Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and winger Handwalla Bwana met with the media to discuss the latter’s arrival with his new team, and look forward to the squad’s trip to Orlando Sunday.
What was the experience of making your debut for the club like?
Bwana: “I’m happy to make my debut, but unfortunately the result wasn’t the way we wanted, especially being, it was nine games undefeated at home. It was good to be part of the group, and obviously the group is amazing. I felt really comfortable joining the group, but I think the debut was good. It’s unfortunate with the goal – I think it was offside in my opinion – I don’t know what’s the VAR for. But I think we created a couple chances: honestly in my opinion, I thought we were going to come back in the game and try to get that one more goal, but it was unfortunate. But sometimes in this game, that’s how it is: you need luck in the game, but we as a group, we’ve done really well defensively, but I think we’re still missing that little spark going forward.
But other than that, I think my debut side of it was good. I’m just very happy to be part of the group and to work with an amazing coaching staff. I’m really excited going forward.”
How has Handwalla’s addition to the group gone so far, and how will his presence affect your preparations for Orlando Sunday?
Smith: “Well first of all, I honestly felt that his debut off the bench was a very decent one. I think he’s being a little bit humble there: it’s not easy to come into any team and perform as quickly as he has. He looked very composed, very well-balanced and showed a lot of the individual qualities that we expected from him, bringing him to the group. And I’m sure – as I said after the game – he had to offer us an awful lot, in that inventive spark that he just spoke about is something that we hope he’s going to be able to offer us, along with obviously one or two others.
“As far as the weekend, going to Orlando’s a tough game at any time of the year. They’re a very, very competitive group; they’ve had a wonderful season, incredibly confident, I’m sure, at this point. Sitting in third spot, I don’t think, if I remember the league table, exactly that they can make it to second, but they’ve had a terrific spell this second phase of the season, and they sit in a great spot.
“For ourselves, we still hold out hope that a victory there can somehow prise sixth spot away from either New England or perhaps New York Red Bull, and we’ll be doing absolutely everything we can to try and make that a reality. But it certainly won’t be easy. Whatever the outcome, the one thing I do hope is that we take another step towards feeling confident and comfortable going into the postseason.”
How much more important is that sixth spot to give yourselves a bye, especially without Randall Leal and Aníbal Godoy likely unavailable for the play-in round?
Smith: “I think we want to be in the best possible spot, and this is the final scheduled league game. I think everyone always is – and should well be – judged on where they finish at the end of the season. We sit in a very respectable position for a first-year group, and I know everyone’s proud of the work that’s gone on – certainly internally. To finish off on a good note would mean a couple of things: firstly, of course the confidence will be high. Secondly, we have the opportunity to clinch that sixth spot, and like you’ve said, it will give us, I think, maybe a little bit more scope to see those guys back in the group and competitively playing for us in the playoffs.
“Without looking at their schedule and having it in front of me, I don’t know exactly whether or not those guys – through their travel and games – would be under pressure for the play-in game [they will not have that chance]. I would think it’s definitely the case. However, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that through the quarantine laws, we can maybe get that done.
“But I think lastly, a good result away from home will, again, offer some confidence and an internal strength that – if we’re going to progress in the playoffs, the likelihood is we’re going to haved to go and play a tough away game. It’s as tough as anywhere in Orlando, there’s no better time really than to finish off on a good note and feel as though that’s achievable.
How has Orlando progressed, and how have you guys progressed since your two-game series early in the return-to-play?
Smith: “Like you said there Tim, I think if you look at the way that they’ve been able to find a groove and consistently perform, it’s been a very, very good level: hence why they’re sitting in third position in the Eastern Conference. And in all fairness to them, are putting the top two positions under pressure. There isn’t an awful lot in it, and I think that’s testimony to the quality of their season and the way has come together and performed.
“But if you look at the way we’ve been able to find a groove as well – sadly, up until Wednesday night, we’ve been on a very good run ourselves – but one game doesn’t make a season, and if you look back across our body of work, I think you’ll see that slowly-but surely, even under the pressures of the schedule, with some difficulties with injuries, and just the general nature of this very confusing season, we ourselves as a brand-new franchise have also shown some real consistency. Maybe not in so many areas as they have – you know their goal-scoring record of course is that much better – but there are two or three areas of our game that I’m absolutely delighted with.
“And it’s going to make for a very tough affair for them. It gives us a good foundation to push on from, and it certainly means that two sides that have certainly shown a lot of consistency – running into one another on this occasion – I’m hoping that we can somehow edge this game, and as I’ve said, really put sixth under pressure.
How did your trade come about? Did you request a trade after being out of the Seattle squad, did they let you know they’d like you to move along?
