Nashville SC earned a scoreless draw in New England Saturday evening. Watch or read the full comments from Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith, goalkeeper Joe Willis, and midfielder Matt LaGrassa here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Absolutely delighted. I’m sure it wasn’t the greatest of spectacles, necessarily, with the ball, but with so many difficulties to deal with throughout this week, with opportunities to play certain players and the amount of forward line players that we have missing, there was a big shift in our shape, and some of the perspectives within that group. The big ask against a good side, a confident side, a team that have been in good form here on a very difficult surface was to make the game as difficult as possible, and play with some real passion. I think the character of the group shone through tonight. I’m absolutely delighted with a road point and a clean sheet.”
Obviously the same point in the standings as a week ago. What makes this feel more positive than the Dynamo draw?
Drawnamo? we’ll workshop it, idk
“I think there’s numerous reasons for that, Tim. The fact that, these away days, as we’ve spoken about before, are not easy. The guys were up early this morning, this is one of the longest journeys, if not the longest journey we’ve been on. The journey from the airport when we dropped down on the bus, added to that: the guys have been traveling over three hours just with the team, and that’s without getting to the airport. So it’s a long day, it’s a tough day, it’s a tiring day.
“On top of all of that, you’ve got a group here in New England that Bruce Arena’s got playing well. They’re very purposeful, they’ve got some good dimensions to their team, a Designated [Player] striker who’s in top form. We were able to navigate the surface, which is again not easy, and put in a sterling effort.
“Now, I know that the stats will lean heavily against us with regards to possession, I’m sure efforts at goal, crosses, corners – whatever area you want to look. But today’s performance really was about this group digging in, showing the sort of fiber and character that, really, championship teams are built on. Whilst there’s a long, long way to go with this team, they’re all the qualities that I want to see in the group, and we know when we’ve got some of the players on the sideline that are not fit and are not able to come back into the group, this just enhances the way that the group functions.”
What is your assessment of Joe Willis’s performance?
“I’ll have to say, I think it might have been Joe’s best performance for us so far. I wasn’t expecting, maybe, the sort of pressure that they did build. I was hopeful that we might be able to get some sort of foothold in the game. There were some moments, but they were fleeting, it has to be said. But what I think we were able to do, for the most part, was to keep the clear-cut opportunities to a very, very minimum. There was a good opportunity for Bou just the other side of halftime, and Joe made a terrific save.
“But I think what we are seeing from Joe is a reliability. His shot-stopping has never been in question, he’s making good choices. He’s always been a leader of this group, and I do believe tonight, kJoe broke his own record of clean sheets for any season. Which I think typifies not only the way that he’s playing, but the sort of credence that the team put on keeping their goal intact. This group have shown great endeavors to not only compete, but to make life incredibly difficult when things have been going against us.
“We knew, as in our inaugural season, that things weren’t going to be going to be clean sailing or go swimmingly for us all the time. But these players have really shown some real backbone, and I’m delighted with that, of course Joe being the epitome of it tonight.”
What did you think of the performances of some players out of position, especially those like Matt LaGrassa and Brian Anunga who played some of their biggest roles of the year?
“Listen, I’m not sure there was a performance out there on the field there today that I could look at and be critical of. Guys were asked to play a slight different role and a different shape. There were guys in the group, as you’ve rightly said: Matt LaGrassa’s professional MLS debut. Brian Anunga of course, we know has made a couple of appearances, but let’s not get too excited, it’s his first season in MLS. Those two lads in particular I thought were absolutely outstanding, and showed so much energy. And we needed that.
“Alongside them is an individual who has really given us our heartbeat in the center of that midfield. Dax was somebody that they could lean on. I think those two guys will both say that his presence alongside them was vitally important. But I think more so as you look further forward, we take for granted now that the backline and Joe are going to stand strong. There were some wonderful performances there, but most importantly, I thought the backline looked very organized, they looked in control, and they made good choices, and were brave when they needed to be.
