Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, Alistair Johnston, and Alex Muyl before CF Montreal match

Gary Smith and two of his key players sat down with the media this afternoon. Watch or read their full comments here.

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith

“As you may well imagine, it’s been a positive week after some 75-80 minutes of exciting play. The guys quickly got over the frustrations of a slow start and a difficult 10 minutes, but I think all-in-all, they’ve gone about their work with great energy and we look forward to a Montreal team that have obviously started their season off well, and looking forward to it.”

After a chance to review the FC Cincinnati game, do you feel better about it than you did immediately after the contest Saturday evening?

“I think there’s a couple of things when you look back at it, Tim, that we can – maybe we even felt going into the game, there were always going to be big hurdles to jump, and look: the guys worked incredibly well in the preseason period, but due to circumstances that we could not control, it was very difficult to find the type of competition that we were going to run into in that first game. I think you throw into the equation as well: fans in the stands for the first time in a while, the euphoria of starting off a new season, and you start to see the real intensity and the cut and thrust of that initial game.

“And we were slow to start – there’s no getting away from it. The group didn’t look as we’d left the season last year. They didn’t acquit themselves as we’re accustomed to, and Cincinnati did a very good job of taking advantage of that. So, we have no complaints there, but what I would say is, the focus, the determination, the energy – I looked at some data on the players post-game, and compared it to the opening game last year against Atlanta, and the average distance and high-speed movements of the players were way in excess of where we were last year. So there’s a lot of progression athletically, we showed that in that 75-80 minutes. I’d like to think that everyone saw a much brighter, positive, and exciting group, with 32 efforts at goal, that really should have won the game in the end.”

Do you expect to have Daniel Ríos and Dominique Badji back available this weekend? Or do you expect Jhonder Cádiz and CJ Sapong as your only options?

“We’re edging very much closer with one of those guys. Unfortunately, we certainly won’t see Daniel Ríos, but Dominique Badji has been part of the group all week. He’ll be a decision that’s made tomorrow morning on whether or not he’ll be part of the 20-man group.

“To your point, it’s always disappointing. You tend to forget about Abu [Danladi] as well. We have five out-and-out forwards in this group now, and of course choice and competition was always uppermost in everyone’s mind to force us into that position where we’re maybe a bit more exciting, certainly have more options, and definitely want to be more of a goal threat.

It’s always disappointing to lose players, but the two guys you spoke about had a really positive impact on the game, they’re getting a lot out of each other with that competition, and game-on-game, I would expect to see them feel more and more comfortable.”

What have you seen from Montreal with a new head coach and plenty of roster turnover?

“Well first of all, I think some of the additions have been an upgrade on where they were last year. Their opening game, to come out of the traps and score four goals is no mean feat, given the early stages of appreciation and understanding, maybe, of some of those players. I’m sure they’re very confident and buoyed, buoyant with the performance last weekend. The easy picture that we all look at is to say that because of [head coach] Thierry Henry’s departure, they were thrown into a little bit of turmoil or chaos.

“So I mean, look: I would have to say looking at them as a team, I would have to say they’ve come together well as a group. The coach has been able to get them aligned and on the same page, and they look a bright, energetic, focused, and very exciting group to run into. So it’s certainly not going to be an easy challenge. They’ve got a lot of quality and attacking pieces out on the field. So we certainly won’t be taking this lightly.”

What did you see from their scheme in the opening game?

“I think the easy thing to look at immediately is the pace and athleticism they have through the middle up top. Those two guys [Mason Toye and Romell Quioto] that got on the sheet are a handful athletically. But that combination, and the big signing in that No. 10 role [Djordje Mihailovic] has given them a different dimension, and it certainly gives them a real edge as they transition from some of their defensive shape.

“But all-in-all, with one game to look at, and a small sample size, I think the balance in the group: Mihailovic, the new boy [Mustafa] Kizza out wide on the left, I think [Kamal] Miller has given them a nice bit of athleticism in that back line, and you’ve got a lot of experience in the middle there with [Samuel] Piette and [Victor] Waynwama, and it just looked like they were a little bit more comfortable.

Sometimes groups with not an awful lot of pressure – if I’m not mistaken, most people had written them off outside of the league, but I think we all know inside they’ve got a lot of good players in that club. They’re always a challenge. Every game’s a challenge, and they’ve certainly set their standards high in this first full game. And we know we have a real difficult weekend ahead of us.”