Bwana: “I think it was more of – obviously I wasn’t in the squad because I had requested a trade. And I think it my time with the club… I wasn’t feeling like I was growing as an individual, as a player. I mean, I’ve been in Seattle for three years and I’ve played a lot through those three years, but the last couple weeks was more because I’d requested a trade. Seattle didn’t want me to leave, but it was more like I needed a change, because I needed to go somewhere where I can grow.
“Obviously speaking with Mike Jacobs, and speaking with him and looking at the staff with Nashville, and how the group and how the program was looking, I really wanted to be a part of it. How they wanted to grow as a club, and I just felt like this is the right place for me in order for me to grow and to be part of this amazing organization. I’m very happy to be where I’m am right now, because I was at a big club, but sometimes at the end of the day it’s about growing, and trying to reach your full potential and try to go even farther with your career. That’s why, in my opinion, I needed a change in order for me to grow.
“It’s difficult because I’ve never left my mom and my family behind – for the first time in my life, and now I have to do it. It’s more like growing on the field and off the field at the same time. I’m very happy to be where I am today.”
How does the availability of Nani (who is appealing a red card) affect what Orlando City can or will do?
Smith: “His reputation precedes him. He’s an incredibly talented guy. Even at this stage of his career where I’m sure even he would admit he’s incredible condition for his age, and is still performing at an incredibly high level. He’ll certainly be missed I’m sure for the group, but when you look around their team – I’m only looking to the side because I’ve got their group written up on a board next to me – they have a number of players that are more-than-capable of filling that void and have done in other periods of the season.
“What they’ll miss with Nani’s exclusion – if that’s to be – is his composure and his general awareness and appreciation for the game. If they have a couple of other individuals that can fill that void: [Benji] Michel out wide, I’m sure [Chris] Mueller will be involved in some way shape or form, they’ve got guys there that are very dynamic, have been really productive for this team, and I think that’s part of the strength of the group. They’ve shown that when they do rotate players – and especially through those wide and central midfield areas – they’ve been able to maintain a very high standard. That’s all credit to the way that they’ve recruited in that group.”
How is the transition to Nashville going so far?
Bwana: “Transition side of it has been amazing, especially right after the airport, I had people coming in and the staff from Nashville already helping me settle in. Literally I have everything for me to – it was so easy, so quick and easy because they made it so much easier for me moving from hotel to our apartment, and training ground, and going through physical – it’s been amazing. That’s the amazing part of it.
“The transition side of it is more like, I’m happy to be where I am today, because now it’s time for me to grow and show people that I can reach my full potential and hopefully go even farther with the club. But it’s been really, it’s been really amazing. The city’s been world-class, the weather here is amazing, and it’s a really beautiful city to be around here, especially – I’m from Seattle, a rainy area, I’ve never left Seattle all my life – now this change, it’s huge for me and my family.”
What was the toughest part of leaving Seattle?
Bwana: “I think the most difficult part about leaving Seattle was my family. I’m so close: my dad is close, my mom is close, and my friends. All my life: 10 years in Seattle, my friends, family, I’ve known Seattle from every single angle. Especially as a team, it’s difficult leaving Seattle because I’ve bonded, I’ve made so many good friends. The hard part is leaving them and saying goodbye.
“But at the same time, the fact that those guys really supported me because they know what I’m capable of, and they know my talent and my future. They think it was the right place for me to leave, because it wasn’t a place where I was growing. They were very happy, but it’s very difficult to leave my family behind. Speaking with my mom every day, my mom said, ‘now I don’t have anybody to help me with the paperwork and everything.’ I told her my little brother’s going to be back after college. Hopefully he’ll figure it out, or I’ll have one of my friends go help her out with the mail and appointments if she needs anything.
“But that’s the most difficult part, because my mom always relied on me and helping her with paperwork, helping her with anything she needs or work stuff, driving her to groceries – I’ve stayed with my mom all my life, and she’s been there for me since Day one. Leaving her is difficult, but at the same time I don’t want her to leave Seattle because of me. Seattle’s been a really great place for her in terms of getting support and help, and feeling comfortable – she knows Seattle like I do. But at the same time as she’s very sad, at the same time she’s really, really happy to see me growing as a man, and hopefully she wishes me the best with my soccer career.”
What does Daryl Dike provide for Orlando City?
Smith: “He’s had an incredible first year. I went and watched as part of an MLS contingent down at the combine, and they [University of Virginia] played in one of the finals, I can’t remember, but he looked a very, very powerful boy at that point: lots and lots of qualities for a center forward. When you’re trying to either recruit or create a front line that’s going to be effective, you want someone who’s going to be a good focal point, and he’s that. You want somebody physically who can compete, he’s certainly that. He’s got a turn of pace. He looks like he’s maturing very, very well and actually very, very quickly. In the short space of time that he’s played – and of course we’ve run into their group a couple of times already – he looks quite considerably in front of where he was in that college final that I watched him in.
