Nashville SC’s place in the playoffs is secure. The Boys in Gold take on Chicago Fire Saturday evening in Nissan Stadium. Head coach Gary Smith and midfield captain Dax McCarty discuss all things with the press. Watch or read their full comments here:
What is your reaction to making the postseason?
Smith: “Well, I couldn’t be more excited, of course, for everyone involved in the club. I think it’s at times like these, it’s not just about the team of course. Although the players, for sure, are the ones that have to go and get the work done on the field and add the points to the board, and they will always be regarded as the most important people at the club – I think for everyone involved at the club, it’s a great achievement, it’s a terrific opportunity we have moving forward.
“To find ourselves in the postseason with three games to go, certainly gives myself and the players food for thought as we go into these final three games and what position we can finally end up in. Certainly historical moment for the club, and one that I hope I can see many more times over.”
How did you experience the past 48 hours as the playoff slot was clinched?
McCarty: “It was a lot of scoreboard-watching. Obviously, just to echo what Gary said, extremely happy, extremely proud of the club in this very unique season with everything we’ve been able to accomplish. I think getting into the playoffs is something that we should all be very proud of, but I enjoyed it for about two hours, and then I went to bed and I woke up even more motivated than ever to try to continue this vein of form that we’re in.
“I think as an expansion team, it should certainly be recognized and celebrated a little bit that we were able to qualify for the postseason. But for me, that’s the bare minimum expectation that I have for our club, and for all the pieces that we have at this club, to be able to achieve. Now’s when we get into the fun part of the season. The fun part of the season is when the games take on greater importance and players really get to show their worth.
“Really proud of everyone at the club, and just looking forward to finishing out the season strong, and seeing what happens in the playoffs.”
What is your response to some of the external low expectations now that you’re officially in the postseason?
Smith: “I think those opinions are what make the game such an exciting one. But, to your point, when you can prove people wrong, I think it puts a smile on your face. I’m not sure you even need to remind people; you just have a little wry grin at maybe some of the comments that were made early on. But I do think it just highlights some of the qualities that we’ve been able to show in a very short space of time. That starts with the recruitment of players, it starts with the personality of just about everyone around the organization. I think that personality, it filters into just about everything that you do and the way that you project yourself.
“And this group and the players, obviously that I’m referring to, have been able to slowly-but-surely create an image and a reputation that they have to work hard to uphold. We’re in a good place, and whilst we’ll have a little grin about what people have said about us, what we also know is: those criticisms are not to far away again if you don’t do your job properly. And I think we’ve got a group of players, and a staff that combine to constantly try and achieve more than maybe people think we can.”
McCarty: “My father has a really interesting saying about opinions, and I’ll spare everyone on this call the saying, because I don’t think it’s quite appropriate [ED: I bet it’s that they’re like assholes! Dart McCarty comes through!] It always makes em chuckle when I think about preseason predictions, and experts on MLS giving their view into the future as to who is gonna to make the playoffs and who’s going to be a successful team. I always chuckle, because have we not learned that MLS is such an unpredictable league? It’s just so hard to really look at a team at the very beginning and think , “this team’s going to be successful, this team’s not going to be successful.’
“And so I think the expansion thing played against us a little bit in terms of what people expected of us, and that’s totally fair: Other expansion teams that maybe haven’t been as splashy and spent a ton of money have fared significantly worse in the past. So I understand it, but it just makes you laugh because internally in the locker room, you just have this self-belief and self-drive that you want to prove people wrong. You want to prove people that, quite frankly, that they have no idea what they’re talking about in terms of how successful a team can or can’t be.
So, It’s always fun to see those things. I think our team has just gone about our business in such a professional way. Even when things were really frustrating and rocky in the beginning of the season, throughout the MLS is Back tournament, we kept our heads down, we stayed humble. We tried to slowly build our group up, and slowly have a quiet confidence about us. And now, we’re in a really good way. And going into the playoffs, you want to be hitting the sort of form that we’re in right now.”
You’ve mentioned being a team built on a strong defensive foundation. Was that an intentional part of the build for this team?
