Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and two of his team leaders – captain Dax McCarty and reigning MLS Defensive Player of the Year Walker Zimmerman – sat down with the media Wednesday afternoon. Watch or read their full comments here.
What were your impressions of the first day of training?
Smith: “Well, first of all, it’s been a fabulous day weather-wise, I think we’ve missed out on some of the difficulties only but a week ago, and we couldn’t have asked for anything more: beautiful, bright, and sunny day, perfect temperature. And first impressions of the group have been fantastic. As expected, the vast majority of the guys – if not all of them – have kept themselves in wonderful condition. I know for sure that there’s been a very large group of the guys that have been getting through a reasonable amount of work leading into this opening day.
“We had our testing – our aerobic testing – today. First looks and first glances, very pleased with where the players are at. All in all, a positive day, and one that we hope we can continue.”
McCarty: “In terms of the offseason and getting back in the first day, it’s just bene fantastic work, I think, from everyone in our group. The first day was brilliant, like Gary said: perfect weather, the aerobic testing went really well. I think you can tell most guys have taken it upon themselves to stay fit, and do a lot of work. I know that myself personally, I was involved in a fairly large group of players that came back into Nashville relatively early on in our offseason to try to get in some individual work, and try to maintain our fitness out on the turf field at Currey Ingram. the sessions, I think, were really bright, very positive, and I think they have set a really nice foundation for us to go on and hopefully not have to do too much fitness work. That’s down to the boss, but I really like where our group’s at right now in terms of camaraderie, and fitness, and the base that I think we’ve set for ourselves going forward into this preseason.
Zimmerman: “Well-said by both Gary and Dax. It was a great day, I was actually really impressed with the overall fitness of the group. We had a bar that was set for us that the coaches wanted to see, and like we’ve said, the majority of the guys hit that number and did more.
“Don’t let Dax fool you either: he crushed this test. He was a top-five performer today, so age is clearly just a number. The ageless wonder Dax McCarty with a phenomenal showing today. It was great, it was good to be back out there with all the guys. Like Dax and Gary said, we’ve had at least 20 guys who have been out there for a couple weeks now, and it’s been competitive, it’s been fun, it’s been kind of rejuvenating to be back with the group, and then obviously today with coaches and getting the complete, entire squad together was just a lot of fun, I think everybody’s excited for what this year, Year Two, has to offer.”
Do you have a thematic emphasis for the team as you prepare for the season?
Smith: “First of all, just trying to piggyback on the whole fitness theme – I think there’s a misconception sometimes that preseason is about just getting fit. The guys set a tremendous bar last year, they came in in very good shape, and that in itself enables myself and the other coaches to really focus on the more technical and tactical side of the group, which I think everyone took onboard incredibly well. This season we know wasn’t as it normally would be, but that gave us a very strong foundation to move on from. It’s no different his year: we asked the guys to be thoughtful and enjoy themselves, but just to make sure that preseason wasn’t just going to be about reaching the levels and maybe the bar that we’d set last year. We want to use this tie to try and push on, and work at some of the things that maybe didn’t go quite as well. There are plenty of those things that we can improve on, but 100% the group have set a certain feel and identity about their play, and that really should be a baseline for what we try and achieve. And today, I think, ticked that box.”
How did the uncertainty of the past several weeks impact your preparation, and what is the relief of having CBS stuff resolved?
Zimmerman: “That’s a great question. I know it’s different for everyone. I know for me, international duty was great for this offseason in particular. The December camp and January camp kind of allows you to keep going and staying in-form and keeping that fitness, and it’s way easier to do that in group settings when you’re training al the time. So with an extended offseason like this, it’s perfect for me, and then it was perfect for the guys who didn’t have international duty because they showed up so early. They’ve had 3-4 weeks to really get into it and hit this season in stride. So that part’s been good.
“I think obviously the CBA negotiations brought about their own stressors, but you’re right: everything is now behind us, and everyone’s just kind of now eagerly awaiting the schedule. We’re excited, we know we’ve got at least six weeks in front of us to prepare, but we’re looking forward to getting some games in and getting going.
