Nashville SC

Press conference transcript: Smith, Ríos, Mukhtar after Nashville knocks off Toronto

I was not paying attention to your question, and I refuse to answer it.”

Read the full comments from Nashville’s postgame presser (watch the video here). Head coach Gary Smith, goal-scorer Daniel Ríos, and Kobe-assister Hany Mukhtar sat down to chat.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Absolutely sensational evening: another one of those nights – excuse me, I’ve lost my voice, you’re going to have to live with me – another one of those evenings that contained pretty much everything that a playoff game should be about. There was drama, possibly a sending off, opportunities that were scored but not given, that must have been very, very tight. And ultimately, a good winner for us, obviously, in extra time. I could not be more complimentary about the way the guys have gone about their business. Some of the attitude and the discipline around the group was phenomenal, and I honestly felt as though we grew into the game better in the second half. We had a very good spell – probably about 15 minutes into that second period – where Hany [Mukhtar] just edged one over the bar from close range, Jhonder [Cádiz] scored from the free kick and it wasn’t given. And there was a real nice, nice period there and a lot of pressure – and I honestly thought we might have missed out on our opportunity. Absolutely delighted that we’ve gone on to win the game.”

Joe Willis had a great game.

“Are you? …that’s a statement… are you not? Yeah, I would agree with you: he made a terrific save in the first half with probably the best opportunity in the game at that point. And other than the final scramble that I saw, I mean, he was impeccable with his choices, with his distribution. But not many – I didn’t feel as though there were many – outrageously good saves that were made to stop goal-scoring opportunities, in fact, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, to be honest. There were two or three moments that they got into good areas, down the flanks and flashed balls across the box, but to your point, Joe did what he’s done for us all year and, if I am not mistaken, that is his 11th clean sheet. You know, his overall presence in goal is so calming, is such a great support for that really solid back line. Honestly, it’s a great combination. It really is.” 

Is there a little point of pride that Daniel Ríos scores the winner, and other guys who have been with you for a couple years [Derrick Jones, Matt LaGrassa, Taylor Washington) were able to see out the game in the end?

“Of course, Tim. I have a fabulous relationship with Daniel, as I do with a lot of the players. And he can count himself really unlikely that he’s not starting the game. You know, Jhonder’s inclusion in the group has given us a little bit of a different dimension. But I think what you can tell, is when Daniel enters the game, he comes into it, there’s no difficulties, there’s no attitude, he gets on, he does his work, he was effective. And of couse the goal is just the difference, and we were looking to somebody who could offer that for us. So, very pleased for him. Very pleased.”

Did you expect your team to be able to dominate a road game against a higher seed in this manner?

“Well, if you look at the stats on the game., I think in the end we had 21 efforts at goal – which is not a bad stats for a team that are coming away from home against such a rtalented and star0studded group. I think they had 12 efforts and four on-target in 120 minutes, and I certainly as a coach – and I know the group will be – very, very pleased with that stat. We’ve kept two clean sheets now in our two playoff games, but in all fairness, I don’t think in either of the games – unless somebody’s gonna say I’m wrong – that we’ve not been a goal threat. There have been moments where we were under pressure. I think you’d expect that away from home against this team: fabulously talented team. And there were moments where we sensed there was a little bit more for us to go for in the game, and we built some pressure, and created some moments. We actually had the ball in the back of the net three times before we scored. I get it it, you know: they were obviously offside.

“But my point is: to some people, we’re just a one-dimensional group that want to defend and counter-attack. But listen, there were moments in the game we weren’t as productive as I or the guys would have liked, btu a lot of the time, it’s because of really good pressure from the opposing team. and it wasn’t until the second period that we found a better rhythm. And it’s also managing the game. There was an opportunity for Toronto that Joe played out of the back, it bobbled up, Joe played it out, and that may well have been one of their best opportunities. So it is about managing the game as well, and I think the guys are doing a great job of getting that right.”

Does your team have the ability to go all the way and win MLS Cup?

“Look, you know, we take one good victory at a time. It’s been a fabulous night for the team, for the organization, for the fans. And I don’t believe that we have anything – not only not to lose, but an awful lot to be gained through this experience as well. And you can see that the fellows are going about their business and they believe in what they’re doing. And I thought we thoroughly deserved to win the game tonight. Terrific away performance.

“If I’m not mistaken, we go to Columbus now on Sunday. Columbus beat us two-nil; at their place earlier on in the season, and again, are a fabulously talented team, and not easy to play against. But I do think we’re in a very different place mentally and in terms of where we’re at confidence-wise as a group. And my hope is that we can give them a bigger test and ask them a few more questions.

“But in answering your question, honestly we’ll prepare for the Columbus game as we did for this one. We need a little bit of fortune, and you need players to stay healthy and available – and certainly your better ones. We’ll assess any damage tonight, and we’ll regroup, and we’ll be ready. But everyone in that locker room believes we can. Absolutely. There’s not a single play in there that doesn’t believe that we can’t get to the final, and then go on and win it.”

Hany Mukhtar had a fantastic game. What has he brought to this team?

