Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and goal-scorers Dan Lovitz and Hany Mukhtar met with the media after their team’s 3-2 win over Orlando City SC. Watch or read their full comments here. (As you can see from the header image, Mukhtar was phasing in and out of the mortal realm, so we’ll call him “Mukhtargeist” until I think of a better pun. Thanks).
“First of all, I mean: what a game. Even as an emotional coach sitting on the touchline, it had just about everything in it, that game. Some wonderful goals scored, a tremendous amount of passion and energy. Both teams – for one reason or another – wanting to take full points, and in the end, I think we showed some serious credentials here today, that hopefully one or two teams look at and will take notice of, and that’ll have a little more concern about as we move to the postseason.
“Delighted, of course, for the three points Ecstatic that we finish the season on a victory, and to know that we have attained seventh in our first season, and we now have a blockbuster game against Miami at home. I’m not sure anybody could have wished for much more in the first season. Certainly, as a head coach, it’s a bit of a dream come true.”
Battle of expansions
“Incredible. As we’ve seen inn writing and otherwise, gone about in a slightly different way to us. It’s been a great storyline for the league, I’m sure, to look at the way both teams have developed, and there’s no doubt about it: Miami looked absolutely out in the cold at one point, and have turned their form around. They’ve had a couple of terrific wins, and today’s result, under pressure, shows that they’re certainly on the march. They’ve a wealth of talent up front and creatively, as we all know, and the two styles of the teams, I think go together very, very well, and it should make for a very upbeat, pulsating, and passionate playoff type art Titans’ Stadium.”
Does it feel like you sent a message being able to score a bit more than people think?
“I think more so for us, Tim, than anyone, we’ve shown at times that we are very capable. I think the combination that we haven’t seen much of – of Mukhtar and Cádiz – looked incredibly profitable for us. Hany scores and creates one for Jhonder. It wasn’t just that: there was an energy and a feel about those sort of final 10-15 minutes. Of course, again, the momentum shifted when we equalized, but you never felt as though the game was far out of our reach. I mean, there was one terrific save from Joe – I think it was just after their second – that I think lifted everyone’s spirits, and we pushed on from there.
And this is not an easy place to play. But I think the progress that you can see form this team – if we cast our minds back, what was it, 14? 16 weeks ago? when we came here and we were on the back of our fourth away game on the spin, and we got beat convincingly. If you look at the performance today and how the guys have gone about their business, and they’ve – for the first time this year, and the first time in franchise history – come from behind to win, as well, in such a difficult arena and homefield. It’s going to give everyone a lot of confidence going into the postseason, for sure.
Does this type of win help you guys get some momentum given the long break?
“I think a little. I did say that, and I still do believe that: I don’t think you can have that amount of time off and stay in the groove that you’re in. However, I think things that you don’t lose – and certainly for players – will be the fact that they can go into a brief rest period when we get back for a day or two. They’ll come in in a great frame of mind. It’ll be buoyant, it’ll be positive, there’ll be no question marks, there’ll just be a gret atmosphere around the group that leads toward a playoff game.
“Now the fact that we got beat at home by what I would describe as a contentious one-goal deficit is not a nice way to come here knowing that the odds are against us. So to get a victory – an away victory – keep everyone on the right track, and to allow the guys to be dreaming, to be thinking that they have plenty under the bonnet, and looking at a victory against Miami. A tough game away from home, we don’t want to look away, we don’t want to look to far ahead of ourselves, but a victory home to Miami and it’s more than possible – both sides will feel that – will give us the opportunity maybe to run into Orlando again, who knows.”
Does the productivity of guys coming off the bench make your personnel decisions even tougher heading into the playoffs – as they push for starting roles?
“I think I’ll be going away and reflecting tomorrow, and over the next 48 hours, on just what our best group looks like. What are the dimensions that we need? We’re back at home – it is a different mindset, whatever anyone says, when you come away from home. To see Hany come out and have such a terrific 15 minutes, such an impact on the team, was a huge lift for all. Jhonder takes another step forward physically, and in terms of his confidence, it’s his second goal for the group and it’ll do him a world of good.
