Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and defender Alistair Johnston met with the media to preview their upcoming game against Toronto FC. Watch or read their full comments here.
How do you prepare for a playoff game on a quick turnaround?
Smith: “Well, not much time to rest on our laurels and get excited about the result on Friday night. We were back in the following day, and the starting group were straight into a bit of a regeneration and the rest of the group were making sure that they’re fit and ready and sharp and able. But we have to be as appreciative, as respectful, and as prepared as we can be for a very, very good Toronto team. Really and truly that process started today, although more so verbally and visually rather than practically. And we’ll continue that out onto the field with a more in-depth scouting look at Toronto tomorrow.
“As you might imagine, the players are in a really good frame of mind, and the atmosphere’s certainly boiling towards Tuesday again. Everyone will be fully ready.
What is it like preparing to play your childhood favorite team, and what is your plan to stop them Tuesday?
Johnston: “It’s funny: I remember when they first came into the league when I was a little younger, and I remember Danny Dichio when he scored the first-ever goal, and they still chant about that. So I’ve kind of seen them from the very beginning.
“So yeah: the development that they’ve had, and the success that they’ve had for the past couple years just shows that they’re a club that’s run pretty well. They know what they’re doing up there, and for us, that’s kind of – I guess you could say – footsteps that we’re trying to follow in as a club as well, because that’s where you want to be. You want to be competing for championships every year.
This is kind of the first step in Nashville SC’s chapter in history, I guess you could say, and towards making that next step to being a team that’s competing for championships. It starts on Tuesday night. If we can keep the momentum going that we started by beating Miami, I think that’s another great step in the right direction.
I do remember with Toronto, is that those first couple years were difficult. And I think that us as a club, as an expansion team we’ve done very well to make the playoffs. But again, we’re not going to settle for that. This group of guys is a pretty determined and experience group, that making the playoffs was never the end goal, there’s always been loftier expectations than that. So that’s the goal: it’s just continue taking it day-by-day, and hopefully continue to keep winning games.”
Is it bittersweet to play the hometown club but have the game outside of your hometown? Especially since there are no Tim Horton’s in the State of Connecticut?
Johnston: “No Tim Horton’s? Wow. I guess that makes sense.
“I think I dodged a bullet in some ways – a lot of people would say, ‘you would have had the family there.’ Yes I would’ve, but I would have had to go around all the older guys and try and bum all the tickets off of them, so I dodged that bullet a little bit. It’s a little bit bittersweet: it would have been pretty cool to go home and play in Toronto. It’s funny how it comes full circle is our last match was actually going to be against Toronto FC before COVID really shut everything down. Both times that I was kind of eyeing potentially being able to play in the homeland, it’s been shut down. But you know what? That’s how it is.
“Maybe we can use it to our advantage with there not being a crowd there, because I’ll tell you what: TFC, when they’re in the playoffs and they get a pretty good atmosphere going in BMO field. So I think it’ll be – still they’ll have some type of atmosphere, I bet they’ll have some crowd noises pumped in there or whatever’s going on – they’ll have a homefield advantage, but we’re just looking forward to it. A little bittersweet, for sure.”
Do you expect to have Aníbal Godoy available?
Smith: “I think ultimately, Drake, that one’s going to be maybe a little bit of a bridge too far. We’ll live in hope. Aníbal’s recovery is underway, and it’s maybe not quite as serious as we first expected. But I think with the short turnaround, it’s going to be a tough one to get Aníbal readty.
“But you know, he’ll be replaced with one of the bodies that you’ve seen throughout the year. I think we’ll get a sterling job done in that area. For sure, if he’s to miss out, he’ll certainly be sorely missed.”
You were preparing to go to Toronto before the shutdown began. What has changed for Toronto in the months between that shceduled trip and finally playing them on the road?
Smith: “I think like a lot of teams, Tim, they’ve rotated players with the schedule being so full and ongoing – the midweek games, and the travel, etc. So I think we’ve seen a number of bodies go through that group. I know they’ve had their own problems with injuries and omissions. The center forward area is one of those. At centerback, you’ve seen multiple combinations, and indeed – they had a couple of players, I think, miss out in the last game of the season.
“They’ve also, I’m sure, had their difficulties in making their new home in Hartford, Connecticut, rather than being able to travel back. I can’t imagine it’s been great for any of those Canadian teams, but they’ve done a terrific job. I know their season probably didn’t end the way they wanted it to, but let’s be honest: if you’re fighting for the shield on the last day, you’re not doing a bad job.
“This group at full strength, I think, are as good as it gets, and their record will tell us that. I think they’ve taken part in the last three championship games. They’ll be no easy task, that is for sure. I do also think that there will be one or two things, of course, in a playoff game that will have an impact. One will be personnel for them – if they’ve got everyone fit and available, then that’ll be a challenge for us. If they haven’t, like a lot of other teams, whilst they’ve got a very good squad, I’m sure they’ll be feeling as though there’s areas that they might be a little more vulnerable.
“We’ll see exactly what gets turned out on the day. But either way, we know that with such an experienced group of players, and as experienced as you get in the playoffs, we’ll have to be fully ready.”
How do you compensate for the absence of Godoy?
Smith: “I think as you’ve seen throughout this second phase of our scheduling, we’ve had two or three different bodies go in there: the likes of Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa have done a sterling job in that midfield area. Of course, Derrick Jones is more than capable of fulfilling that role.