McCarty: “To piggyback off that, it is very individualized in terms of how you’re going to go about your offseason program. Myself, the actually was my longest offseason I had since the mid-2000s when I first turned pro, and we only had like 10 teams in MLS, and so the season ended in September and the you had like five months to just hang out. As opposed to what I did back then, which was just go home and do absolutely nothing for five months, I took it upon myself to make sure I had a little bit of a break, recharged the batteries a little bit, spend a good amount of time with family, and then as soon as the new year hit, I wanted to come back in-market, and I wanted to hit the ground running because we didn’t have a preseason start date.
“So in my mind – getting up there in age a little bit – I wanted to make sure that I still was doing everything that I could to stay as fit as possible. As you get older, you have to continue to try to raise the bar. You have to work a little bit harder to try to keep up with these young bucks. Contrary to what Walker said, it’s not easy getting those good beep test scores and keeping up with these teenagers in some instances that we have on our team. I always take it as a challenge. Individually, I continue to try to push myself. I feel really good about the work that I did in the offseason, but also like Walker said, our team coming in when we didn’t have to, getting upwards of 15-20 players when we didn’t have to train is I think a really nice cherry on top of what we accomplished last year, and try to push the envelope a little bit further this year, so we want to get a good head start on that.
“In terms of the CBA talks: very stressful, very frustrating like they always are. This one felt especially tense: from the ownership side, the way they decided to kind of negotiate in public. Certainly brought on a little bit more frustration and stress. But ultimately, cooler heads prevailed like they have in the past. We put it behind us, and we move forward, and like Walker said, we look forward to the schedule release, so now we can have tangible games that we look forward to.”
What parallels do you see between the second year of USL and MLS – especially as it relates to adding attacking pieces – and what are your expectations for the attack?
Smith: “I’ve always said that the creative and goal-scoring elements of any team tend to take a little bit longer to – not just to come to the fore – but for you to be able to replicate that time and time again. That connection, appreciation. There’s connection to be had all over the field, but I always think that the final attacking third can sometimes be, and in most cases, the most difficult piece of the puzzle to keep reproducing. As far as adding players, strengthening the group, there’s no doubt about it: we’re constantly on the lookout for individuals that are going to improve the team, that are going to raise the bar.
“Were we somewhat lightweight in that area and department? I would say yes. Not just the fact that we want to improve on our goalscoring ratios, but I think competition is a massive piece in that part of the field. We often see that any rotation in or otherwise in a game – or game to game – often happens in that area of the field. I don’t think you can ever have enough forwards that are pushing each other to try and raise that bar, and we’ve tried to do that this offseason. My hope is that in a similar fashion – and Mike alluded to it – a lot of the other qualities stay, they are reinforced, and we appreciate the seriously good work that was done as a team in our first year. And if we can add or offer the opportunity of continuity – which we’re going to get with a lot of players remaining: let’s not forget that tie together should in most cases offer reward and better understanding, and my hope is that we can find some percentages there as well to help push, and constantly test the quality of the team and what we can achieve.”
Where were the areas where you saw competition push you guys late last season?
McCarty: “I think the good thing about our group is that the level of competition is always really high. I don’t think that any one player on our team goes into any game thinking that they’re a surefire starter unless they prove it in training the week before, and in the training sessions leading up to the game. I think that we’ve proven, especially with Gary and the coaching staff, that we do have depth, and we do have the capability of rotating the group and keep it fresh.