“The guys that came in in midfield – both of those lads have done a fabulous job for us when called upon, and they didn’t let anyone down when they came into the game today. It was vitally important in an area of the field that Orlando have got particularly strong individuals that we didn’t lose control. Those two lads in there did a wonderful job.
“To add to that, I think Handwalla’s performance out on the flank gave us a real shot in the arm from the line. He gave us some nice balance, he showed some nice signs. Again, it’s a 20-25 period for him that, again, takes a step forward and pushes him closer to what could be an instrumental home fixture against Miami.”
Were the timings of the substitutions for Hany Mukhtar and Jhonder Cádiz planned, and was there anything that happened in the game that made you have to adjust those plans?
“You know, to come from a goal down and be level at halftime and perform very well after a tricky start shows a lot of character for the group. But as far as Jhonder goes, it was part of his progression. Was it going to be a 30-minute window, or a 45? It made sense at the time to get him into the game and to keep that progress going after Daniel had done a very good job in the first half, and he’s still carrying a bit of a problem with his groin, and I just didn’t want to push him too far.
“The two guys that came on in midfield – one was enforced, the other one was a decision that I made, and beyond that, we’re now looking at maybe the right window of time to get guys like Handwalla on, Randall looked like he put everything into the game, and was starting to fatigue, and it was a nice boost for the group, a bit more energy out on those flanks. Hany’s one was always going to happen, and it’s really a process for him, and was part of the process of grabbing some minutes that make him feel good. Physically, he takes a step forward, and most importantly, not pushing too far where there was the possibility of him breaking down again.”
What roles have LaGrassa and Anunga played, and how has that allowed them to improve this season?
“They’ve shown what valuable individuals they are: they’ve stepped up to the plate. They’ve rolled their sleeves up, they’ve taken their chance when it’s come along. They’ve not only competed and performed well for the group, but I think they’ve both shown that they have a little bit more than just being bit-part players in the group. They’ve both got the capability of playing longer periods of time – we’ve seen that. They don’t look out of place against MLS-level midfield players, and both of these guys – as you well know – have come out of USL. It’s all credit to those lads that A) they’ve adapted in training, and taken, I think, and awful lot from the experience that they have around them day-to-day in how they conduct themselves on and off the field, but also, it’s a great credit to them how they’ve adapted in what have been extremely competitive games.
This is a tough, tough place to play. When this group are in full flow, they’re as effective and aggressive, and have as many dimensions as most teams I’ve seen. They have terrific spearhead up front, they have great quality out wide, they have turn of pace, they have great individual talent. And you know, i think today we can certainly walk away form here and feel very, very good about ourselves.”
What was the explanation given to you on the Nani freekick, and how did that impact the game?
“It’s an amazing sequence of events though, Tim,. if you think about it, at that moment in time. I’m not going to question what decisions the panel make about Nani’s sending-off, it’s the second week on the spin that influential players – two captains – have managed to maintain their position in the starting lineup when we’ve played them.
And today, it looked like that action – and wonderful free kick by the way, it’s excellent execution – but for me, it was almost a feeling of fate strikes again. Because Nani, for a large part of the week, wasn’t going to be in their group, and then he produces a moment of exquisite quality to take them into the lead. So in many ways, I’m delighted that we’ve been able to overturn that [result]. I’m very disappointed we’ve conceded two goals – I’m always disappointed when we concede goals – but I think to come back from some of the emotional attachments whether it’s indirect, direct, Nani scoring, going behind… all of those questions are rattling around on the inside of our players’ heads. To get back in the game, and then eventually go on and win it, shows wonderful, wonderful character.
Hany Mukhtar and Dan Lovitz
Lovitz: “Obviously, it’s an incredible night. These are the nights that make what we do all-the-more enjoyable, and it energizes the group. What an important time and special time this season to have a performance like this. Most importantly, I think it’s just a progression, a step in the right direction for us. Like I said, the timing couldn’t be better for us, but we’re very realistic: we understand there’s still things we need to do better.
