Dax McCarty photo from file.
Nashville SC midfielder Dax McCarty and defender Dan Lovitz met with the media yesterday. Watch or read their full comments here.
McCarty: “Yeah, very exciting times for the club, obviously. Getting through another preseason – one where it felt a little bit choppy in terms of not getting as many games as we wanted to. But ultimately, good competition, a lot of familiarity with the guys that have come back, obviously trying to improve on what we did last year. Very important to get off to a good start, very front-loaded home schedule. Obviously, a big goal of ours is to get into the Open Cup, and so being at home, we feel that it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we’re ready to come out and be in the top eight in order to qualify for the Open Cup as well as just get the season off on the right foot by winning the first couple games.
Lovitz: “Pretty good. I think the most important thing and something that we all value is continuity, and getting to log a lot of minutes with familiar faces in certain positions on the field. I think with returning the back line and obviously Joe Willis and the majority of our defensive unit in front of us as well? It just makes our live a lot easier, and we have a great volume of work to look back on last year and to understand the things we did well and what gave us success – but more importantly what we can sort of tweak as we – as Dax mentioned – look towards a slate and a schedule that gives us every opportunity to be aggressive and get on the front foot in an environment that we’re used to at home. It should be very exciting, and to leverage that into getting points early on, and to come out of the gates pretty hot. So that’s the group’s mindset, and from a defensive standpoint, we want to replicate what we were able to be good at. We don’t think that that was really the ceiling for us defensively; we can still look at a lot of our performances and think we could have done a lot better. It’s just learning: learning from the coaching staff what they want to do, learning from the guys you’re playing with what makes them comfortable, and becoming more efficient and effective. All that good stuff is happening throughout preseason, as Dax mentioned, and we’re just ready to get started.
How excited are you for the atmosphere knowing that there will be 40% capacity?
McCarty: “Yeah, it’s fantastic news, especially for us starting the season at home. If we look back to last year: our first home game of the season against Atlanta, the energy and the electricity in the stadium was unbelievable, and it was something that I still remember to this day as one of the better experiences and the better atmospheres that I’ve ever played in. So we know that our fans are extremely excited to get back into the stadium. Even in the playoffs against Miami, with the limited number of people that were in there, you still felt their presence, you still felt their energy, and we have to use that. We have to feed off of that crowd. I think it puts a little bit more pressure on us to perform at a high level, because I think our fans expect us to play at a high level, but I think that’s a good thing. I think a little bit of internal pressure’s always a positive thing if you can harness that in the right way. We’re excited to play in front of people again, we hope that our fans are excited to get back there.
“Obviously an important game against a team that we didn’t get a chance to play against last year, but a team that’s very close to us in proximity in FC Cincinnati. I think a team that – by no secret – has struggled the last couple years, but by all accounts has gotten much better than they were the last two years. And so I think it’s going to be a great way for us to kick off the 2021 season, and hopefully kick off an exciting rivalry down the road.”
What were the struggles of playing in mostly-empty stadiums?
McCarty: “Yeah, it’s not ideal. It’s almost got more of a preseason feel to it, and to be honest, soccer without fans is nothing. It means nothing. Obviously last year was hard on everyone, but the fans are what make winning so special. If you can’t do that with them, then you feel a little bit empty inside, because those are people who support the club through thick and thin, give you their blood, sweat, and tears. That’s why you play the game.
“Yeah, it was eerie at times last year. Playing in a 60- 70-thousand seat stadium and being able to hear the commentators, being able to hear the opposing coaches giving tactics to their team, being able to hear little conversations on the side going on that you normally wouldn’t hear when you have a full stadium. I’m hoping that – for not just for the US, but for the whole world – we’re starting to move in a positive direction past this pandemic, where we can do it safely, and just getting fans back into the stadiums is going to be a big boost, I think, for everyone on the field.”
[Terrifying peek behind the curtain of parenthood, and then] When Cincinnati is going to be so different last year from how they played last year, particularly in the attack, how do you prepare for a team when the existing film is not as useful?
