Nashville SC

Postgame presser: Gary Smith, Randall Leal, and Dax McCarty after 3-0 playoff win over Inter Miami

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and two of his goal-scorers (whither art thou, Hany Mukhtar?) met with the media after their team’s 3-0 dismantling of Inter Miami CF. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Well, an absolutely fabulous night for everyone. I’m not sure it could have gone more to-script. An incredibly fast start and a great first twenty minutes, an absolutely cracking goal from Randall Leal coming off of his international duty. And to be honest, I thought a very good 20-25 minutes: we were able to reinforce that first goal and get ourselves in a very, very decent spot coming in to the break. Dax’s goal had all the hallmarks of such a leader in the group, striding from the halfway line, aware of everything around him, and finishing with the sort of caliber and quality that we know he has. And it was just a fabulous night. The moments that we had to batten down the hatches and defend well, we did, and I thought we showed all the qualities that were necessary to win a playoff game.”

How happy were you to be able to play Jhonder Cádiz, Randall Leal, and Hany Mukhtar – your three designated players – on the field together?

“Well, there’s been one or two difficulties with those guys in different areas. Jhonder came into the group in the summer window; physically, athletically, he wasn’t where he needed to be, and there was some work to be done. I think you have seen how we’ve all tried to move Jhonder into working and giving us more minutes. Hany’s had his own physical problems: one or two groin and hamstring issues, and that really sort of plays into maybe his transition from Europe to the U.S. and travel. Randall really has given us – if you like – the most minutes and match play out of the trio. I think what we were able to see for a short period in Orlando was that: when those three guys are on the field, there’s a synergy and a connection that takes the group to another level. And I have to be honest I thought all three of them in the opening 20-25 minutes in one way, shape, or form were instrumental in us being two-nil up.

“Johnder’s physical presence and power – to either secure possession or give us an opportunity to get in-behind and beyond. Hany was… I thought he was involved in just about everything that went on in possession in the first 20-25 minutes: did wonderfully well to earn the penalty. And of course, Randall’s goal was exquisite. It was just exactly what you would want and need in a playoff situation.

“So, It’s taken some time, not of necessarily anyone’s doing, but I think the fact that, you know, we’ve been able to slowly-but-surely get to this point and then to see some rewards tonight in the most difficult of scenarios – in a playoff game – and under the most
pressure, the guys have produced.”

What was your mindset and message with a 2-0 lead at halftime? Did you feel like you’d need the third to ensure Miami would mount a comeback?

“Two-nil’s a dangerous scoreline. I think we all feel that. If they’re able to get themselves back in the game, there’s not much of a buffer there. And a third goal probably puts pay to any comeback. So, I think we all knew and felt – especially the way the first half finished, they changed their shape after the first 30 minutes – I felt we came off the real sort of boiling point that we were on for 25 minutes, and they started to get back in the game, and they showed some of the qualities that they have. And I think we all felt that they were going to do their very utmost, of course, to commit more bodies forward and to be a little bit more aggressive, and the third goal was going to be instrumental in where this game moved and ultimately ended up.

“So there was a little bit of anxiety in the changing room – not so much about the way were were playing, but more so about trying to achieve that third goal – but I think there were a couple of things in the latter part, later in that first half, that we just needed to try and take a little bit more advantage of. We were a little bit sloppy in our build-out, went a little bit too long too often in that final 15 minutes of the half, there weren’t many chances taken – and I completely understand that from the group, we’re in a good spot two-nil up – but as you saw the second half unfold, there were some really nice passages of play.

“I thought we built out two or three time really really well, and showed – I think – a different side to us. I think some of the guys are not given enough credit for some of the quality that there is in the group. And you’ve seen just about every facet needed to win an important game tonight.”

How did you get out to such a fast start against a team that wants to dominate possession?

“Well first of all, I must say I can’t imagine that their week has been straightforward at all. I think we’ve all seen some of the sort-of tweets and news about some of the difficulties that they’s encountered. So, you know: credit to them. They’ve still got a very strong squad, and if we look at the likes of Matuidi and Pizaroo still on the field, and firing on all cylinders, they’re a very good side.

“The simple fact is, when you get a bit more time – and we’ve had 12 days to prepare for this game – you get the opportunity to get the right balance of rest, and tactical, technical, and athletic work, aerobic work, within those 12 days. And throughout that period of time – after a terrific win in Orlando – the feel around the group was, you know, you could almost touch it. There was excitement, there was anticipation, there was a lot of real energy that worked towards this game. And we got through some very good work. And I think that played into the first 25 minutes, but no mistake about this: the game – other than maybe the energies the guys bring to it – the game is brought to life with a moment of brilliance from Randall. The strike that takes us into the lead gives everyone a big lift and gets us on the front foot again, and gets us believing that we can achieve exactly what we felt was in front of us and available to us from the very outset.”

