Nashville SC

Presser: Gary Smith, Jalil Anibaba, and Dax McCarty on a loss to Orlando – and bigger-picture issues

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and two of his players spoke to the media after tonight’s game. Obviously, they had more on their minds than soccer. Watch or read their full comments here:

“You saw team here tonight, I believe, that have suffered from the effects of four away games on the spin. We fell foul, I believe, tonight of a sharper and more-prepared physically team than we were on the night. The six games that they had in the MLS [is Back] Tournament have obviously served them very well. Taking nothing away from the quality they have in the team.

“Again, they were very clinical when the chances came along: scored at the right time. Unfortunately, we were having a big issue doing that ourselves. In the first half, there were moments to extend our lead, and I certainly feel if we’d have been able to do that, it would have been a lot more for the players to grab hold of and be confident about.”

How did you have to adjust to what Orlando City was doing offensively?

We’ve come here with our own plan, and that plan was to – as you saw – play with two up front. I have to be honest: the opening exchanges, I felt, were ours. There were some really good moments: Abu looked very bright, and it looked as though their backline, certainly their fullbacks were very aggressive, and we wanted to try to take advantage of that.

But when you get yourself in those positions, you have to score at good times, and yet again we’ve failed to score in open play, given the very good sights at goal that we had. I did feel as though our gameplan came out of the blocks well. what was very noticeable though, was when they got themselves back on level terms, given the confidence of the MLS Tournament, certainly the ability of some of the guys in and around that midfield – listen, there were some very, very good displays from the Orlando boys – and they’ve caused us more problems here today than any other team we’ve played thus far, I believe.

As I said at the very start of this, w’ell analyze the game, we’ll look at some of the issues that we ran into, but I think we’re gonna find that a lot of guys were out on their feet, and certainly goals make a massive difference. They scored at good times. It wasn’t at all helpful for our momentum or belief in the game. In fact, their second goal I believe – might have been the third – was out of maybe one of the better periods we’d have. Where we were on top of it, we’d hit the post, and it looked as though we might just be forcing the equalizer. They went down on the far end and score, and really and truly it’s pretty deflating for everyone.”

When did you hear about the cancellation of the rest of the MLS slate had been canceled? Did you consider taking similar action with a strike?

“To be perfectly honest, Tim, I hadn’t heard any of that. We were out, we did our halftimne as per usual, and came out of the locker room down onto the field and did our usual: got ready. The first I’ve heard of teams not taking part this evening was when I came off the field.”

Were you aware about conversations between players about a potential wildcats strike?

“You’ve got to remember here, we were the first game of the evening, and the guys are under strict orders when we’re getting ourselves ready – in fact, we’ve tried to put some protocols in place – guys have their phones off, they’re preparing for the game, they’re focused on the job at hand, rather than somebody who hasn’t got a ticket, somebody who’s got lost in traffic, or can’t find their way. There’s all sorts of reasons, as we know, that people – family members and friend – are gonna want to get in touch. The guys are off their phones. There was no inference or connection with anyone else. We just got on with our business.”

How much fatigue builds up and leads to a second-half collapse?

“They’ve created more opportunities and openings and sights of goal – as I’ve just said – than any other team we’ve played against. You’ve got to remember, from the weekend, and this is a consequence of not being efficient enough in front of goal, I’ve tried just to move the pieces slightly, play with a front two, give us a little bit more impetus up front.

It certainly worked for a short period, and although a goal didn’t come from that change in shape, it felt as though there was more energy and belief in the group. If I remember rightly, there were two or three ewxcellent chances that we didn’t capitalize on. Now we’re in the lead, but there’s moments that make a difference. They did a good job of getting themselves back in the game. At that point now, they started to take a little bit more control.