Defender Alistair Johnston

“You know, it’s just building on the opener against Cincinnati. We know that our first 10 minutes was definitely not our best, and so fixing that up’s one of the main things we’re looking at. Those opening 10 minutes, those opening exchanges. That’s normally something we’re very good at last year. So just building on that.

“Also looking at how Montreal plays. Definitely a type of different style than we’re used to when you see a three at the back, or five at the back, whatever you want to call it. So just getting ready for that, and how we’re going to press, how we’re going to deal with those fullbacks who like to get high, those wingbacks. And Also it’s an enjoyable game for me, going and playing some of the guys now that I’ve really gotten to meet through the Canadian National Team. It’ll be an exciting one for myself, for sure.

How did you feel an attacking role went for you against Cincinnati?

“I still felt like I was in quite a defensive role my side, just because of how we were settled into a rhythm in that game. It felt like a cyclical game, where it pretty much was a goalkick for them, they’d kick it long on my side to Locadia, Walker would go up and win it, it would go to Lovitz’s side, he’d fly down the wing, get a cross in, chance, corner, then we’d do the same thing over again: goalkick back up to my side. So I never really felt like I was getting that far forward.

“At the same time for me, it was a little different in terms of having possession and a lot of time on the ball compared to what I’m used to in a higher position in the final third. So yeah, just making good decisions and continuing to build that relationship with Alex and with Handwalla [Bwana]. Two different type of players, and they want the ball in different places.

So for me, that’s been a big thing for me. I know if I’m going to be successful offensively, it’s going to have to be that they’re being successful offensively. So their success is based on me giving them the ball in the right spots, and putting them in positions to succeed.

So that was something we were trying to work on against Cincinnati, and I think that we started with Alex for that first 60 minutes and Handwalla for the last 30. If I’m a fullback going up against that, I’m not having a great time. You know Alex Muyl: this guy’s going to run you ragged for however long he’s on the field, and then Handwalla’s going to come in, and he’s a shifty little dude. He’s a guy that, if you fall asleep for one second or your legs are a little heavy from chasing Alex, chasing shadows with Alex Muyl all game long, he can burn you. So as a fullback, understanding that as well, I can see that other fullback dying a little bit over there. Just keep feeding them, and once they start getting after those fullbacks, then it really opens up a lot of space on that right-hand side for me to occupy and create.”

What do you have to adjust as the different style of winger enters the game?

“You know, they’re both… to a degree they’re very different, but at the same time they’re similar in their workrates. I mean, I look at just the GPS stat all the time after trainings, and those two are always the top two. It’s crazy how much distance both of those cover/. So I know Alex gets a lot of plaudits for the defensive work he does. I think Handwalla does a great job as well at that, so defensively it’s not too different.

In terms of just their builds and their play styles: for me with Handwalla it’s ‘let’s find his feet,’ and let’s sometimes, it’s ‘let’s not overcrowd the situation by coming in too early’ and sometimes it’s ‘let’s feed him and let him go at the guy.’ Because I know if I come with an underlap or an overlaps, sometimes it actually just brings an extra defender and clogs things up, whereas with Alex, I really want to ‘OK, here we go. We’re two kind of powerful dudes, let’s play it and let’s run.’

“In those kind of ways it’s a little different. With Handwalla I want to just feed him and let him go at it, and do his thing. While with Alex it’s really a tag-team partnership. At the same time, me and Handwalla have been building a great relationship as well on the wing. In terms of me feeding him in-behind, him feeding me in-behind. Just with both those guys, they’re a joy to play with. Yeah, they do bring something different to the table, but for me, I look at it as two great different style of play that we can have on that right side. It brings something a little different from what’s going on out on the left, and hopefully we can be effective over there.”

What is your approach when you’re playing against players you’re familiar with, whether last week’s Calvin Harris (a former Wake teammate) or this week some of the guys you’ve played alongside with Canada?

“You know, it’s a funny one. When I went out and I saw the lineups, right when I came to the the locker room, they put Harris as the starting left winger, and I went, ‘man, this is a crazy-small world, you know?’ I was doing one-v-one drills with him just three months ago at Wake Forest in the offseason. It’s really cool, as well. It’s one of those ones that I kind of understand more now more and more games I go into like, ‘wow, I know someone on this team,’ or ‘I know multiple guys in this team.’

“I’m starting to really be a part of this league. You’re no longer that rookie who’s just you know, kind of looking up, looking at the stars all the time. Now I actually know some guys – that’s kind of crazy. It’s definitely something.