How do you prepare for a single knockout game against a Toronto team that you haven’t seen at all this year?

“They’re a top side: when we start talking about elite teams in MLS, this Toronto team have to be spoken in that category. Championship-winning teams have just about every quality that you need – otherwise you don’t lift silverware. They’re well balanced, they’re competitive, they’re organized. They have pace, they have power, they have some terrific individuals who are capable of
turning the game on its head in a moment. And it will be a very, very tough game.

But, I think if you look at how we’ve adapted and how we’ve managed to evolve in our development and as a team, we’ve
gone away from some tough places and we’ve made not only competitive games, but we’ve gone and scored goals, we’ve managed games well. And I think we’ve also shown the sort of qualities you need to win on the road. Appreciating that they’re not actually at home and in Hartford, Connecticut, you know they’ll know that area and the field and the surroundings pretty well, but it isn’t home. And we have to do our very utmost to try and unsettle them and make life difficult and bring the game our way and make it the sort
of game that we can take advantage of.”

Did this seem like the first time since the coronvirus stoppage that you had your full team available and firing on all cylinders at the same time?

“I think your’e right, yeah. When I looked at the group going out tonight, there’s been some guys that have come onto the field that have done a fabulous job, and still have this evening when we’ve needed that extra push. But as I looked at the group that started, I’m not sure we can be much stronger. You know, there’s one or two areas that if we replaced an individual, you might say, ‘OK, well not a lot will change.’ But I think the really important part that was mentioned earlier is having your DPs on the field. And with Jhonder, Hany, and Randall all on the field at the same time, there’s an air of expectation there’s a different feel about the group. The guys, you know I think, look at what we’re capable of, and go into the game with far more vigor. I think you saw that in the first 20-25 minutes: we started on he front foot, we played some terrific football, we played at a good pace, we were ultra-competitive. And I think, to be perfectly honest: looking back now, the game was won in 20-25 minutes, and that’s real credit to the way the guys went about their business.”

What information have you been given on Aníbal Godoy’s status after leaving the game with injury?

“Yeah, he came off against ORlando with a tight hamstring, and over the last 12 days, we’ve nursed ghim through that and got him to a point where, to be perfectly honest, he’s morning, noon, and night has been working to get himself fit, and to be in the right place. He’s looked great, and the crazy thing is, he was about three minutes away from coming off.

“I don’t quite know the full extent of it. I’m disappointed that obviously, he’s been forced off. But I think what we’ll find out is how bad it is, in the next 24 hours or so. At this point, it’s difficult to work out if he’s got a muscle strain, or it’s just severe tightness. If it’s the latter, there’s a good chance he’ll be available for Tuesday, and if it’s the first one, I guess there won’t be much chance in the quick turnaround?

He’s been important to your effort this season?

“He’s been unbelievable. He’s been an integral part of how we’ve moved, developed, and what we’ve become. He’s just a top, top player. He’s a terrific professional, as well. He’s a great character, and he’s given us incredible stability on and off the field.”

Winger Randall Leal and midfielder Dax McCarty

Leal: “OK, we are really happy, because we won – it is what we want. For me, it was a little bit difficult because I didn’t train with the team. But I think this is the proof then that we are a group, you know. OK, it is one step more, and I think we need to keep working like this, and to get the result. Now we have a difficult game away, and we have to correct the mistakes and be sharp for this game.”

McCarty: “Wow. I am very impressed with Randall’s English, this is amazing stuff man, this is good stuff here. I couldn’t have said it better myself: I’m really happy with the way we started the game, obviously started really brightly. Got just a fantastic goal from Randall, and that really gave us confidence and set us on our way. First 20-30 were really bright from us and I thought we were deserved to be up two-zero. You know, Miami: they’ve had some issues. I think that they switched formations and I think that it helped us in the beginning and then they switched back to a more-familiar formation – 4-3-3 – and I thought they were a little bit tougher to deal with when they went back and they had a little bit more possession.

“We did what we’ve been doing well all season: we stayed compact, we waited to hit them on the counter-attack. Obviously in the second half I thought there were tons of openings for us to extend the lead even further: you know go from three-zero to four-zero, four-zero to five-zero, but we weren’t as clinical. But if you scored three goals at home – especially with the way that our defense has played all year – you expect to win the game, no question about it. Really happy with the performance and the result. Now we have to recover and get ready for one of the better teams in the league in Toronto.”

What did you experience over the course of this week from playing with Costa Rica in Spain Monday, finding out that you could play is you hustled back to the US, and then starting the game without being able to train with your team?

