Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman – who was named the league’s Defender of the Year yesterday – his head coach Gary Smith, and captain Dax McCarty met with the media to discuss Zimmerman’s honor, their season, and the upcoming playoff game against Inter Miami CF. You can see full video of the availability here.
What was your reaction when you earned the Defender of the Year award?
Zimmerman: “Yeah, I mean this is a major accomplishment for me. I’ve talked to a lot of the teammates and Gary as well: but all of these awards are so much bigger than individual awards, and you could never, ever accomplishment on your own. It’s such a team sport and having such a good supporting cast, and coaching staff who has built out identity through strong spine of the field and defensive actions, and such a workrate from everyone on the field: our forwards getting back, our forwards getting back, Dax and [Aníbal] Godoy shielding in front of the backline, obviously then defenders, and then Joe Willis with a heck of a year. I mean, obviously wish he could get more recognition for the work that he’s done in net for us this year.
“All of those pieces have to come together to be able to win an award like this. So: really grateful, really excited, and to do it in this year, it just means a lot because we’ve all worked so hard on our own, and there’s been a lot of work behind the scenes in small groups or individually. It makes you appreciate those moments more because all that hard work has paid off.”
What have you been doing to prepare for this playoff game?
Smith: “It’s been pretty unique given the schedule that we’ve had: couple of games a week and players have been used to turning around. I think for the majority of our group, their bodies have held out exceptionally well. The players have looked after themselves, they’ve been very, very professional. But it’s the first time in a good while that maybe we’ve been able to have a little more balance to our work, With rest and the practical side of it on the training field, just balancing out slightly better. This lead-in week has certainly, as far as just dusting up on one or two areas of our game, I think we’ve been in really good form, spirit’s good, there’s a lot of focus around the team, a lot of energy, and a real belief around the group that we’re in a good place. But it’s always nice just to recap on certain areas, and then be ultimately ready for the challenge come Friday.
What sort of leadership can you provide, particularly with your experience in the league and in playoffs?
McCarty: “It’s a good question, it’s one that I’ll get to in a second, I just want to extend my congratulations to Walker for a tremendous accomplishment. I think he’s shown his tremendous humility by talking about all the other pieces of the puzzle that have definitely helped him win this award, but I don’t think there’s any doubt in the minds of the players, of our coaching staff, who the best defender in the league is, and it’s an honor that’s well-deserved for him.
“As far as the question goes, I haven’t taken such a deep dive into picking out individual guys and talking to them about what it’s like. I think that we have such experience in our group for an expansion team. I’ve spoken about this before, but I think we have seven or eight full international players on our roster, and in our team, and so when you have experience like that, and when you have a good mix of older guys and younger guys, I just think naturally, people start to realize that the playoffs mean a little bit more.
“So as we get closer to the game, I’ll certainly start to be a little bit more vocal about how important games like this are. And once I do start talking to guys more, the main theme and main point that I’m going to make is: games like this, making the playoffs, playing in big games, playing in important games? They don’t come around as much as you think they do. So we need to make sure that as a group and as a team, that we’re all ready to go, because it’s a tremendous opportunity to cement – ourselves individually in our own careers, but also as a team – that is going to make history. And so it’s a big pressure on our shoulders, but it’s one that I think we’ll all embrace as a group.”
After Aníbal Godoy was injured in the regular-season finale and Randall LEal was on international duty with Costa Rica, do you expect to have them available for the Inter Miami game?
Smith: “I think we’re in a pretty good physical place. You know, there’ve been one or two guys that have been carrying the stresses and strains of such a tight schedule, and a difficult period of time. But I think we’re in a pretty reasonable shape.
“Aníbal’s trained the last couple of days. Randall will be back in town and ready for the game. He’s had a good trip, obviously, with Costa Rica, and has come through that unscathed. I feel as though the group – as I’ve said a little bit earlier – is in a very, very good place. I can’t imagine that there’s much more that the players need to do for their own feel-good factor, if you like, going into the game. And certainly on a preprational front, we’ll deal with our last bits and pieces tomorrow and Miami.
“It’s been a good period of time. I think they’ve got through some nice work and, as I said, they’ve had a good period of time to just mentally and physically regroup.”
Finally not having as much to worry about on the fatigue front, do you have a chance to tinker tactically or technically, or is that not even necessary at this point in the year?
Smith: “Listen, this team’s moved in a very positive direction. Their curve of development’s been really good, and that’s been reinforced and invigorated with a confidence and a belief through some good results. That part of it is something no coach can give a team.
“As far as doing anything different or working in a different manner, the players are used to a training schedule or routine daily, to a large degree, that people get into a rhythm with, and I think that type of rhythm is something that lots of us like, players included. There’s nothing new, really, to go over. It’s a reinforcement and some work, some repetition on areas of our game that we could do with just maybe smoothing out some rough edges on where there’ve been a lot of games, and you lose some of that connectivity in certain areas and that understanding.
“But I do think there’s been an awful lot that’s been gained over this – certainly this last six weeks. You think of the results we’ve had: four wins, three draws, and a defeat in the running. That’s very good form by anyone’s standards, and we’ll be as happy and as elated about that as probably any team. So we’re moving nicely, no big issues, no traumas, nothing really to get too uptight or otherwise about, and we’ll be ready.