“Obviously every team picks up little injuries here and there. But when we started to get our main key attacking players back and healthy – we had Hany miss a little bit of time, we had Randall miss a little bit of time, even guys like Badji and Ríos – when we started to get guys really fully healthy towards the end of the season, and then when we added Jhonder and he started to get a little bit more fitness towards the end of the season, you could see – and I want to mention Alex Muyl in this, too. Muyl who came in and gave our group a lift – these are guys that, when they’re all fully healthy, they’re constantly pushing each other and they’re constantly making it tough on the other guy to drop their level. When you have that type of competition – speaking mainly in the attacking part of the field – then guys have to stay sharp. And I think that you saw us put together some really nice attacking displays towards the end of the season to go along with what is a record-setting defense. When you can do that consistently, you’re going to gain confidence. We just kept gaining confidence each game that went a little bit deeper into the season, and getting players back from injury was obviously a really big catalyst for that.
Zimmerman: That’s really well-said, and I don’t have much to add to that, but just again highlighting thinking back to last year, they road win in Houston where we had pretty much a full-squad rotation. They go in, get a massive three points for the team, come back. We’ve had so many games, we go to New England away, we rotate some more guys, 0-0 draw against a team that had won eight straight or something like that – or were undefeated in eight straight.
“So those were bog turning points. Guys were – again, the competition has always been there – some guys got their chance, and what they did with it was massive for us, and kind of kept some momentum going, gave us some momentum, and then again, as guys got healthy, we started putting in some more goals toward the end of the year and confidence just kept going up.”
What is the upside for the guys who weren’t fully healthy last year? What can some of the new guys add?
Smith: “We saw in limited playing time when our – it’s been publicized – when our three more designated individuals in the attacking half of the field were playing together, there was some very nice reward. So, that type of connection and understanding it something that I think we all would like to see in a more consistent way. But the two guys on here have mentioned it already: if you can have depth to your group, if you can have confidence and trust in players that can come in and earn points, then you can keep individuals at a level, at a sharpness, at a match pace that is constantly difficult to play against. Every player wants to play week-in and week-out. But I think last year was an example of how tough it can be. The two guys on this screens here had to suffer more than anyone in terms of playing time. Flying in on the day, playing mid-week consistently: if you’ve got the opportunity to rotate, it’s beneficial not only for the group, but for performance. The front line, if it can stay sharp and it can stay active, then it certainly drags more out of the individuals, and it pulls the team higher up the field. You see many, many times where you have fatigued forwards, and the group plays too deep – whatever group that is. And our aim, as much as we possibly can, is to keep that bright and buoyant and effective, and I think we’re in a much better position to try and do that and achieve that this year.”
Are there specific aspects of your game to add to or improve this offseason?
Zimmerman: “Yeah, there’s always things that we need to work on as players. Whether it’s opening up range of passing, precision of passing, one-on-one defending, goal-scoring opportunities: whatever it is. So for me, I look at last year and I’m not happy that we didn’t lead the league in goals allowed. That’s always a massive goal for me every year on an individual level, and yeah sure, back four, back six and the goalie, whatever it is, whole team. But I think that’s just a massive goal for me every year, is ‘can we allow the fewest goals in the league?’ and ‘can we get the most shutouts in the league?’ Because if you do those two things, you’re making the playoffs. You’re not going to find a team that lets in the fewest goals and doesn’t make the playoffs. That gives you a chance to move forward in the postseason, and I was really happy. Gary brought it up today, but not allowing a goal in the postseason until the extra time. Those are the kind of things that we need to replicate and we need to do.
“Another thing that I think we did really well last year was – with the exception of one game, where we gave away a really, really late goal, and it was against Houston – in terms of seeing out results, I think we did a very good job. Those are – again – things that we’re looking to replicate. So for me, it’s focusing on fewest goals allowed in the league, always improving my passing and ability on the ball and decision-making. I look at a couple of individual mistakes that cost us goals, and ultimately cost us results, so eliminating the turnover in Columbus, eliminating the turnover in Atlanta: those are two goals that were on me 100%. The goal is always to have zero of those.”
McCarty: “I really was able to spread my attacking wings against Miami for that goal I scored. I’m hoping Gary sees that and kind of allows me to build off that a little bit more, you know? Maybe get me watching videos of Frank Lampard getting into the box, that’s a big goal of mine. No, that was a joke, guys.