“I thought fatigue played a massive part in the way that some of our guys were able to affect he game. The two midfield boys, Dax and Anibal, I’ve got to say, have got through some tremendous work in the last three away games, and the only criticism that can be leveled is of me. And that is: should I have rotated the group a little bit more? I felt as though there were enough good things going on to try and stick with that. We had a plan from the beginning of the game, and it was certainly to get one or even both of those two central midfield guys off, given the work that they’d gone through. Unfortunately, trying to chase the game a little bit, I was only able to get one of them off.

But look: there’s loads of lessons for us to learn here, and when the guys came over at the watwer break, the only message I gave them was: ‘this is what builds character in teams, these are the things that bring groups closer together, these are the moments that you’ve got to dig in when there’s really not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.’ And even then, Dominique Badji has a wonderful chance to get us back in the game with 10 minutes to go. You’re then putting crosses into the box and you’re asking questions of a group that are under pressure.

“Until we get to that point where we can put a little bit of fear into teams that if you make mistakes – as we did, we made mistakes tonight, uncharacteristically – but they punished us. And until we get to that point, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

What did you think of Daniel Rios’s performance and play next to Abu Danladi?

“As I’ve just said, I thought they were very bright. It’s not easy for any of the guys up there on their own, and I just felt tonight might be a day to get the pair of them together. They’ve got qualities that really blend together very well. Abu’s very quick and wants to get on shoulders, and Daniel’s link play is more about his game. And I thought they did a great job. They worked tirelessly even when Abu moved out wide when I was trying to give us a little bit of respite. The game was getting away from us and I wanted to get Hany back in the middle maybe just to try and control things a little bit more with the ball. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be.

Did your players seems to have a particular mood about off-field events in the country in the lead-up to the game?

“I think it’s only natural that anyone with a sense of possible wrongdoing – and given the climate that we’re in – of course. Jalil’s a senior member of the Black Players Coalition, and he’s not only a very intelligent and sensible lad, but of course, he lead that group very well, or is a big part of it. I think a lot of the guys understand, appreciate, and of course – listen, we’re all on the same page here: equality and a sense of sensibility in the world is something that I think everyone’s looking for.”

What’s the next step? Do you anticipate your next games being postponed or what do you speak to your players about?

“First and foremost, we’ve come off the field and realized that there’s nothing else going on this evening [other games]. This is something that the league is going to lead, I’m sure. Of course, we will support that in every which way that we can. Until I’m told otherwise, we have a game on Sunday against Miami. Hopefully any news of any changes will come through swiftly. If not, then we get back tomorrow. I thin keveryone will be pleased that this four-game run away from home has ended – albeit on a tough note. I certainly didn’t expect to come here and get beast, and nor did the players, given the way that we’d performed.

“But as I’ve said to one of the other questions: there’s ongoing lessons to be learned in an ongoing group. I think we can view this restart really as the start of our season. The two games that went before, of course there were some things that came out of it that helped us, but we had so long without any activity that these really are the first four games of our season. As we move forward, you can see in the way that sometimes I’ve moved players around the field, two center forwards tonight, the basis of our group has come out of a back four. But beyond that, there’s players that have performed really, really well, and I’m very pleased with.

“Some of the most difficult things to do sometimes are to evaluate a group on the back of some of the difficulties that we’ve been running into. I’m sure many other teams are as well. For a brand-new outfit, the virus, and the delays, and some of the difficulty in getting into a rhythm have been harmful to the group. I’ve no doubt we have very, very good personalities in that locker room. We’ll go home, we’ll lick our wounds: it stings right now. Nobody likes getting beat, especially a team that have been very very difficult to play against. Tonight’s a little bit of a smack around the chops, and we’ll certainly look at some of hte footage, and try and improve and become a better team because of ut.

They key for us at the moment if there was one, has to be taking advantage of moments in a game when we have chances, because no team in any league dominates for 90 minutes. So therefore when you are on top, you need to take advantage of that. They did, we didn’t: we’ve lost the game.”

Midfielder Dax McCarty and defender Jalil Anibaba

Dax McCarty: “I have no thoughts about the soccer game. Obviously, coming into the locker room and seeing the news of everything that happened, after the game obviously soccer takes a backseat. I don’t really care about what happened on the field tonight.