“For them, it offers a new dimension. It gives you different options in terms of the challenge. I think our centerbacks will remember vividly the difficulties they ran into down in Orlando. He was very active. I thin kit was the first time that Walker and Dave had run into him, and really tough to handle. Our two guys have been great all year, but I think they’ll tell you he’s an handful. I’m sure they’ll expect no different.
“I think the big difference is – like any player – once you’ve run into him, the best players work out how to deal with you as an opponent, and not everyone’s the same. And he has particular qualities that need to be put under some sort of wraps. But I have no doubt our guys are capable of doing that if he plays. They’ll certainly feel far more confident having seen him play and having run into him before.”
Does the long break before the playoffs give you a chance to have a few more minutes for someone like Hany Mukhtar as he works his way back from injury?
Smith: “Hany had a little bit of a setback before Wednesday, right close to the selection process and there was just no point in risking him. He’s available for selection for the weekend, and like any player, it’s really based on where he’s at physically, and whether or not – between myself and the medical staff – we feel as though he’s in the right place to go and push on, and really take a step forward towards the playoffs. At this point, I think we’re in a good place. But because of the nature of one or two of the difficulties he’s had, we have to make sure that he doesn’t have any reaction the following day. At the moment, he’s moving in a nice way.
“As far as the group’s concerned – and Hany’s obviously a massive part of that – I would like to feel, as I’m sure the players do, that if there’s the option of playing minutes, however many they are, for guys that are coming back from an injury, can they get a run-out? Are they finding themselves in a place where, mentally and physically, they feel better about themselves? Then that can only be positive.
“But let’s not forget here that this is a game we want to win. I don’t want to overlook this game and use it as just a fixture that we play out or move on from. I think the players would be doing everyone – I certainly would be doing everyone – an injustice if we said this wasn’t important, because it is. So whatever decisions I make, they’ll revolve around the group being in the best place to win, and of course taking into consideration the steps that we take beyond this last game.”
How much do you think the regular-season results indicate what will happen in win-or-go-home scenarios and does momentum carry over?
Smith: “You can look around not just MLS but around the world in playoff scenarios, and it’s crazy really, isn’t it? They’re one-off games. Yes, of course, your form throughout the year and the confidence that you’ve gained as a team does certainly play into what type of result you might see. The position you finish will give you an advantage – if you’re playing at home, of course it will. But how many times have we seen teams that have just managed to squeak into the playoffs on the last day of the season and become a real force throughout a run of games in the playoffs? If they can just get that first win under their belt, the confidence of getting in, the confidence of being part of the postseason, is such a boost for players and for squads alike.
“So, I often think that the teams that get in early have too long to think about what’s going on, how are we going to manage this, do we want to be in the top four – can we be in the top four – I don’t want to risk players. You know, it’s such a conundrum that you probably know your strongest group, you don’t want any of them having any problem. You don’t want to lose any form that the team has. And that’s why teams that just make it on the last day can be such a difficult group to play against there on out.
“What I would say is – and I think I mentioned it in the media after the game – there’s two weeks between the last fixture and the first playoff game. I don’t remember there being that long to have to wait for your first game. And I know there’s an international window and I understand all the reasons behind it, and I’m fully supportive of it. But I can’t help but think that, given the schedule that we’ve had to undertake – where we’ve been playing two games a week – any normal week, we’d have played four games in that time.
“Four games for the team, and then all of a sudden you’re saying to players, ‘OK, you’re not going to have any games because of Covid. There’s really no competition that we can play against except amongst ourselves.’ And I’m sure every team will be absolutely delighted for the rest in the first two or three days, but it’s going to be interesting to see how all of the teams function come those first-round playoffs – or the play-in games – and there on out, because obviously round one is three or four days after that.”
Oi mate, who were your favorite footballers or inspirations as a lad?
Bwana: “I men, when I was in the refugee camp, I always played football in the street. But we used to go and watch Manchester United a lot, so I used to… in 2005 or 06, I used to like Cristiano Ronaldo a lot. I used to emulate my game toward him or Robinho. And coming to Seattle, that was a different part. I had to get close to the team Seattle Sounders, so I would say Steve Zakuani was also one of my idols that I used to watch, because the way he was as a player, the way he was so quick. I just thought it was something fun to watch.
“I would say depends where was. In the ‘fugee camp I would say Cristiano has always been my idol and on this day still, is one of my idols because he shows that hard work and determination can make you be one of the best – or make you reach potential you don’t even expect to reach.”