“In all seriousness, like Walker said, you can always improve on little things here and there. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a pro: the minute you get complacent and the minute you think that you’ve mastered certain areas of the field is the minute that you’re going to start losing games and get passed by. So little things here and there: being able to defensively win duels, win tackles in the middle of the field. I think Aníbal Godoy is a tremendous defensive presence for us in the middle of the field, and I want to make sure I’m pulling my weight in there in terms of two guys who kind of make it almost like a black hole when other teams want to come into the middle of the field. Obviously we know how strong our defense is, but if we can be that first line of defense after the ball bypasses our attacking players, if we can make sure that we’re kind of gobbling up any second balls, winning duels, winning aerial duels, winning battle in the middle of the field: that’s essentially where games are won and lost, and I thought we did a pretty good job of that for the most part, but I think you can always improve on that. And that’s something that’s a big goal of mine. Get a little stronger in the weight room, make sure that you’re constantly winning those tackles and those battles.
“And then on the flipside of it, I always set a really high bar for myself in terms of my passing individually. I don’t really look at things like completed passing percentage as a type of metric for how good I played. I always look at: am I breaking lines, am I putting other players – mainly attacking players – into positions to be dangerous, and to create goal-scoring opportunities for us. That’s something that I always want to improve on, and that I always want to get better at. But there’s a balance there, right? You have to make sure that you’re aggressive in your passing, but also that you’re not losing the ball unnecessarily for your team. So these are little things that I have in my head for individually how I can improve and try to get better for the team.
“As far as the team is concerned, I think we know where our foundations are defensively. We want to continue to build off those, but in the attacking half of the field, I think if we can improve on that, and if we can add more danger and more goals to our repertoire, we’re going to be very good next year. So that’s just a few individual and team goals that hopefully we can improve on.”
What are your expectations for the new additions to the team, and what would you lioke to see from them – and the whole team – during preseason?
Smith: “I think in those two guys [Piñeiro and Sapong] we’ve added not only some quality but some dimensions that we might have missed last year. Certainly with Rodrigo, he’s much more direct in his play, and his style, I think, complements the guys that we have in the team, and brings more out of the players that we had last year. I hope that’s as big a dimension as any as we move forward. I think I’ve already touched on the subject of keeping the front players under pressure. CJ’s record speaks for itself. He’s won championships, he’s been in some very good teams, he’s an incredibly genuine and honest guy, and I think he will drag not only more out of other people, but he’ll be desperately disappointed if he is not playing. That’s the challenge that I want, and I think all the players need: they need to be pushed, they need to know that there’s someone breathing down their neck. We’re like every other team. We have players that when they’re in that position, we’ll get more out of them.
“The younger guys have got more potential. Both Nick [Hinds] and Robert [Castellanos] have played 50-plus USL games. We’ve seen before with our recruitment last year that guys like Anunga, and LaGrassa, and Washington to name but three, if you get the right types, if you get the right individuals, they can certainly add to the group, and take up valuable minutes. But they’ve got to get the job done properly: there’s not use in adding players that just fill gaps. So potentially, there’s a really big opportunity for those two lads.
“Bryan [Meredith] I think comes with a nice bit of experience in this league. For a goalkeeper, he’s at a really good age: around that 30 mark where he’s seen a lot, he’s done a lot, he’s been in a lot of groups. When called upon, if called upon, I’m sure he’ll be double-ready to step into this group and maintain the sort of standards that we’ve seen last year from Joe.
“So there’s a lot of expectation around all of those players. And I think probably the other lad that you’ve forgotten maybe to mention is Luke Haakenson. Luke went away last year to Charlotte, he’s part of our roster this year, he’s had a fabulous offseason, there’s been an awful lot of work as we’ve mentioned. He looks sharp, and for those young players, if they hit the ground running, the preseason games will offer a great opportunity for them to shine. Because they’ll be in a much better place physically, they can take advantage of that, and they can get themselves in the front of the coaches’ minds.”