Nashville SC head coacc Gary Smith and defender – recently re-signed to a contract extension – Eric Miller met with the media today. Watch or read their full comments here.
What is your reaction to having the season opener against FC Cincinnati for the first MLS meeting of the two?
Smith: “First of all, it’s nice to get that first fixture out there. Both teams, I’m sure, with that in mind have something to work for now in preseason: they know where they’re going, they know what their first challenge will be. So, that’s great for us as coaches, and of course a group. I mean, you look at the work that they’ve done in the offseason – they’re been very busy – the changes that have occurred there under Jaap Stam are there for all to see.
“With it being such a local derby as such, and a rivalry that we bring with us from USL – which is of course where we had some pretty tough battles with Cincinnati – my expectation is it will be a very, very tough game as an opener. I don’t think either team will want to get off on the wrong footing. There’s plenty to prove for both. Local derbies are always a difficult game, come what may, and to have it as the opening fixture will add a little bit of spice to it. So, we’ll make sure that our preparations are as thorough as they can be. And of course, we’ll look forward to it when it comes around.”
What does it mean to start with a rivalry game for the second season?
Miller: “Yeah, I think any time you have clubs that have played in USL against each other – we have some guys around still from our USL days that have played Cincy then – now to carry that over into MLS is special. Like Gary was saying, I think they have spent some decent money this offseason to bering some players in. I think they’re going to be a little different group than has been around the last years. I think it’s going to be a big challenge for us from Day One. I think for our group of players to have had that first opponent set to kind of have a goal in mind to look forward to I think helps a lot mentally to kind of get through preseason; it helps our players and our staff to prepare better and have a better understanding of what’s coming in that first game.”
You recently signed an extension with Nashville SC. How exciting is that, and what was the process like of negotiating?
Miller: “I’m very excited. We have a very good group of guys here, a good staff, a lot of good people in the front office. So I think for me, it was a pretty easy decision to come back here. I think it’s very cool to be part of building something, and I think we have a really cool opportunity here to build on what we did last year and to continue going forward. I think to be successful one year is OK, but the goal here is to be successful year-in and year-out, and to constantly be competitive for trophies over a long period of time.
“I think to be able to be part of building something that hopefully goes towards that is a really cool opportunity and I think also a very rare one in MLS. It was a pretty easy decision for me to come back here, and I’m really looking forward to another year with the club.”
How excited are you for Randall Leal to make the Olympic qualifying squad of Costa Rica, and how does it impact your preseason as a team?
Smith: “It’s an incredible opportunity for Randall. He’s been ever-present almost in that Costa Rican group. Delighted for him that he’s got such a standing in the international arena.
“As far as preseason goes, Randall’s going to be gone, I believe from… I think he goes this weekend, looking at my calendar behind me. I think he goes on Saturday the 13th, and we’ll miss him then I believe for pretty much all of our Florida trip and the friendlies down in Florida. We should see him again in that buildup two weeks toward that opening game against Cincinnati. It’s disappointing whenever you lose anyone to any other competitive tournament, but I think we all look at it in a very positive manner here.
“The guys that are going away – and there’ll be others that are representing their country – it’s a great accolade of course, and we’re delighted to have such caliber individuals in the group. So it’s part and parcel of having those players. We’ll adapt, and there’ll be individuals that are given an opportunity to step into that void and show what they’re about. We have plenty of those that won’t mind with one or two other absentees.”
With the defensive reinforcements that you’ve made, do you feel that your personnel may be better-suited to 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 formations?
Smith: “I think all of those possibilities are out there. You saw last year that on a couple of occasions, we shifted gears a little bit and went with a back three. I always like to have a plan B as a lot of teams do. Given the qualities and abilities of some of our players, playing with wingbacks is really something that we can dig into a little bit more this year.
“It was an awful lot of work that went into getting the team ready for last year, and having more or putting more focus into what would be an alternative system just didn’t happen too much in those early weeks and months. But as the season wore on, I think you saw the ability of the players to adapt. There was numerous opportunities for guys to prove what they were about, and I think the epitome of that was in Houston when we went to that back-three shape: I think the guys did a wonderful job, and I know we’ve touched on it numerous times, I’m sure.