“It was the front line that were always going to have the biggest issues. Not the most recognized group. Certainly talent in those three, but trying to get them on the same page, and to offer us an outlet and some opportunity the other way was always going to be tough. All three of them show different qualities, I felt, tonight. Derrick [Jones] in particular stood up and really gave us a little bit of a focal point when we needed it. That’s not necessarily his game: he’s not that bruising center forward who’s going to be towering above defenders and winning headers. But I’ll tell you what, he did well enough using his body tonight. He protected the ball well, he gave us some respite when we needed it. We were able to lend it into him and know that he was going to protect it for us. And I thought it was really, really important that he gave us a display along those lines.”
How do you manage a quick turnaround with a banged-up team?
“It’s not easy; it’s a very quick turnaround. Fortunately it’s at home, a place that we’ve got a lot of confidence. We’ve had some very decent results. The players will be, themselves, inspired the point on the board today. It doesn’t sound a lot, but I’ll tell you, when you’re coming back from these tough venues and taking a long journey, that point feels like the crown jewels when you’re taking it back home. It’s an incredible hold to have, and to add to the board. And that will serve us well as we work towards Tuesday.
The recovery of the players, we’ll do everything that we can to make sure that they’re in the right place. No doubt in my mind, it’s a lot, lot easier to turn around on Tuesday having put in a performance like they have tonight, and earned some points, than it is if you get beat and there’s lots of questions swilling around. These lads will be fine. We’ve had a week off. There are some lumps and bumps that we’ve got to monitor after today, but I’m sure they’re being in the right spirits for Tuesday.”
Goalkeeper Joe Willis and midfielder Matt LaGrassa
How does tyour first MLS start feel?
LaGrassa: “It’s obviously an incredible feeling for me. It’s been a really long journey for me as a player, and we talk about it all the time as a group: ‘your time is coming, stay ready, stay ready.’ Tonight happened to be an opportunity for me, so I’m happy for that.”
You set a new career high for shutouts in a season, how does it feel?
Willis: “It’s always good to get a clean sheet. I try not to keep track of how many there are, and let you guys figure that one out. We talk about it a lot, and keeping clean sheets is a foundation for getting points on the board. We know that goals are going to come, and as long as we get zero in the back, we put ourselves in a good position.
What did you see in New England’s attack, and how did you manage that pressure?
Willis: “They have a lot of good attacking pieces, so they have a lot of different ways they can hurt you. They have dynamic wingers who will take guys one-v-one and get service across. They also have good technical forwards who can have a shot if they have a half-yard of space, so you have to be kind of ready for anything when you play against New England. I think like you said, it’s a matter of doing whatever you can: whether it’s me making saves, whether the guys making blocks, winning headers: the goal is to keep the ball out of the back of the net by any any means necessary, and we did a pretty good job of that tonight.”
When did you find out you’d be in the starting lineup, and were their nerves as you built up to that first MLS start?
Lagrassa: “I do my best to stay prepared for whatever’s coming my way. I think it is difficult sometimes when you’re out of the group for a long time to stay mentally in the place where you’re ready to get in there, but I had enough time to prepare mentally and know that I was going to be a part of it. For me, I’m happy with how it went, to be honest.”
What was the adjustment you had to make personally and the team had to make in a tinkered system with three defensive midfielders?
LaGrassa: “I think it’s no secret with the amount of bodies that we’re missing right now, and with New England playing the way that they do, that we had to change some things. I think Gary came into it with a specific gameplan that he wanted us to execute. We found a way to do that. I think the shape was a little different than we have been playing, but ultimately we were able to get a result. I don’t think everything went perfect tonight, but I think these types of results on the road on a difficult surface, I think are going to make a big difference for us down the line.”
Obviously you had a big personal performance, but what sort of inspiration can you draw when you see your teammates selling out to block shots in front of you, as well?
Willis: “It’s amazing. I think it kind of personifies us as a group. We have guys who are making sacrifices for each other, and doing whatever it takes to get a point, so it’s – not to be cliche – but it’s a team effort. Everyone has to do their part whether it’s defending as a team or attacking as a team. So seeing plays like that is huge.
“It instills a lot of confidence in me, and it also at times puts pressure on me because see your teammates who are making these big plays, and you start to think to yourself, ‘OK, my number’s going to get called, I’m going to have to make a big play soon. I’d better be ready for it.'”