Jalil Anibaba: “I couldn’t agree more. Obviously our whole player pool, our league is in a moment of grieving right now. We’ll talk about that after, but nothing about that subject [the game].”

Considering the timelines of your game schedule, you didn’t know what happened in the Atlanta/Miami game. Did you guys talk at halftime about not returning to the field?

Anibaba: “At that point in time, the game was under way. Whatever we were going to do, we knew that we had to both be on the same page – in terms of both being on the same page, I mean us and Orlando. So once the game starts, and once things are under way, both teams have to be on the same page, and that wasn’t the case. We continued.”

Did you touch base either before the game or at halftime with other members of the Black Players for Change leadership group?

Anibaba: “As we were approaching the timeline where we weren’t supposed to be on our phones, yeah, we were trying to figure out the pulse of everybody, where everybody landed on it. When we were literally reaching the timeline where we weren’t supposed ot be on our phone anymore, we were still formulating the plan. I thin kit’s very clear where we stand on the issue as far as the league is concerned. I don’t think there’s any question about that, despite the fact that we played 90 minutes tonight. As I said, like Dax said, this isn’t about football, it’s not about soccer. We did what we had to do, and we did our best to still show where we stand as a club while not having enough time to be able to boycott the game.”

Looking forward, have you had conversations about refusing to play future games until some of the inequities in the country have been addressed?

Anibaba: “At this point in time, it’s just a matter of the players being unified. We will continue to discuss, we’ll continue to talk about what makes the most sense. Obviously, kneeling isn’t enough. Obviously, what we’ve been doing in terms of showing our solidarity are things that we’ve never seen in this league before. I don’t think that we’ve ever had two players that have served in this league for over a decade – one black, one white – sitting next to each other speaking on these issues. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. At this point in time, it’s about unity. We’ll continue to show that through our conversations internally, but also our actions.

McCarty: “From my perspective, I’ll listen. I like to listen, I like to learn about my teammates, anbout the struggles that they’ve gone through. I think the Black Players for Change has tremendous leadership, and Jalil’s part of that. I defer, usually, to him with all of these issues. I tel him that, not only does he have my unequivocal support, but also the club. Moving forward, I’m sure that the Black Players for Change is going to have plenty of meetings with MLS; I’m sure they’ve going to have plenty of meetings with each other; I’m sure they’re going to have plenty of meetings with everyone involved in the MLS Players Association. As far as I’m concerned, all we can do is listen, and learn, and try to use our platform to effect change in a meaningful, positive way.

“As for the game tonight, Jalil said it: the timeline was just a little too crunched, and it was a little too soon for us to effectively communicate with other teams in the league about what was going to happen. Obviously being the first game, that timeframe is extremely crunched, and extremely difficult to be able to have communication – meaningful communication – with what’s going to happen. I got to the locker room, I put my phone down, I was focused on the game. Figuring out what we’re going to do to try to beat Orlando. you hear rumors, you hear whispers, but ultimately that’s what they are: we’d had no firm conversations on what was going to happen before our game, or with the other games.

“I’m extremely proud of the rest of the Players Association for coming and being able to have that time to make that decision together. I wish that we could have been a part of that, but ultimately that wasn’t the case. When we came back in for halftime, there’s no phones. There’s no one telling us, ‘oh there are other games being canceled, there are games being postponed, there’s boycotts happening right now.’ We don’t know any of that, so we have to focus on the job at hand, and that’s exactly what we did.”

Do you feel like you have an opportunity to use your platform for good going forward?

Anibaba: “I would say that it’s past the point of an ‘opportunity’ because we’re here in it right now. Like I said, tonight has shown exactly where we stand. As far as what is actually going on in this country, we’re doing what we can; we’re doing our part. We’ve mobilized, we’re organized. It’s not just Black players that are speaking on this. We have my brother literally next to me talking on this, as well [McCarty]. This is not just any longer a Black issue. Yes, our people are getting killed, yes we are the ones that start the charge, but this is an American, human issue, and we’ve shown that in our league. So I don’t know what more we’re going to have to do, but our players have shown that we’re willing to do what it takes. We’re willing to – like I said – organize ourselves, we’re willing to step out in the uncomfortable moments, kneel, and obviously not play games. At this point in time, I really don’t know, but something has to change.”