“I think the question that only I can answer is, given Aníbal’s experience – and his relationship with Dax, I thin kthe pair of them have formed a wonderful relationship in there and they give us an awful lot on and off the ball – is against a very talented and capable Toronto team, and in that central area of the field, you know you look at [Alejandro] Pozuelo’s work and the abilities that come through the experience through [Michael] Bradley, that central area of the field is very instrumental for them.
“My challenge is: how do we make that a more difficult place to navigate, whilst also keeping some of our own qualities and abilities that you’ve seen over the last, four, five, six weeks? Our form’s improved, we’re scoring goals, so I’ve got a little bit of a conundrum, but I’ll have a Plan A and a Plan B. We’ll find out more about Aníbal tomorrow. If it’s negative, then I’ve gotta go to Plan B.”
What have you seen from Ayo Akinola, particularly as he compares to Daryl Dike, who you’ve seen a couple times this year?
Smith: “I think it’s a nice comparison: the fact that they’re both younger forwards and have made such a bright impact on the league early in their careers. From what I’ve seen – and I’ve only seen Akinola from a distance – he had a terrific Orlando tournament where he burst onto the scene.
“He looks to me as if, whilst he has a lot of similar physical characteristics, I won’t know of course until I get up close to him, he looks like he’s maybe a little bit more mobile than Dike, who himself is no slouch of course. But Dike looks physically, and having seen him up close, he’s a very, very strong boy, uses his body well, and I think certainly from when we’ve played him, has unsettled players with his physicality. They’re both more than capable when they get in and around the goal. But I do think Akinola is a little bit quicker and more willing to run those channels a little bit more.
“How does it effect us? Well, I don’t think enormously. You know, we’ve run into these type of players throughout the seaosn. Our central pairing match up to any central pairing group in the league, and I have more than enough faith – as you might imagine – in not only those two central defenders, but the back four and goalkeeper in general. It is a strong area of our game. They need to continue that good form, that goes without saying. That’s a basis of any winning team in a regular season or playoff.
“We’ll have a nice look at some individual footage with those players, and they can accustomize themselves a little bit more to him. But we’ll do our utmost to obviously try and keep him under wraps.”
Johnston: “I mean, I think Gary hit the nail on the head with that, in terms of the comparison to Dike and stuff. Again, Akinola had a really good Orlando tournament: showed exactly what he can do, and showed he can fit in with that group. Again, I think he’s one of those guys that fits that system really well. Toronto FC’s got a ton of talented guys playing underneath.
“I think it kind of comes from us closing down his service, you know: getting tight on Pozuelo, closing down space in the midfield, and making it difficult to break us down. I think then, once we kind of do that, and kind of make the game a little bit more compact, it really kind of affects these guys, who are just some really talented athletes. But yeah, from what I’ve seen – again, hasn’t been too much yet – another young, bright player in this league. It’s been exciting to watch, and hopefully we’ll be able to shut him down.”
Is there a darkhorse player for Toronto who could impact the game without getting the headlines?
Smith: “To your point, Drake, I think it’s easy to pick out the big names. The fact that Jozy Altidore’s not been playing as much as usual is possibly down to the way that young Akinola’s playing, maybe they’re just protecting him a little bit more, who knows? I can’t make those assumptions from where I sit. What I will say is: just looking at their group, like a lot of good attacking teams – and with ourselves having a very good young fullback sitting on the call with us here – I think they’re a prime example of a team that use outside and fullback areas very, very well.
“They’ve got some nice athletes, they’ve got some very forward-thinking players. And one of the dimensions of their group is those more creative and talented individuals – Pozuelo obviously jumping out of the page. Being able to have options and athletic angles and opportunities to work those players into more aggressive areas. Guys like [Richie] Laryea, I think, have really come on a bundle over the course of this season. Really shown some of their inequalities: athleticism, pace, bright purposeful mind, and with the constructive build-out that these teams – certainly the likes of Toronto – have. It does make for a more challenging picture when you play against them.”
Walker Zimmerman has gotten a lot of press this week, but specifically for you as a young guy, how has he helped you develop during your rookie year?
Johnston: “I mean, he’s been great. I think you guys have heard all year-round from me it’s just: what a guy to just take younger guys under his wing. Makes you feel comfortable, confident. He’s been great just instilling a level of confidence in me. And just playing beside him, and with Joe [Willis] behind us, I brought this up before, you just feel so calm out on the field: you never really and truly feel rushed or worried, because even if you do make a mistake, I mean, you have the Defensive player of the year right behind you, right beside to clean anything up.
“He’s just been an all-around great guy. I think his value in the locker room has potentially even been overlooked. I don’t think people truly give him enough credit for how big of a personality he is, and what he’s really done for us young guys, bringing us into the fold.
“But to be fair, this whole team has been great. I think this veteran core that we have has been – I’m a rookie so I haven’t been in too many locker rooms, but at the same time – you can just tell this is probably a pretty special locker room; you don’t see this everywhere around the league. We’ve been pretty lucky. I think this team’s been assembled really well, and Walker’s a big part of that. Just for me as a right back, playing beside him, has been kind of a dream situation coming in as a rookie, playing with someone that’s just so confident in their abilities and confident in themselves to really lead me and help kind of guide me to that next step in being a pro.”