“I was excited by the challenge of playing Calvin. I know his game very well. It’s funny – his dad was texting me saying it probably wasn’t the best matchup, so was the Wake Forest staff, they were saying it probably wasn’t the best matchup for Calvin Day One going against someone who knows him inside and out.

“At the end of the day, I see it as: they know my game, but when my game isn’t necessarily all about just, ‘I’m going to fake-shot’ or some simple thing like that, like, ‘Alistair loves to cut onto his right.’ My game is a lot based around just my running. At the end of the day, when you know that I’m going to run – yeah, so Calvin Harris knew that I was going to overlap, but at the same time that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still going to have to run with me. It’s one of those ones that I personally like going up against a guy and having a really good knowledge of his game, I don’t really care if he knows my game. At the same time, I see it as, in order to match my game, it’s just going to be a lot of effort. Asking a winger to put in that shift, not only offensively, but defensively, it’s a tough ask. But it’s something that you really need to have at this next level, and I think Calvin’s going to have a great career. Super-technical player, I love the kid.

But yeah, it’s super-cool going up against guys like that and now going into Montreal, playing against a guy like Kamal Miller who I’ve known all my life, almost it feels like. He’ll be in that left-side centerback role for sure. And a couple of the other guys in that midfield and that backline. I’m excited about a challenge, and yeah, iut’s cool. My jersey collection’s definitely growing day-by-day, I’ll tell you that much, too.”

What sort of energy can the supporters give you guys?

“I think we feed off of each other. The fans are the easiest ones – they can tell when we’re having a nervy start, and you can feel that nervous energy in the crowd. At thew same time, as soon as it hit minute 15 and we started to tick like clockwork, you can feel that roar, that buzz of energy, and that sense of inevitability almost.

“You can feel that in the crowd – it’s not something that they can fake. So I think that’s one of those ones, that’s once we started mounting all that pressure, you feel the roar, you feel the energy, you can see the Cincinnati guys, they go into a little bit of a shell. It’s hard not to when you’re on the road and that one team is just feeling the momentum, the crowd is completely behind them.

“For us it’s just about managing those first 10 minutes better and getting the crowd on our side. Because everyone in there is a huge soccer fan. Everyone knows when things aren’t going particularly well, so you can feel it and it’s kind of reverberating around the stadium, and it’s tough for everyone. So I think having just a smoother start, not even necessarily like – you don’t need to come out and look like Barça for the first 10 minutes, but just one of those ones to settle the nerves early and get the crowd on our side, and in the mood for some goals, and I think we’ll be fine.

You know I tell you what, it felt great to have that crowd back in there. Oh my, that energy they brought, that was something else. It was just a lot of fun to be a part of, and I’m looking forward to a whole season of that, and coming into the next few years once they open up the new stadium, I know this place is going to be rockin’. It was just a good sign and a good showing from Nashville, as always.”

What is the different challenge presented by playing against an odd backline as you expect from Montreal, and does having that type of scheme in your own team’s toolkit allow you to be more-prepared for it?

“I’ve gotta be kind of tight-lipped, I know Gary will be potentially going over this and not wanting me to be giving any tactical things away. But playing against a back-5 definitely opens up some different opportunities for guys, and there’s going to be some isolations, especially in the back five, when if we probably spread the field out and get the mismatches that we want, I think we feel pretty comfortable.

“It’s going to give me and Lovitz, if we take up really good spots, lots of time on the ball. That’s something that I think you saw last year when we played Montreal. Didn’t necessarily play a five at the back, but they really played a super-narrow formation. It gave me and Lovitz tons of time to really get in good spots and drive at that backline, and draw centermids out.

“We’re going to be looking for the same kind of thing, especially with the backline, with the back five. It does provide different challenges: you got two up top and you’ve got a No. 10 that’s roaming, so we’ve got to be super-aware of those counter-attacks, because they do have those: They have athletes, they’ve got guys who are fast and strong and want to get downhill.

“At the same time, as much as potentially there’s going to be some more opportunities for us to maybe get forward, we’ve really got to be careful about what’s going on behind us as well.”

Winger Alex Muyl

WHAT IS GOING ON WITH YOUR HAIR

“I’ve been preparing [for the match] by going to the barbershop. I was always a short-hair guy. It was a fun journey growing out my hair for almost two years, but I never really felt like a long-hair guy. I was never fully comfortable and I was just ready to do it. It actually came out last game, when I went for a header and I just was like ‘I don’t want to be thinking about that, worried about that during the game.’