McCarty: “For me, sports has to take a backseat right now. I think that the NBA has proven that they’re at the forefront of this change. I think MLS has also proven that they’re at the forefront of trying to effect positive change in communities. It’s not going to happen overnight. You can’t just snap your fingers and have everything magically be better. We’re at the precipice of a time in our country where you want to be on the right side of history. You want to be on the side of history that says, ‘I was a meaningful part of changing things for the better, of bringing awareness to the issues of social injustice, and to making sure that equality is not just something we talk about, but something that’s actually put into action.’ And so for me, I think we have tremendous leadership, I think we have a tremendously strong group of players that wants to affect things positively, and that’s the beauty of MLS. There’s beauty in the diversity that we have in our league. Everyone’s voice is equal, and everyone’s voice is heard, and ultimately that’s what we want for our country, as well.”

How is a decision made on playing or not playing in this situation? Did the teams actively disagree?

Anibaba: “First and foremost, it’s about unity. Whatever was going to happen, we weren’t going to put Orlando on an island, and Orlando wasn’t going to put us on an island. At the end of the day, everyone has to understand that, us as players are united. It’s not about, ‘did we want to boycott and Orlando didn’t, or did we not want to and Orlando did?’ – none of that. Our situation, like we were saying, is that we didn’t have enough time to organize. But that does not mean that there was a situation of one team being left out on an island or one team wanted to boycott and one team didn’t.

“I think that the league has shown, we’ve shown down in Orlando with protests, that we’re by and large on the same accord with all of it. I don’t think that tonight showed or speaks otherwise.

McCarty: “Let me add to that. I want to give a little context here to our setup in Orlando. So obviously we all saw the news about the NBA, and what happened at the NBA. There was no meaningful conversation up until the point where we had gotten to the stadium, talking about whispers and rumors of what was going to eventually happen with us. To your quesiton, the decision to boycott a game has to be a decision made by every single player on both teams.

“So first of all, there wasn’t a whole lot of communication going on with Orlando: we weren’t really sure where they stood, they weren’t really sure where we stood. Then you have the other issue of: we’re in an Orlando locker room, a visitor’s locker room that’s not big enough to house our entire 18-man roster. So we have 10 or 11 guys in one locker room, and then we have the subs and reserves in a completely different area, in a completely different locker room. Even if we had everyone in the same locker room, the timeline was so crunched, there might not have even been time to make a decision. Then you add in the fact that we didn’t even have everyone in the same room, it’s almost impossible to try to get eveyrone together when everyone’s preparing for a game and thinking that a game is going to be played, to be able to have time to come together, hear every single person out, go to the other locker room, speak with Orlando City, see where they stand, while also being on your phone talking to the leaders of other groups, and other teams, and the Black Players for Change leadership. This was a very truncated timeline where there was so much uncertainty and confusion, and then you have your phones – not being able to use them at a certain point when you’re starting to prepare for a game.

“I think it was just a bit little too short of notice for us to be able to make any meaningful decision with regards to a boycott. It’s not as cut-and-dried as maybe some people think it is.”

Anibaba: “I would just want to add to that: again, this is about the player pool being unified. It just simply is. We’ve shown that, we’ll continue to show that, and even the NBA guys had to make sure that they were all on the same page. I know that they had to make decisions, but they also had time to have Zoom calls and those types of things to figure out what they wanted to do. I know that people are trying to figure out, ‘oh, is there fraction within the groups, is there fraction within the player pool?’ I can tell you that there isn’t, and we’ve shown that already. We do appreciate your question.”

Photo of Jalil Anibaba and Dax McCarty via Zoom.

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