Lovitz: “Yeah it’s a good question [thanks!]. Obviously, our process normally entails a lot of thorough and rigorous scouting on the other team, and for a team, like you mentioned in Cincinnati that’s had a lot of turnover, especially in attacking positions, it’s difficult to kind of know what you’re going to go up against. But to kind of tie it back to -not to blow off us looking at them – I think something that we’re sort of trying to create in terms of a culture and idea as we attack this first slate of games is: ‘can we really focus on ourselves and be the ones that are the aggressors in the games at the point where the other team’s reacting to us?’ Wether that’s defensively, offensively, we think that if we can perfect both sides of the ball and be aggressive and be on the front foot and just play an exciting brand of soccer, that’s going to create points and a great atmosphere at home. That’ll sort of help us out a lot, especially in these games where you don’t know exactly what could be towards for you in the form of position, or attacking talent that’s new to the league, whatever it may be.
“But as you know, the way the schedule’s lined up, we’re going to be seeing a lot of these teams multiple times throughout the year, so that first game, that first exposure to each team will certainly be interesting and something that we’ll have to go in ready to react and respond and adapt, whatever that may be or look like on the night. But more than anything, just going out and worrying about ourselves and being the best version of ourselves and aggressive, like I said. I think that sort of helps us out a lot when we don’t know exactly what to expect on the other side of the field.”
How have the fullbacks worked on being involved in the attack?
Lovitz: “Yeah, for sure. I think it’s relatively straightforward. I think Alistair [Johnston] and myself are two guys that should be getting involved more often and more consistently in a positive way on the offensive side of the field to help change the game: simple as that. Not to turn a blind eye or take for granted the defensive success that we’ve had, but like I talk about a lot is: not every team has the security and the luxury of having guys like Dave Romney and Walker [Zimmerman], and having guys like [Aníbal] Godoy and Dax in the middle of the field, that are experienced and know how to put out fires. That really gives us a platform to get much more aggressive. In the modern game, that’s what’s expected of fullbacks: get up, provide service, create different angles of attack, different dynamics going forward that takes the pressure off of the wingers all the time and our attacking players to be operating independently as their own unit as a front four and a back six. We don’t really like that: we want to get guys involved more consistently in different ways, into different looks of frankly, putting the ball in the back of the net. I think Alistair shares my desire in improving every day and making sure that we can become a more integral part of what we do on the offensive side of the ball. He’s shown a great appetite for learning and trying to get up the field and create good positions for us, and to deliver in those positions. Something that he and I certainly have connected on, and are looking forward to getting able to replicate in a real game and to do it consistently week-to-week and to help the team win.”
How does last year’s success alter the expectations going forward?
Lovitz: “I mean, it’s pretty… it’s always something you have to keep an eye on. We all talked bout the end of last year as a group that this past year and this success we had in our first year as an expansion team was great, and we’re able to hang our hat on a lot of important elements of what made us so good. But by no means is that something we can take for granted going into 2021 and how things are going to shape up. We have a new team – although we have a lot of continuity, we have a lot of additions. Teams all over the league are changing, it’s a new year, we’re going to see what happens with the pandemic, all that stuff just goes to say that we are very much aware of the fact that this is a whole different animal, and that we need to adapt and create a better version of ourselves to compete this year. We think that, early on, it looks like we’re going to have a great opportunity to jump out of the gates and to be really aggressive and to work on a lot of those things that I think that we can sort of tighten the gears on, and turn it up a notch, frankly, in our game and how we compete. So to have these opportunities on the early end of the season to do it in a familiar environment where there’s a lot of energy and excitement in the stadium is great, and it’s something we need to capitalize on. But we are very aware that we’re proud of last year. We don’t believe that that really counts for much right now: everyone’s starting at the same point and we need to go about our business in a way that will keep us in the same conversation, to keep us in a position to be where we want to be. Our season ended short, according to us, last year, so we want to make sure we can right that wrong and continue to push towards a championship.”
How have you been able to understand and assess the new arrivals to the team?
McCarty: “I think that ultimately, it just adds to our quality, our depth. When you can bring in a guy like CJ Sapong, for example, who is a proven winner in MLS – he’s won an MLS Cup, potentially an Open Cup too, I’m not quite sure; he’s also scored upwards of 60, 70 goals in the league, and I still think he’s at a really good age to be able to to contribute – that’s a fantastic signing for us. That challenges the players that we already have on the roster while also providing us lots of depth. Because I think we saw last year, we had a pretty significant injury crisis that happened to us up front, and you can’t – it’s impossible – to prepare for those things. I think at one point we had six or seven of our top eight attackers, probably, not fit, not healthy. And so I don’t think we’re going to run into the same situation this year. I think all those guys that you mentioned are going to add something unique to our team.