“I took that as kind of the final straw and cut it off. I would have liked to donate it, but there’s not too many events happening right now with Covid. I’m happy, I feel good, and now it’s so nice, so much less maintenance.”

Did you feel like an attacking left back like Ronald Matarrita really pinned you back last game, and when he’s not the opponent can you be more involved in the attack?

“I think that game definitely posed its own challenges, especially in the early stages. They were very aggressive and they were on the front foot, so it took some figuring out. Montreal plays kind of – they play a different system. It’s going to be a different challenge, and I think that ultimately the challenge is always to try and be the one, be the aggressor, be the one on the front foot. I think that if we can be more-attacking and we can be in those dangerous positions, it’s going to keep them, pin them back, and allow us to not have to be in those kind of positions.”

What sort of spaces are you hoping to occupy with the different system that Montreal plays? And do you feel like you’ve lost your powers after the haircut?

“I’m feeling slim and strong right now.

“I think obviously yeah, like we said, it’s a completely different system that Montreal plays, so there’s going to be different areas where we’re vulnerable, and different areas where they’re vulnerable. With wingbacks, you always have to be ready to see whether they’re pressing on and whether they’re sitting back, and that’s really going to affect you as a winger.

“Ultimately you have to find the space and find the soft spots in the other team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Montreal comes and we see a different – completely different – setup to how they set up against Toronto. I think that for us, it’s gonna be about preparing as much as we can, but when you get out there, you just have to basically play what’s been given to you. Many times in my career, you’re setting up for one thing, and they set up completely different.”

What did you see on the play where you provided Aníbal Godoy the ball that ultimately led to Jhonder’s goal last weekend, and what was going through your mind as you saw Aníbal’s animated arm movements from behind?

“It was an important time for us to get back in the game. I think, it’s kind of the start of our dominance for the rest of the game: was that kind of run. Aníbal is such a great player, because he’s somebody who can really carry the ball and take us from the middle third to the final third. You see a lot of the quality he has. It’s something that I think a lot of us can learn from: the way he carries the ball, the way he protects it with his body, and the mentality to try and attack. Both of our midfielders, Dax and him, are unbelievable at that.

“For me when I saw him give me the little header, I knew that he was going to carry his run on. I saw the space, and I knew that it was a little bit tight, and I knew I was going to have to play fast. Luckily, I was able to give a good ball back that kept him in stride and kept his momentum, because that’s also very important: if you have to slow down, you can get caught a lot of the time. I was just trying to get him the ball and let him do his thing.

“For me watching that, it was hilarious. I didn’t really notice how much he was basically telling Randall to get wide until I saw it after. For me what I’m thinking is ‘ok this is a big moment.’ And I was just trying to get into the box. It was hard for me to get there – I was just at the top of the box at the end, but if anything falls out for me, get in the box and be in a dangerous position, so that’s what I was thinking.”

How does it feel to leave Walker Zimmerman on long-hair island?

“I do think he feels a little bit deserted right now. Before, I knew I was going to do it for a couple of days. I went in on Tuesday, it was my last day in-training. I was telling myself: ‘Alright, today’s my last session with long hair.’ But I wasn’t telling the other guys that, and I walked up to Walker after training and I was like, ‘hey man, just wait, just wait.’

“He was like, ‘what are you talking about?’ And he kept trying to find out what I was talking about. Today when I saw him he was like ‘alright stop waiting.’ He was surprised, so I think he feels a little bit deserted. But now he gets all the shine. Not that he gets enough anyway, but now he gets all the shine for sure.”

How do you feel your role on this team evolving now that you’ve had a full preseason to acclimate to the plan?

“It’s a hard question because I think that it can change so much throughout the season. Because sometimes, you’re needed to do one thing, and for me I think that’s generally been a lot of – for this team – it’s been starting and a lot of energy and contributing on both sides of the ball.

“I think this year, I’ve put a lot of work into really kind of getting sharp and trying to add things to my game in the final third. For me, all I can really say, because it comes to really how the year goes – I can’t say that I’m going to start every game – but for me, what I want is to be a leader on the team. Having gone through preseason I have more of a relationship with a lot of guys, so I want to be a leader. I want to be someone that Gary has to think twice before he takes me off the field, because I’m doing the things that are needed. The last thing is I just want to be a good teammate and contribute as much as possible. If the team’s winning, if the team’s successful, everyone’s happy, and I’ll be the happiest guy.

“That’s really the main thing. I’m definitely a team-first guy, and someone that, I just want to give everything to help the team win. I hate losing, and I want everyone to be happy around here, and that’s going to take winning.”

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