Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, Hany Mukhtar, and Luke Haakenson after Nashville SC 2-2 CF Montreal

Gary Smith photo from file

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and midfielders Hany Mukhtar and Luke Haakenson met with the media after their team’s 2-2 draw against CF Montreal today. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“I think I said in my postmatch presser, if you like, on the field, it felt like deja vu a little bit. Two goals early in the game, and a big hole to dig ourselves out of. Nowhere near, of course, as many efforts at goal, but you’re just not going to get that against good teams. However, a far more positive and aggressive display almost from the middle part of the first half on. And to be honest, that’s going to prove far too difficult ongoing to keep dragging ourselves out of. So I’m pleased we have a point and we haven’t been beaten. I’m frustrated that we’ve conceded two goals, and I’m very frustrated that we haven’t won one of these two first home games.”

Is there a common thread to the slow starts in each of the past two games?

“I thought last week, we looked off the pace, sharpness, even it can be more so about the sort of mental place that you’re in, and I just don’t think the guys had seen the game that quick for some time. This week was slightly different. We had a good week’s work. I’m certain that the guys would have taken an awful lot out of last week’s game, and there was no lack of focus in this one: I just thought there was a lack of quality. We were dispossessed of the ball too easily, there were too many cheap giveaways, and it destabilizes the group.

“And if you look at the first goal and the way that it comes about – you have to add into the equation as well it’s an incredibly good finish. The ball is stuck between his feet. Should we get more pressure on the ball? There’s two defenders there, I would say yes. But ultimately, you have to give the player a big pat on the back for the finish. The second goal, it gets a deflection. Really and truly, we should have been in a far better position than we were when that second goal went in. At the moment, it’s very, very frustrating. It’ll take probably a couple more days for me to evaluate the game film when I look at it. But there are lots and lots of positives to come out of our play at the moment.

“However, to concede two goals in the two opening games at home is something that we have to consider very heavily, and moving forward, we have to improve.”

What was the thought process behind your substitution patterns particularly with Aníbal Godoy and Handwalla Bwana coming off?

“Look, let me preface what I’m going to say with the fact that we have five subs. Last week, your question – not just you, but people questioned me – why I didn’t bring more subs on. I brought two on last week, and this week I thought we needed more legs.

Handwalla was slightly different, I just felt we needed a different approach to that right-hand side, but with Aníbal, Aníbal put a hell of a lot into the game. The big thing I’m looking at as well as we push to try to get a winner is that Aníbal’s on a booking. It only takes one moment that swings the game, and we have a very very capable player in Brian Anunga alongside me. Could it have bene Dax? I think so. Both of those midfield players put a hell of a lot into the game. But at that particular moment, the fact that he’d been booked made a big difference, and in the end, as you saw, I felt Dax had run himself into the ground. So don’t look into this too much, I don’t have any ulterior issues with these guys. It’s just the fact that they put a lot into the game, and we needed to probably pick it up a little more.”

What happens in the locker room at halftime to turn the tide?

“First and foremost, this really isn’t about me, it’s about team, and it’s just reminders: we had a gameplan, we all worked hard throughout the week, the players were terrific in their preparations, and in the early exchanges, we didn’t execute well enough. As I said, we gave the ball away too many times, too cheaply. I thin kthe big difference in the second period, number one you get a little bit of a break to just mentally re-focus and think about what’s gone on, what was good, what we need to improve, and there were just one or two areas, of course, that may have helped us in that second period.

“But the bottom line is, I bet if we look back at the chances created, there were as many chances in the first half that we could’ve and should’ve scored as there were in the second half. The fact is, we converted two of them. This isn’t just about the way we start and the goals conceded. We’ve created more clear goal-scoring chances in this first two games than we have in probably eight or ten games last year when we came into the league.

“So I want to look at this in a very positive light. There wasn’t too much focus or comment on the 32 efforts at goal that we had last week. It was obviously more about Cincinnati. I’d like to be saying that the team looked very, very bright going forward. We look far more positive and connected as we’re trying to create. What we have to make sure is that we have the right structure to find our first clean sheet, which will give us a big boost, I’m sure.”

Is there a point at which you expect to be caught up with where you were expecting to be had the preseason games not been canceled?

“Look, there’s, the preseason we had is unlike any other I’ve ever encountered. I’m not saying we were the only team; I’m sure there were plenty of others that had their preseason disrupted. What I can tell you is this: for any team going into the season, we plan and organize 5-6-7 preseason games for a reason, and we ended up with two competitive games.

“To your point, that’s going to take a little bit of time to get out of our system. And maybe, I don’t want it to be an excuse, but maybe that’s part of the reason we’ve conceded four goals in two games. Some of the characteristics in the group just don’t look the same as they did last year in the early stages. What I would say is, it hasn’t affected our attacking play. In fact, we look better. I’m not going to complain about the defending because of preseason, and look at it in a completely different light with our attacking.

To answer your question, it may take us four or five games. Most teams look at the season after four or five games and say ‘OK, what do we look like, what is our form like?’ At the moment, there’s not a huge amount of form guide. Most teams are very much the same. We’ve got work – like all other teams – to keep focusing on, keep improving. My only disappointment with the preseason is we started off with four home games, and I’m just not sure we were in the most perfect position to take advantage of that. But it is what it is, and we’ll get on with it.”

How happy are you with the finishing at this early stage of the season, and particularly Jhonder Cádiz’s performances so far?