Smith: “First of all, things with teams don’t just happen: there’s a lot of hard work that goes into any group in whatever style or pattern that they want to try and produce. I’ve said multiple times that this group isn’t a defensive group – although we have fared very, very well with the way we defend, I think that’s as much down to the spirit and the inner fiber of the players that we have in the group as it is to the organization of the team. I’d like to think the majority of the players, when they go on the field, know wexactly what they’re being asked to achieve, and then it’s for them to go out and bring that all to life, and they’ve done that very, very well.
“As far as planning and preparing a group, and what do I believe to be the right way, I’ve always felt that with any group that enters the field, as long as the players understand and appreciate, and are in a position where they know they can compete, and when they’re at their most difficult point in the game, their darkest moment in a game they’ve got an understanding and a foundation to fall back to, so they never fall through the floorboards. We see teams that, time and time again, get beat too easily and maybe by too many goals. For me, that’s just an appreciation of what they can do just to stay in the game.
“There’s a lot more to it, and I think we’ve moved on quite considerably since those early days. What you’re now seeing is a group that are driven, they’re energized, they’re enthusiastic. They’re well-balanced, and they’re ultra-competitive. I think a lot of teams that play against us now understand and appreciate that.”
Where does this stand up in terms of accomplishments in your career?
McCarty: “The question is a little bit of a difficult one for me to answer. I certainly don’t want to minimize the value and the pride that we have as an expansion team of making the playoff as an expansion team in our first year. But for me, that’s just the minimum expectation. I know that Gary and Mike Jacobs and Ian Ayre would all, I think, say a similar thing: that making the playoffs is a nice accomplishment, no question about it. But we’re not going to look back on this season in 5, 10, 15 years and be happy about it if we lose in the first round, and if we don’t perform up to the standard that we’ve set for ourselves.
“So as far as my career goes, I’ve had many, many great moments in my career. I’ve been able to be a part of some fantastic experiences and some fantastic teams, being able to raise trophies and go on long playoff runs. So it’s hard for me to say that this one ranks up there with them, but the sense of pride that I feel in being able to help this team make it to the playoffs in year one is something that I don’t want to diminish and I don’t want to minimize. Because it is something I’m extremely proud of. Now, if you ask me this question after we go on a long playoff run or we lift a trophy, we shock the whole MLS world and raise the MLS Cup, I would say it’s going to rank up there as one of the best achievements of my whole career. But until that point, I want us to keep going and I want us to fight for me, because I think we have more to give than just being able to make the playoffs.
Has any of your team’s success been surprising this year?
McCarty: “I don’t think it has surprised me, quite honestly. I saw a group in preseason, I saw a very strategic way that a team was built, and I saw a group in preseason that was ready to be competitive in every single game.
“Now, you want to talk about important situations and important moments in a club’s history, you can look at a bunch of them: you can look at signing Walker Zimmerman, one of, if not the best centerback in MLS to be a centerpiece of your team? That was a big moment. You want to talk about 50-60,000 people in your first game ever against what we hope will become a big rival in Atlanta United? Something that I don’t even think I could have imagined in my wildest dreams would have happened – one of the best crowds I’ve ever been a part of in a game in my entire life.
“Certainly a few things surprise you here and there, but at the end of the day, the self-belief that comes from guys that have been around the league for a while – guys like Daniel Lovitz, guys like myself, even guys like Anibal Godoy, we could feel something special in our group from the very beginning. Now, feeling that and seeing it take shape in practice is a completely different scenario. So you have to feel that belief, you have to have that belief and that confidence, but then actually making it tangible and going out on the field and proving that you are a good group by getting results and getting wins and putting yourself in position to win trophies, that’s where it really becomes something that you can hang your hat on.
“Not really too surprised about anything that we’ve accomplished this year, but like I said before, our group has a lot more to give.”
Smith: “I think to Dax’s point, the signs were there early part of the season, preseason, that we had a terrific group of players. Trying to mold that into a team that can be competitive and win games and get us to this point – postseason – is always something that you have to live and work through those experiences. Let’s not forget, first two games that we played in the league, we didn’t earn a point. I do think that there were some pivotal moments in our season that have now created what we see. I
“I think the first one was that: We went two months – I don’t know how a lot of the players feel and went about their own emotions, though I’ve got a good idea – I think that there were a lot of people that were brooding over the way that those results went. I know that the guys put a tremendous amount of work into planning for Orlando, that didn’t take place for us. And I think that there have been some emotional moments that have sort of morphed inside everyone maybe to give us a little bit more of an intent when the season actually started for us.