It’s always great to score goals away from home. From a defensive standpoint, I think we can always look to improve and keep the ball out of the net. We’re in a really good mental space at the moment, and these nights help a lot. We’re just really grateful to come out with three points, and to have a lot of good performances. That’s the biggest takeaway for me.”
Mukhtar: “Yes, I’m very happy for the team that we got the three points. It’s very important for the playoffs to go out of the regular season with a win. Hopefully it gives us a push, and we will win the next playoff game.”
Did you have a specific desire to connecting with guys that you haven’t been able to build that chemistry with over the past few weeks?
Mukhtar: “Yes, I was waiting three weeks for my comeback. I saw the guys playing, and I missed to be out on the pitch. I’m very happy that i’m healthy again.”
How much does the result mean in terms of building confidence and proving yourselves?
Lovitz: “It’s a balance between being obviously elated and understanding how important this was for us from a momentum standpoint, and also being realistic and being practical about what we need to improve on. I think one of the most telling things about tonight was – I’m pretty sure – it was our first come-from-behind victory. We haven’t been in that position yet. I think that’s a very valuable experience, to be playing from behind. Obviously, you never want to have that be how you start the game, and to give up a goal so early, but it’s a great indicator of the character we have in the locker room, the guys we have and who’s able to come in, and who’s able to be right and be effective at both ends of the field in very important moments.
“I think this three points, obviously, we wish it would have done a little bit more for us in terms of our position in the table, for sure. But we’re just going to focus internally on what we’ve been doing well, and what we can improve on, and move forward. We have a good little chunk of time now to not necessarily reset, but to train finally. These games have been coming so thick and fast, it’ll be nice to have some time to get into a normal – what would be a normal – swing, a normal schedule, and prepare for what’s going to be an awful game.”
Obviously clean sheets have been a major point of pride for this team, but on a night where you couldn’t get one, how proud are you personally to provide one of the goals on the other end to make up for it?
Lovitz: “It’s greta. I mean, I think one of the most important characteristics of this team this year is how many goals have come from different guys in different moments. I’m always going to be happy to score goals. I’m not going to discount that, but I think we just have a great mindset right now that we know that goals can come from anybody at any time. And it makes my job incredibly easy as part of the backline. We just need to focus on doing a better job of starting the game – I think tonight was a bad example of that, but for the most part I think we need to continue the good work we’ve done throughout the course of the season, and be solid and give a foundation to the guys in front of us that are special in the attacking third. You saw that tonight, and it’s a great combination of those two dimensions, and we’re very happy to get three points under the circumstances.”
After a frustrating injury layoff, was there some catharsis to scoring and assisting in your return?
Mukhtar: “Yeah, it was hard for me, when I got injured in Houston. I think it was one of my best games here for Nashville, and I wanted to start now finally to play good for our team and help the team. So yeah, then I got the message from the doctor that it’s a muscle injury, so I was very sad. But yeah, that’s part of our job, and I think it’s part of our job also to focus and work hard again for the next chance. That’s the beauty of the game: you play bad today, you can be the hero next game. So we need to be realistic and we have the next chance in the playoffs, and we need to focus on our next game.”
Dan, a goal is a goal…
Mukhtar [interrupting]: “No, no, no: this is not ‘a goal is a goal.'”
Is there a different feel scoring with the weak foot?
Lovitz: “I’ll have you know that 100% of my MLS goals have been scored with my right foot, so that’s something important to keep in mind. I don’t know if I can call that my ‘wrong’ foot as a result.Realistically, it’s great: good things happen when you close your eyes and you kick the ball, so I’m glad that was able to go into the back of the net. But more than anything, it’s just great to contribute offensively, and we’re getting it from a lot of different guys, and tonight we got it in some really important moments.
“The first half we were under a little bit of pressure, and that goal sort of changed the dynamic. And then when we’re pushing hard and knocking on the door, a few great moments of quality from Hany and a few other guys, and we’re able to win the game. That’s what it’s all about.
“Sure, I got a lot of grief in the locker room for the right foot, but again, that’s a noteworthy stat: I score with the right foot more than I do with the left. So that’s important.”