Leal: “I’m always talking, you know, with my teammates, to my teammates about what they did during the week. They explained to me a little bit. Also, yesterday, I spoke with Gary to know what he wants for this game. I think I was ready to start with the team, and this is the thing and this kind of moment: to be honest, and to be available if you can play, or if you think maybe you can sit on the bench. I talked with him to say that I was ready to play, because I played 45 minutes Monday. Yeah, so this is the moment to be honest, and see how is it better for the team.”

What was it like to finally get out on the field for a starting appearance alongside Hany and Jhonder?

Leal: “It’s always for me a pleasure to play with all of these guys: Hany, Jhonder, of course Derrick [Jones]. This season was a little bit different because we played with all the centrales, all the attackers, all the wingers so I think it doesn’t matter who plays. I think we are in a good position, we are in a good sharp [chemistry] with all the players, and I think it doesn’t matter if I play, or Hany or Derrick: you see. When we go out, the players that come in always try to give the same level. It is important for us.”

Did this game become the point where you feel like you really exceeded any real preseason expectations?

McCarty: “Well, you always have confidence in yourself. You always believe in your group. I don’t think you really know exactly what you have until you step on the field and start playing. And while we were in preseason, I could see that there were some really encouraging signs, there were some really pieces. It’s just a matter of how those pieces are going to come together and jell and take to the coaches’ tactics.

“I think that some teams kind of go up-and-down throughout the season, especially expansion teams. There can be a little bit of inconsistency, sometimes they’re up here, and sometimes they’re down at the bottom. The thing I like about our team is that we’ve constantly raised our level throughout the year. I thin kwe’ve constantly been on an upward trajectory, and I think we’ve really hit a good vein of form into the playoffs.

“So it feels good. I’ve had confidence – like I said – in this group since day one. This is just the firsrt step. The thing that I like about our group was, in the locker room after the game, you know, we’re happy, we celebrate with each other, we’re like a family. But once we’re done tonight, we move on and we focus on Toronto. I think that there’s more out there for us. I think that we can continue to surprise people and go deep into these playoffs.”

What did you see on the play that resulted in your goal?

McCarty: “Yeah, I – as you guys know – I don’t score many. So it was a little bit of a surprise, obviously, when the ball went in the net. But when I picked up the ball in midfield, I knew I had a little bit of space. I could hear Walker [Zimmerman]’s loud voice behind me yelling ‘go, go, go.’ So, I took his advice and I just started dribbling. I knew that to my left was Dan Lovitz making a good run up the left-hand side and I knew that he was always going to be the option that I wanted to play. It was just a matter of what [Miami defender] Alvas Powell did. And he continued to drop, drop and I figured he would cut off the inside and make me play the pass to Dan, but he never did that. And so, once I got close to the top of the box I figured ‘why not, they’re continuing to drop, they don’t respect my ability to score goals’ – which is fair enough; I can’t blame them. But I just wanted to keep the ball on frame, hit it good and try and follow in Randall’s footsteps to put our team on our way to victory. So it felt really good when it went in. I don’t score many, don’t expect to score many, but when I do its always a nice surprise.”

After another clean sheet, how important is Walker Zimmerman to the excellence of the back line?

McCarty: “Yeah, Walker’s been fantastic. I mean, that’s obvious: he won defender of the year rightfully, for a reason. It’s not just him scoring goals, it’s not just the way that he helps marshal the backline, it’s the intangibles that he brings. It’s the way that he is in the locker room. He’s a student of the game, he’s a leader, he’s a guy that never wants to lose: even in training, everything is a competition with him. I think that type of attitude is infectious throughout the whole team.

“It’s pretty obvious that we built our team from the back forward, and we laid a really solid foundation. once we made the trade for Walker, it became up another level from what we already had. So I think – not just Walker, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our whole backline, who throughout the whole season, it hasn’t mattered who has stepped in. Whether that’s Brayan Beckeles, Eric Miller, Jalil Anibaba, obviously Dave Romney and Dan Lovitz have been so good. I think Walker said it best: you can’t have a great season as a defender without having other really good pieces around you. So all those guys in the backline and Joe Willis deserve a ton of credit. Joe Willis had a fantastic season: he should have been in the running for goalkeeper of the year, and it’s a shame that he wasn’t.

“The good thing about our team is that nobody cares about individual accolades. People just want to win as a group, and that’s it.”

Do you think this team has what it takes to make it all the way to MLS Cup Champions?

Leal: “Always, always. To think like this – if we don’t think like this, it’s better to stop here. I think this is the conviction we have on the team. OK, we need to go step-by-step. Now we take one step, Tuesday we have another difficult game. Everything can happen, it’s only one game. So this is the conviction that we have to play with, that we need to have. I think we are in a good sharp [place]. We are a good team. This is the most important: we are a group. Like I say, everything can happen.

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