“Yes there is [a possibility]. I do think it does depend on the opponent and the situation. Of course injuries and suspensions can have an effect on that as well.”
What memories do you have of the Cincinnati games in USL, and what have you seen from their franchise in their MLS era?
Smith: “I think first and foremost, whether results have gone the right way for the team or not, it’s all part of their journey, not ours. But what you have seen is a turnaround of head coach: Jaap Stam is an incredibly experienced and was – in my eyes – one of the best defenders to have walked this planet since I’ve been here. I’m sure his experiences with some very, very big clubs, he’ll be trying to impart with some of those players.
“It takes some times to sometimes get your message across and see some of those changes come to fruition. What he will have been, I’m sure, encouraged by is the amount of work they can or have done in the offseason, not just through trades, but I think the forward [Calvin] Harris they signed through the college draft was an excellent pickup and has tremendous potential. So I’m sure you know in this preseason he’ll be looking to reinforce some of those messages and really get the guys off on a good footing.
“It won’t be any different to us or any other team. We all want to get our best foot forward, add points to the board quickly, and really start to see some confidence and momentum in the group. So last year’ll be put behind them. Whatever the first year was about will be put behind them, and they’ll see this as a really good opportunity to make a bit of a fresh start with new faces, and get off in a bright and purposeful fashion, I’m sure.”
What did you learn over the course of the 2020 season, and how can those lessons apply as you move forward into 2021?
Miller: “I think 2020 was hopefully – and I think will be – the strangest year I ever play as a professional. I think going from playing two games with fans, to taking a three-month break, to doing a tournament in Orlando, to doing the most congested schedule we’ll ever see, and going that late in the year I think is a really weird experience for all of us. I think it showed a lot about our group that we were able to withstand that many challenges and that we were able to kind of ride the different events throughout the year and still come out in a really good place.
“For me personally, I would obviously have liked to play more, but I’m very happy with how well the team did, and I’m hopeful that I can continue to have – our team can continue to have – success and hopefully I can be a bigger part of it on the field this year. I think having competition within the team is hugely important. I think Gary can attest to this: when he has more than one guy in positions he can trust and that he can rely on, I think that’s really when you start to have good teams. I think our roster’s starting to be built out in a way that there are more than one reliable guy in a bunch of different spots. I think at that point training starts to really matter, performance in games starts to really matter. I think that kind of just causes us all to lift our level a little bit. I think as a player, that’s what you want: you want to have to train hard every day, you want to have to perform in games.
“I think for our group to grow from where we were at in Year One, to grow even more in Year Two, I think that’s going to be very important.”
Going into the second year with an expansion team, what lessons can you take from having already done that in your career with Minnesota United?
Miller: “I think here, we’re in an interesting spot. We’re a club that is probably more similar to the Minnesotas and Cincinnatis in terms of how we, financially, approached being an expansion team. We didn’t spend what the LAFCs or Atlanta spent on their first couple years. But I think we performed at a much higher level than those other teams [MNUFC and FCC] did in their first couple years. So I think for us, we’ve kind of set a standard for ourselves, and we have to continue to grow. We have to continue to show that not only was last year not a fluke, but that we are a really good team and a really good club that is going to be successful year-in and year-out.
For us, we’re very lucky that we have a lot of guys that are coming back: we can continue to build cohesion with our group, with our players, with our different relationships all over the field. For us, it’s just about growing and showing that we belong. I think it’s easy to make the playoffs once, it’s easy to make a long run once. But to prove year-in and year-out you can do it is the really hard part. That’s where we just have to continue to grind and continue to improve every year. I think we have a bunch of guys here that are willing to put in the work, and are willing to do what’s necessary to to that.”
Do you feel cohesive groundwork was laid last year, and now you can be a little more nuanced in what you focus on with tactics, etc.?