“The run that we’ve been on, the points that we’ve gathered in this second phase of the season has been fantastic. I think we’re starting to see some real qualities in the group that we might not have done before, because we’re now confident.”
How has Chicago changed since you saw them in preseason? For Dax, but also with your experience playing for them last year?
Smith: “I honestly think this Chicago team’s one of the most talented in MLS, certainly in this Eastern Conference. There, of course, are some flaws in their game, which is why they are in and around the playoff positions and not having already qualified. But they’ve got some very talented guys, they put a lot of emphasis into their attacking play, which does leave them vulnerable at times, but I think that we’ve seen a group that, to all intents and purposes have grown throughout this second phase.
Whilst results have not always gone their way, they are in a very decent position, and I’ve no doubt that they’ll be coming to us at the weekend full of hope and expectation that they can win this game – and they need to win this game, which obviously adds far more appetite – if you like – to what’s going to be going on.
McCarty: “I agree with Gary: I think they’re one of the more talented teams in the league; whenever I watch them play I always come away very impressed. I think they have a pretty clear identity of how they see themselves and how they want to go about their business. Their attacking ideas are very bright, and they’re very creative.
“Quite honestly, I see a lot of similarities between the team that they have this year, and the team we had last year when I was on the team. A lot of attacking firepower – if you will – and idea of a way to play that’s on the front foot, aggressive. But like Gary said, they do leave themselves vulnerable at the back, and they are prone to making some mistakes that can really change a game.
“So I come into this game under no illusions that it’s going to be an easy game because of the position that they are in. I do see them as being one of the better teams in the conference that’s maybe been a little bit hard-done by in terms of the results that they’ve gotten, and now they’re desperate. Any time you play a team that has talent and is desperate, that can be a very dangerous combination if you’re not ready to play, and you’re not on your A-game.
I don’t have any reservations about us being ready to play this game. We’ve been fantastic at home since the restart. I see it being a very good game, a very entertaining game. We’re a team that, even though we have clinched a playoff spot, we are hungry for more. And we are hungry to have a home game in the postseason, and we are hungry to even try to get up into the spots where we can potentially not have to play a play-in game. So plenty on the line in this game, plenty at stake. Games that you want to be a part of as a professional are games like this one coming up on the weekend.”
You often mention that attacking connections come around last. How do you feel that has come to fruition this year? How does Handwalla Bwana fit into that?
Smith: “The reason I say that the attack can sometimes be – creation can sometimes be – one of the final pieces is because of the real appreciation and understanding and the finer qualities. It’s always more difficult to create than destroy – it can be said about a lot of things in life. So we’ve created a very competitive team that, if we look back over the course of these 18 games in the second phase, we’ve actually had some very, very good creative games, moments, and opportunities.
What I would say is, there’s a difference between the creation and the execution. We’ve created a well-balanced team, we’ve got individuals that are capable of creating moments and opportunities. I think where we’ve fallen short on too many occasions is when we execute, and that execution can be the difference with very, very top teams, and that’s why forwards ovbviously cost so much money who can score 20, 25 goals a year.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction. What you’re seeing are two pieces of a very big puzzle in terms of stopping goals and scoring goals. We’ve stopped them very well this year so far, and I think we’ve slowly-but-surely managed to convert it at a better rate than we were in the early stages, and that’s a good combination.
“As far as Handwalla goes, if you look at the way we play as a group, for the majority of the time there’s a lot of emphasis placed on good wide players. Whether it be width, creation, or just pure dynamic of a team that suits our group, it’s important to have players out wide that can help us in attack, and are going to be of support when we defend. In Handwalla, I think we find an individual who can do both. He’s still a young player, he’s still learning, and it may take him a little bit of time to understand and grow to our group. But he certainly has a very bright future, and I see no reason why he can’t be a big piece of what we are moving forward.”
Dax McCarty photo from file.