“I think in certain cases with maybe some of the younger guys, it’s going to take them a little bit longer to maybe get up to speed. In the case of Rodrigo Piñeiro, you can see the quality that he has, you can see that he brings a little something different to the table, to our team. You know, he’s electric in terms of his pace and his quickness and his shiftness. But we also have to remember that he’s adjusting to a new country, and that’s never easy. I know that the coaching staff is really high on him, but they’re also going to be patient with him, give him time to adapt. With [Robert] Castellanos and with Nick Hinds, guys that you can see are going to provide valuable competition in training, but also guys that the coaches will be able to trust to put on the field, and guys that are going to continue to push us to be even better.
“These are things that you need in order to build a sustainable and winning roster – not just this year, but in the future, as well. I think all those guys are good additions to the locker room. It’s important to them to be good people, and guys that add their own unique personality to the team, and I think they’ve done that so far. We’ll see what happens once the games get started, we’ll see how the coaching staff decides to rotate and decides to parse out minutes, because I think we know that once we get into the meat of our schedule, it’s going to test our depth. I’m sure all those guys are going to contribute in some way.”
What’s your assessment of Piñeiro thus far?
Lovitz: “Yeah, it’s been, frankly, a pleasure to play against him and to see what he’s willing to do. The one thing I will say in regards to what Dax was saying about all these different guys is, I think both of us have played on a lot of teams before where you just end up with players that come by one way or another, onto the team and there isn’t a ton of thought put into it, just that they were available and that sort of thing. Here’s, it’s a whole different dynamic in terms of the front office and Gary, and the staff being very methodical about who they bring in – they have to cover a lot of different bases that, you know you’re showing up and you have a guy that’s a winger that’s running like a madman on the defensive side of the ball, which is sort of our DNA. To see a guy like that just working hard from Day One and how fast and athletic he is, it’s really nice. You don’t don’t always get that; it’s hard to find guys that come in and don’t have fear, and they’re just throwing themselves at whatever task it may be right in their way.
That’s not to say the task that’s being done is perfect, and that’s an ongoing sort of process with Gary, to get to a point where there’s trust, mutual trust that they understand the position that they’re trying to play, and what that role sort of represents for our team and how we like to play and compete. Once that becomes the case, as Dax says, it’s just a matter of managing minutes and trying to find opportunities for these guys to get acclimated and play valuable minutes, not throwaway minutes, but games where we need points and these guys are the ones out there doing it for us. Rodrigo’s one of many that we think are going to be a critical element to what we do, especially offensively, this year, and to create more than anything – like Dax said – competition, which is huge, and it just drives everyone forward.
“We struggled a bit with that last year for sure, and it’s nice to know that we have a lot of guys that think that they’re deserving of minutes, and that have the quality to do it and are willing to work for it. So it helps the group in general.”
With the Open Cup qualification an additional incentive for these first three games, do you approach the opening of the season differently?
McCarty: “Yeah, I think that it does change things a little bit. Usually the beginning of the season, every team wants to start out on the right foot. You want to have positive momentum heading into the season, you want to start out getting that first one out of the way. It’s always the most difficult one to come by. Now that we know that there’s something on the line, something to play for, and a competition that means a lot to me personally, but also I think our club, that amps up the intensity even more in terms of what we’re going to bring to the game. Gary spent about 20 minutes today after our video session basically discussing how important these firs three games are because of how important the US Open Cup is to our team and to our group.
“We want to be a team that’s fighting for trophies; we want to be a team that’s talked about and in the picture for being an elite team in MLS. The only way you do that is to continually fight for every trophy on every front. So you can’t fight for the US Open Cup if you’re not a part of the competition. So it’s exciting, we’re looking at it like a little three-game group stage tournament, where we need to accumulate as many points as possible. The fact that every game is at home is crucial in terms of how aggressive we’re going to be in terms of going after this thing.
“Really important, we want to get off on the right foot, and we know that it’s in our hands. If we play as well as we did last year at home, we really like our chances to qualify for the Open Cup, and come out of the gates hot.”