipside, not enough quality from us in the attack when we have opportunities and moments to break forward and try to score some goals. Frustrating night over.”
Is Pity Martinez’s quality and composure in the most important moments something you can acquire if you’re the better team in many other moments of the game?
“I think that that’s the reason why he’s the South American player of the year a few years ago. He played at one of the biggest clubs in Argentina [River Plate], he’s paid a lot of money to be a difference-maker and to score those types of goals. Obviously, Atlanta in general, and him, have been in a little bit of a slump. I think it was foolish to expect them to not be able to create any chances whatsoever, especially at home motivated after a poor MLS is Back tournament.
“But that’s what you pay for: the quality like that. And I think we have that type of quality in our team, we’re just not clicking yet in the attacking third. So, we have two goals from five games. I think obviously that speaks to where we’re at on the attacking side of the ball. And it’s not just our attackers: it’s everyone. All 11 players are involved, all the way back from Joe [Willis], to the defenders, to our fullbacks getting involved in the attack, to our midfielders, giving our attacking players a platform to be successful.
“And then ultimately it comes down to our attacking players having joy, having freedom, and playing with confidence. I think we’re lacking a little bit of confidence right now in the attacking third. We’re getting into good areas, we just aren’t super-clean and super-crisp in the ways we’re going about trying to get goals. So I think the chances are going to continue to come. I think we have a good team, I think we have good attacking players. It’s just a matter of putting the ball in the back of the net. Scoring one, and then getting a few more to back those up.”
What was your view on the first goal, where you’d played a key pass to Alistair Johnston, only to see Atlanta quickly counter for a goal?
“It happened pretty quickly. It looked like there was.. a guy [Eric Remedi] had time and space on the ball in midfield. Pity had been floating pretty much all over the field. He’s a guy that doesn’t really have a set role; they give him the freedom to go wherever he pleases. He’d been coming inside, looking to try to get in-behind the midfield, try to create chances that way. Wasn’t having a lot of success, wasn’t having a lot of joy.
“I believe he started out wide. I’m going to have to see the goal again, but I think it was a simple ball over the top, in behind our fullback. He takes a good first-touch forward, and goes and does his thing one-v-one, and has a good finish against Joe Willis. I think that it’s preventable. I think every goal that we’ve conceded this year has been preventable. But ultimately, these are things that you have to continue to work on. Good players are going to get into good positions. He’s always going to find ways to be dangerous around the box. Then it’s just a matter of making a play, and standing him up and making sure that we don’t give up a goal there.
“Ultimately, that’s not the reason we lose the game. I think that you can’t expect us to get shutouts every single week. That would be nice; that’s our goal, but it’s almost impossible, even for the best teams in the world, to be able to continue to get shutouts back-to-back-to-back. So we need to make sure that when we do concede goals, on the attacking side of it we’re backing our defenders up, and we’re scoring goals and being dangerous on the flipside of that.”
How does the team’s mood get affected by being the better team for big stretches of the game, only to have the individual moments lead to a loss?
“You have to continue to work in training. You have to watch video. You have to take the things you do well in the games and continue to replicate that.
“I think there’s not a whole lot of difference in quality between teams in MLS. Some teams obviously spend a little bit more money than others, but with the rules in place, you don’t have too many teams that are just going to play you off the field. So, I feel really strongly about our group of players, the talent that we have, the ability that we have. I think we have six or seven guys who are full internationals: who have played in big games, who have played for their national teams, who have played in Gold Cups, who have played in World Cups. So there’s no shortage in quality on our side of the field. It’s a matter of repetition and trying to get on the field as much as possible, playing together, and getting confidence.
That’s the key: getting confidence. We need to reward ourselves when we get in good positions. Right now, it feels like in between the 18-yard boxes, we’re playing good soccer. We’re not giving up a lot of chances. Other than Pity having those two great goals, I don’t remember Atlanta threatening us a whole lot. That’s where the frustration really kicks in: it’s when you have a performance that you feel like you shouldn’t lose the game, and you should at least come out of here with a point if you can be a little sharper and a little more clinical in the final third.
“We’re not rewarding ourselves right now for all the good work we’re doing. That’s the frustrating part. That’s the part we have to continue to work on and get better. But ultimately, we have to stay confident. We’ve had three games in a row now on the road, which is never an easy task. We have one more against Orlando. We’re going to continue to train, we’re going to continue to have confidence in each other, and I have zero doubts in my mind that our attacking players are going to be able to starting hitting the back of the net here really soon.”