“Everything you’ve said there is absolutely spot-on. He’s a very different player, he’s a natural 10, but he has a tremendous amount of energy and a wonderful team ethic. But we of course rely on him to be creative; we rely on him to be a focal point for a lot of our attacks, and do our very utmost to try and play through Hany. The difficulty for the player has been, I think some adjustment: I’m not sure the season has helped him – the stop-start nature of it – I think the fact that the travel, the heat, the change of environment, the change of personnel and the teammates, have all been big factors in him settling in, staying healthy and getting a run of games.

“But if you look at his last three performances – or in fact four performances or outings: He had a magnificent 45 minutes in Houston, he was a difference maker in the last 15-20 minutes – especially coming off a little bit of an injury -against Orlando. And in the last two games, he’s been outstanding. So you kwow, we’re delighted. He’s feeling more comfortable and he’s displaying all the qualities that we always knew he had.”

What does it say about the attitude and resiliency of your team to not get discouraged when multiple apparent goals come off the board, they see what looks like a red-card offense not called, and all the adversity, and then go on to win it in extra time?

“It’s a great testimony to the way that this group have developed over the course of this season. And I do honestly think that a lot of the challenges that are thrown in front of every team, often do one of two things: the first one is, they break a group, or they fracture a group, and the group fails to meet the expectations of the organization or the coach, and they fall flat because they don’t have enough moral fiber. Or, they go the other way, and they’re able to grow in stature and really live the moment and breathe off the moment, and make so much more of it, and the guys have done it all year. This isn’t the first time tonight.

“So a lot of the stepping stones to getting to this point, I think have really been valuable lessons and experience for us. And when you come away to play at places like this away from home, no fans, top side., everyone out there for them. They’re firing on all cylinders, you keep a clean sheet and you win the game: it’s a tremendous accolade for this first-year group of players.”

Midfielder Hany Mukhtar and striker Daniel Ríos

What happened on the play that resulted in the game-winning goal?

Mukhtar: “All I remember was like, a great ball from Ríos. And we train all the time 1v1s, and this situation. I tried to do my best. Unfortunately, the goalkeeper saved it, but Ríos is a goal-scorer and he scored. So we are very happy.”

Ríos: “Yeah, it was a great play; Hany did great getting away from two defenders. The keeper saved it great, while I found the ball on the six-yard area, inside it, and I scored it. It was just a great moment and we’re really happy we’ve that made it to the semifinals [of the Eastern Conference].”

Does the adversity you guys faced over the course of the game make the goal even sweeter than the average game-winner?

Ríos: “Yeah yeah, it’s better when we have, like, a game like that, becasuse we suffered in small moments in the first half. The team did great, not conceding goals. I did my job, did my part as a sub in the second half trying to lift the team with energy and good choices, good decisions. And at the end, I think I got rewarded, and the team got rewarded, because it was a great team game. I think that our team played phenomenal tonight.”

What were the emotions to get the fifth goal of the year, and what are your expectations for the semifinals?

Ríos: “It felt great: I’m a goal-scorer, my main objective is to scoring goals. That’s why I play, always focused on scoring a goal during the game. I feel great that I had that opportunity. And we feel confidence, but obviously we know that there is a job to do. There are never easy games, every game is different, and we’ll be ready for the semifinal.”

Was there a feeling of relief after you personally had some close calls in the match to finally see one hit the back of the net, and not see the assistant’s flag go up?

Mukhtar: “It was a weird game to be honest. The pitch was not great, we had a lot of problems with the pitch. We had some problems in the game of course, but I think we played very well and we stayed in the game, we tried to create a chance after chance. So I think in the end with all due respect for Toronto – they played a great game – but we deserved a win. Yeah: I’m very happy for Ríos, for the team and we are professional soccer players, and our goal is always to go as far as possible and achieve the most we can.”

How big was this win in the grand scheme?

Mukhtar: “I mean, every playoff game is big to win. First of all. I mean, you win or you have vacation. We’re here to go as far as possible, like I said. So it means a lot for our team, and I think no one really believed us when we always said like, ‘yeah, we are possible to go far.’ I mean, we need to do step by step. Toronto was a great team and we beat them. So yeah, we will give our best against Columbus.”

What has allowed the team to step forward and play with more confidence over the past few weeks?

Ríos: “I think we are a group of players that we are all humble. So with that, that helps the team on the defensive and offensive. There are small details that I think of the personality of the group – each player that we have – that make us a team that is very humble inside the field, and obviously outside of the field. Yeah, for me, it’s a big, big detail that makes us a great team.”

The storyline revolves around an extra-time goal, but how big was Joe Willis’s performance to get you guys there, and Hany, how nerve-wracking was it to see the final sequence from the sidelines after you’d put so much into the game before being subbed off?

Mukhtar: “First of all, that’s the worst part of being a soccer player: when you’re on the bench and you cannot help the team and not do anything, and just hope that nothing happens.

“For me, Joe played an unbelievably good season. We are very, very happy to have him, and I can just give him a lot of – a lot of – credits. [Dan] Lovitz played also a great game, and we know about his strengths. I am very happy.”

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