What kind of game are you expecting in the third matchup between the two sides? What impact do you think Gonzalo Higuaín will have after he hadn’t yet joined IMCF when you previously played?
Smith: “Both teams will take something out of the games, no doubt. I think we have – when you run into a group of players that you’ve not played before, the players will understand maybe some details and nuances of the individual’s game and we can appreciate their style of play a little bit more.
“Listen: it’s a playoff game. There’ll be aspects of it that we may not have seen in the league. But I expect a team to come here with their season on the line, knowing that if they don’t get a result, then they’re out, and if they don’t do that they lose. So, I don’t expect anything different. Playoffs are all about that: there’s a combination of passion and energy and desires, combined with ability and creativity and maybe an individual that does something that’s very special that takes you through, because the games are normally tight.
“As far as Higuaín’s concerned, his reputation precedes him. He’s more than capable of winning a game, changing the course of a game. I think from our standpoint, we’ll put our record in front of anyone in terms of how we compete, and how we go about our business. My hope is we can make his life as difficult as possible and limit him to few chances. You know he’s not the only person in that group who is capable, and I think the biggest challenges for us come from a front line that has had a lot of resources thrown at it, but they have their flaws, and they’ve shown those flaws throughout the season, and we hope to exploit them.”
What do you make of the differences between the teams’ difference in the way you have built, while both ending up in the same place?
Smith: “When you say the same place, what do you mean by that? Because we’re seventh and they’re 10th, I don’t quite get that part. In any normal year they wouldn’t have made it.”
Both in the playoffs.
Smith: “They’ve gone about their business very very different to us, and I think that’s easy for anyone to see in the way that they’ve put this group togethr. They’re very talented; they have a lot of talented individuals. I think what you see with the two teams is soccer in general: There’a many, many different ways of going about your business. We feel as though we’ve created some very,v ery strong foundations, which we hope to be able to push on from. And I would suspect that there’s probably a little bit more disappointment in their camp in the way that things have gone this year.
“However, they’ve certainly finished the season off in a decent run, and they’ve clinched that final spot. So they’ll be dangerous, there’s no doubt about it, and we’re by no means taking this game lightly – and shouldn’t be. As you said, two expansion sides, we’re happy with where we are, and hope to push on, and just reinforce the way that our season’s gone.”
How have you improved your attacking as a defender this season, and how do you see that relating to your role with the national team going forward?
Zimmerman: “With every team, you’re asked to do different things. Every team has its own style, its own shape, and gives you an opportunity to do different things. I think what’s been really nice about Nashville is: when you play with two holding mids who are very diligent in their defensive work, when you’re able to intercept the ball and be able to move forward, I feel very confident being able to have the freedom to move forward knowing that Dax and Godoy are shifting over and standing in that vacated space. So it’s been fun to get to move into the attack a little bit more, and have that freedom to do that. At the end of the day, it’s just trying to make plays and do it in a smart way. I’ve gotten caught a couple times this year that we’ve talked about, and it’s my job to make sure that when I do go forward, it’s in a smart and controlled manner, and that’ll be no different in this game, especially in the playoffs as we move forward.
“With the national team, it was great to see them back in action. Really exciting, a lot of debuts, a lot of young kids getting opportunities to play. I know the staff and everyone else involved was just so excited to get back out there after about 10 months off. It was fun to watch them play, fun to watch them compete, and I know that when the next camp rolls around, hopefully a lot of MLS guys will be looking forward to doing the same.”
What has allowed Alistair Johnston to succeed in his rookie year?
Smith: “He’s entered into this group and made a very, very good impression from the very outset. I think that starts with the way that he approaches every day at work: he’s a very professional young man. Looks after himself, he’s very focused, he works and trains as he plays. And therefore I believe his game has improved incrementally because of that.
I also think that, when you’re a young player, and you’re looking for your opportunity, two things are very, very important: the first one is that, when that opening comes along, that you step into that void and that moment, and you’re able to show what you’re about, and he did that. He gained everyone’s trust, and has moved forward very nicely because of it. The second part of it is, I think when you’ve got players around you – of course Walker being one of them on the call here – when you’ve got players around you that you can lean on, you can certainly look and almost gain their experiences and guidance from, that helps enormously.
“In Walker, we have an individual that brings more out of players, as well. There are two types of players in this game: there are players that do their own job and they do it well, and there are players that do their own job and get more out of others, as well. The ones that get more out of others are the individuals that you really want and need in the team. The more of them you’ve got, the more chance you’ve got of winning, because they’re not quite as insular as the others. And I think at this point, Alistair’s been able to lean on Walker, and Dave [Romney], and Daniel [Lovitz], and of course Dax and Aníbal in front, and those experiences have been very, very helpful from him. That’s taking nothing away from his own game and his own qualities, and he’s got a very bright future.”
What have you seen change since the two Miami games with their personnel additions and how do you assess them?