What is the solution for stopping Atlanta’s counter-attack?
“I think it’s a matter of organization in the back. We haven’t been too exposed in our games this year – teams getting in behind us. I don’t remember it happening, if at all. I think our backline is very secure. I think that the work that they do has been very good. If you look at the goals that we’ve conceded, a lot of those goals have been strikes from outside the box, strikes into the top corner: pretty much unsaveable shots that Joe Willis has no chance to save. I think Pity’s goal is the only goal we’ve conceded where a player has actually gotten in behind our backline and threatened us and caused us a problem.
“So the way that you solve that and the way you fix that is making sure that your backline is communicating to the midfield, and making sure that the backline understand when there’s no pressure on the ball, that you have to drop. You can’t let guys get in behind you. Our backline has to be ready to drop together, or ready to step up and play Pity offside.
“These are things that we continue to work on. And it’s not just the backline, as well: the midfield, we need to be doing a better job of working with the attackers, and getting pressure on the ball. A guy can’t just be able to pick his head up and play a 60-yard longbal over our backline. One ball beats eight or nine players, that’s a recipe for what happened tonight: a goal conceded. We’ll continue to work on it, I don’t think this is going to become a trend. I think sometimes good players make good plays and they get the best of you, and that’s what happened tonight.”
Defender Dan Lovitz
“I think ti’s a pretty straightforward one for us: obviously incredibly disappointed, this is another game that sort of falls in the category of one where we’re fairly confident in our overall performance minus a few moments. Those moments are unfortunately represented on the scoresheet, where all the good work that we do consistently and have been doing is not. That is the glaring issue at the moment. Again, we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bath water: we understand it.
“All considering, I’m not saying that as a cop-out, but more when you take a step back and you understand what we’re trying to do here, and what we’re focusing on during this phase of the competition and what this year’s looking like, we’re very happy with what we’re putting together. I don’t think that’s an Atlanta team that’s going to be looking forward to seeing us again. I don’t think there are many teams that we’ve come across this year that think that we were an easy game or that they should have won that game. So that’s something that – if anything – we can sort of hang our hats on. But again, it doesn’t really do much for us if we’re not putting the ball in the back of the net and not getting results. That’s what this is all about, and we need to find a way to make that part click and stop this sort of trending.”
How do you flip the script so that you’re the team taking advantage of every little opportunity?
“It’s a mentality more than anything. You look at our players, you look at theirs: I think we all have good defenders, good attacking players. In certain moments, we have to make sure that, even though we may be creating consistent opportunities and putting pressure on a team, all it takes is really a split second of real conviction and real… I guess you could call it a killer’s mentality, or at least I would characterize it as that – for the ball to go into the back of the net.
“Look at their second goal: they break on us, we do a good job of getting back. Seems like the danger’s sort of taken out of the situation, and then a guy decides that he’s going to put the ball in the back of the net no matter where anyone else on the field is, and that’s what happened. Credit to him, it was a great strike on the second goal.
“I think in those moments we have to be either selfish or just have some more conviction. Like I said, that’ll go a long way, and I think it certainly can be done on both sides of the ball. As a defender, I think there are certain moments where we definitely need to do better, I think the first goal represents that for us collectively. The second goal, again, is more of a very, very well-hit ball in a situation where we’re pressing forward trying to find a goal back-end of the game. They break on us and the guy hits an incredible shot, so credit to him.”
How can your team improve the effectiveness on offensive set pieces?
“I think, generally speaking, it’s an area where we should be productive. I think a lot of that relies on the guys over the ball: myself and Hany. There’s certainly some instances in games in the past and certainly tonight where the service wasn’t good enough, and there are other times where we do get a good service into a dangerous area, and it’s what we worked on, and we’re not connecting on that first one, whatever it may be.
“We do have a lot of height, we do have a lot of guys that are comfortable, that are very attack-minded when it comes to those situations. I think it’s just about taking a deep breath and making sure that we execute and recognize that’s a real opportunity for us. Again, I’m very much looking forward to when that piece clicks – because it will – and it’s going to be a nightmare for other teams to deal with.
“We’re going to be patient with that, I think set pieces are very important. I understand that’s a source of a lot of goals in the modern game. Again, at the end of the day, it’s not the bulk of our work, it’s not what we’re focusing on. We take time, we allot time for that, of course. We prep for that, we practice it, we drill on it. But at the end of the day, we want to be putting five goals in the back of the net every game without set pieces. It will be a nice supplement to our attack, but definitely one we take seriously and think we can do better on.”