“I think first of all, Drake, make no mistake, and Eric’s touched on this a little bit: there are some huge challenges in that first year that this group, in any normal world, would have had to have overcome, but given the year we’ve had, was even tougher. But if anyone thinks that this year’s going to be any easier, then they’re greatly mistaken, because when you have achieved something, you have set a standard, then you’ve put yourself in a position where, not only are teams more focused and ready for the type of challenge that they have in front of them, but I think the atmosphere that you’ve created around the group, and the excitement for our fans and for the city has got to be reinforced.
And suddenly we have a fair distance to fall if it doesn’t go well. So the players understand that: I think their mentality in this early stage of preseason has been fantastic, nothing short of what I expected. We have all the ingredients in our group to improve in many different areas. I think we’ve made some nice additions, we have good competition in a lot of areas, we have a very strong and solid foundation to our culture and our identity as a group. And we’re fully aware of one or two of the things that we need to continually work at.
I think we showed a much brighter and more purposeful edge to our play in the closing stages of the season. Creation and goals-scored looked an awful lot better. We can say that was down to having certain individuals on the field playing together, but I think that was part of it. I think there was a confidence and a belief in our game, as well. That momentum took us into the postseason. If you look at what needs to be achieved in this preseason now, it’s reinforcement of some of those qualities, of some of that build-out, creation, and of course the preseason games I hope gives us a bit of a taster again of what we’re capable of.
Even though you’re not one of the older guys on the team, there are a bunch of young guys. What do you do to show leadership to them?
Miller: “These guys make me feel old some time which is tough because I’m only 28. I think for the most part, the way our group is, a lot of it is hopefully they’re seeing the way that Dax [McCarty] or Walker [Zimmerman], or [Dan] Lovitz, or Joe Willis, or Jalil [Anibaba] is working or what they’re doing, and hopefully they’re just kind of picking it up and following it.
“Me personally, I got drafted to Montreal – which seems like forever ago – and there wasn’t really a strong group of older guys there to kind of show the ropes to the younger guys, and I think for our young guys here, they have a very, very fortunate situation where we have a lot of guys who have been around in MLS, who have succeeded in MLS in a lot of different places, and they have a lot of opportunities to learn from different guys. I think they’ve been great in terms of trying to absorb as much information as they can and to try to pick up whatever the older guys are doing.
“I mean, there’s not a lot of better examples of how to go about your business than Dax McCarty. This guy’s been around for a really long time, played for a lot of very, very good teams. I think for these guys to just have the opportunity to work around him, to see what he’s like, to see what he does before training getting his body right, to see him prepare for games: I think stuff like that is really, really invaluable. And I think it’s stuff that maybe they don’t realize now, but maybe in three or four years when they’re a little bit older, they’ll understand why he was doing certain things, and I think those guys are very fortunate, and I think they’re a very, very good group of guys who are taking stuff on really well. I think it’s a very important thing for our club to continue to have young guys and old guys – a nice mix of guys – those guys give us energy and hopefully we can give them a little bit of wisdom.”
Has the team managed to stay healthy and fit through just a week of training? How is Jack Maher’s recovery after a late-season injury last year?
Smith: “Listen, the guys are in great shape. Attitude’s been wonderful. The preparations for the vast majority of the group, coming into what was a delayed preseason, of course, has been terrific. The vast majority of these lads have kept themselves, have got themselves into a good physical order, which makes preseason so much easier. For me and the other coaches, it allows us to move into more advanced areas of our preparation without having to go through an awful lot of the volume and spade work of just getting people fit. I’m delighted about that. There’s been a lot of good work already just one week in. I’m very, very pleased at where the guys’ mentality and technical ability is actually at.”
“As far as Jack, he’s from Day One been involved. He had a good offseason, looked after himself, got himself healthy, then got himself fit. He looks in good shape. We’re in a good place all-round. One or two little niggles, but nothing outrageous at all. You know: the expected blisters and soreness that preseason brings, but as Eric’s alluded to on more than one occasion there, I think you’ve got a very unique group of individuals that have got a very strong will and a good culture. We’re in a decent place.”