McCarty: “I would say that they have definitely changed slightly. I think the addition of Higuaín gives them a real focal point in the attack. I think it was no secret that before he got there, they had a little bit of a rotating door in terms of who their striker was, and kind of mixed-and-matched a couple of different bodies in there. I think they probably scored a few more goals than we did, but they also struggled a little bit in attack. You can see that he – while he hasn’t scored as many goals as he probably would have hoped – he still is a really, really smart player. He drops into the midfield a lot, and he connects a lot of things they going forward.
So he’s obviously a big addition for them, [Blaise] Matuidi’s starting to find his form. I think Lewis Morgan has really actually taken it up a notch, their winger. He’s probably been their best player this whole season. We talked about him a little bit, being a very dangerous player that we have to account for at al times. They’ve changed a little bit. They still want to be a team that dominates possession and dominates the ball. We’ll see what their tactics are coming on the road, coming into Nashville where we’ve been really good.
“And then I think the only other question mark for us – and something that we have to prepare for – is what formation they’re going to play. They’ve played with four in the back, they’ve played with three in the back that sometimes turns into a back five. So we’re very confident in the things that we’ve done all year. We’ve very confident when we play at home. We respect the very good players that they have, but we realize that when the game is in Nashville, we have the utmost confidence that we can go and win the game, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
How big a factor has Dave Romney been in your success this year?
Zimmerman: “It’s huge. As I touched on earlier, you can’t win these kinds of awards without a lot of help. Dave’s certainly been a rock for us in the back playing every single minute of every game, which is such a testament to him and the work that he’s done this year. I said as soon as I got traded, I reached out to him. I’d gotten to see him as a player for the Galaxy, and knew that he probably had a huge chip on his shoulder for never really breaking in as their starting guy. It was always kind of a revolving door for him, and I told him, ‘look, I am so excited to play with you, because I think what I’ve seen of you at LA Galaxy, I’ve been super impressed with, so I’m excited for this partnership, excited to make it one for years to come.’
“He’s been phenomenal for us this year. You’re right: I would have no chance of winning this kind of award without the guys around me, and Dave is certainly at the top of that list for being a huge part of it.”
What’s the challenge of not getting too tight in a playoff setting, and what is the role like as a favorite in the playoffs?
Zimmerman: “I don’t know that I would look at it as trying to stay loose as much as it is about ‘let’s do what we’ve done every single time we’ve been at home,’ and that’s ‘compete.’ That’s ‘want to win the game.’ Certainly whether it’s different personnel, maybe there’s different conversations of maybe making sure everybody’s focused and ready to go. Ultimately it’s about inspiring the guys to do the work that we’ve done all year at home. That’s just go out and compete, and know that there are going to be plays, and there are going to be situations that the intensity’s just going to be a little bit higher. And that’s how it is in these bigger games, in these bigger moments. Making sure guys don’t put too much pressure on themselves, but that at the same time, they’re aware and focused for every second of the game because in these types of matches, it’s one moment that can change it. Making sure that we’re focused, prepared, but it’s something that we’ve been doing all year, so just leaning into that a little bit.”
McCarty: “Yeah, I would agree with what Walker said about focus and preparation and trying to treat this game like any other game. Obviously, when you step on the field, you know the stakes are a little bit higher, but I think I like to just lean on the experience that we do have in our locker room, and the experience that we have on the sidelines. With our coaching staff having won an MLS cup, I think that is extremely valable, and that will go a long way toward the players’ confidence in the things that the coaches have told us – not just the day of the game, but all season.
“So as far as the favorite or underdog tag: I’m being honest when I say I haven’t once gone into a game this season looking at us as an underdog. I really haven’t. I have looked at us being on a level playing field with every single team we’ve played against, and I don’t think it changes when you’re in the playoffs. I think now that the season is done, we’ve probably gained a little bit more respect and appreciation for the way that we’ve gone about our work throughout the league, and obviously us being strong at home.
“People can look at us however they want to look at us before this game, but the pressure that the outside world puts on us is no more than the pressure we’ll put on ourselves to go and win the game. I think it’s healthy to have that internal pressure on yourself to want and go and be successful, and want to be the team that, when you’re at home, dictates the game and ultimately goes on to win it. So that’s going to be our mindset, that’s going to be our mentality.
“We have a ton of respect for Miami, and what they’ve done this year and the roster they’ve put together. But when we step out on the field, we’re going to be expecting to win the game, and that’s the pressure that we’re going to put on ourselves.”
What is the injury situation with the likes of David Accam in particular after he left the injury report?
Smith: “Nice to have Dave back in the group. He’s been out a good while with an ankle problem, but he’s been involved for the last four-five days. He looks in fairly decent shape, and I think mentally – as you might understand – he feels much, much better about himself, that he’s come through this difficult period. He may be able to offer something for us as we get into this postseason. There’s some choices to be made. The good thing for us is he’s available.
He would have to expect that there’s probably a lack of playing time for him at the moment, but if we can jump this first hurdle and keep this postseason moving, I would think for someone like Dave or maybe one or two of the others that are still not quite right, it gives them a little bit more time, and they can certainly be of big help to the group.
“It’s good to have him back, and we’ll se how the 20 shapes up.”