“Firstly, I’m ecstatic that we’re creating as many chances as we are. It’s lovely to see a much better connection and cohesive nature about our attacks. Randall and Hany look bright and purposeful which is terrific. They’re a catalyst for a lot of things that are going on. I thought the fullbacks – certainly last weekend, both fullbacks looked far more aggressive than they did this. But this team play a very different way, so it wasn’t quite as easy for them to get on top of their game creatively.

“I think over time, you get what you deserve. We deserve more than we’re picking up at the moment, but the circumstances of any game are huge. It gives teams a lift when they score, it gives them something to protect when they’re in front. Away from home, it’s certainly a factor that plays into any result if you go two-nil up. So it’s the other side of our game that we need to look at, and work a little bit harder at. I would never ever question the endeavor or the energies out of the group – that’s never ever been an issue and I will keep reinforcing that. In fact, I think we’re in a great physical place.

“And I’m delighted for Jhonder. Two goals, I still don’t think he’s fully fit. He’s had an injury in preseason and he’s still working his way back to full health. So two goals in two games, if he’s not at full health, then I would imagine there’s got to be a huge plus for him and the team. When he is in his sharpest condition, I think he’ll cause defenders a serious problem.”

Was that fitness part of the reason he was subbed off?

“When you’ve got competition, there’s always that thought in your mind ‘how do we improve this?’ We have a lot of competition. CJ [Sapong]’s a terrific pro and a good player. Jhonder keeps scoring, he’ll play the most minutes, because lots of forwards are about confidence and they’re about being in that right mental and focused state. Jhonder isn’t fully fit at the moment, so I’m not going to leave him out there for numerous reasons.

“The first one is, the longer I leave him, the more chance there is of injury. And the second one is, when he comes off the gas, we’re not getting the same effect up there. And if I’ve got a good option, then you would expect me to use that. It wouldn’t matter whether it was Jhonder, CJ, Dominique [Badji], Daniel Ríos, it doesn’t matter. With forward they know: they have to be sharp, they have to be on the ball, they are the most interchanged players in any team for that reason: because people are looking for a spark and something to inspire the team. Again, I’d rather you not look into it too deeply. It’s a case of trying to keep the team on the right path.”

We’re so used to seeing the connections and appreciation offensively take time to come around, while the defense is always stout. What’s it like as a coach seeing sort of the opposite from your team so far?

“I think the thing to always look at is: how have the goals come about? And do you feel as though there’s a fundamental flaw in the group that, ongoing, is going to cause us an issue.

“Last week, as I’ve already said, was slightly different to what happened this week. This week, we fell foul of some pressure that was built from our own inefficiencies, and a fantastic goal. If we score that at the other end, I’m jumping around like a demented fool on the touchline. It’s a terrific goal. And the second goal, whilst the guy catches it well, is it struck and better than Randall’s late on? But it takes a deflection, so there’s a bit of fortune in there.

“Now, in between, are there flaws in our game? Are we conceding too many chances? I’ve got to say: their conversion rate was pretty good at one point: they’d had four shots at goal and scored twice. I think any team would be delighted with that. So I don’t see too many major issues with the group, but I think I may have said to everyone that may have wanted to ask when we were questioned about our defensive attributes and prowess and so on: Getting the balance right is what every team’s after. You go too far one way, you become porous and easily concede goals. You go too far the other way, you become a group that sits in and is comfortable just absorbing pressure. We’re finding our way to be that balance. Last year, certainly in the early stages, we were far too committed to not concede. This year? Maybe there’s a point that we’re too committed to score.

“But I think more so, when you see there’s three goals scored in the opening 15 minutes of two games. So it’ll be that area of the game that I’m looking at quite closely.”

Do you feel like your season-opening homestand is almost wasted because of the circumstances and dropping too many points to start it out?

“Look, there’s the circumstances I’ve already spoken about. I don’t think they’ve helped anyone. And the fact that we are at home maybe evens the playing field a little bit. I don’t know Montreal’s or Cincinnati’s circumstances, so we”re just speculating. I want to win every home game, I want the fans to be entertained, I want to be in a position where we’re challenging for playoffs and for silverware. And there’s a short-term and long-term aim to everything we do.

“Am I disappointed that we haven’t won one of these two games? Absolutely. 100%. In my mind, we should be getting four out of six points out of these two games, but I honestly didn’t cater for our preseason, and I didn’t obviously cater for conceding four goals. So we work to improve, we want to maintain all the good things that we’re about. We have to negate and cut out some of the more difficult things.

“The end of the season will determine what and how we went about our business. Right now, it’s just speculation. Are we a playoff team? Are we in good form? That’ll depend upon where Cincinnati and Montreal are. Based on last week, Montreal are on a good run. But what we know is, over time, you settle into a rhythm, you settle into a direction. I don’t think we’re too far off of where we need to be. But are we frustrated? You bet your bottom dollar that we are.

Midfielder Hany Mukhtar

“Yeah, I think the start of the game was not how we wanted to start a game. But we showed good character, and we have to watch the video Monday and we have to be better, because it’s now the second time in a row that we start not like we wanted. Like I said, we showed character. In the end, it’s OK with a point, but we need to do better next week.”

Is it frustrating to have finishing issues at times, particularly when you’re seeking that winner?

“Yeah, it’s very frustrating, but of course it’s part of our game. We need to watch the video, we need to look what we can do better. The good thing is we create the chances, and that’s a good part of it. But of course, we need to score. One more goal than the opponent, then we get the three points.”

What did you see on the goal you scored, which had a tiny window to shoot through?

“Of course, I just had a couple second-time [from the rebound]. But yeah, the near post was open and I scored with my left foot. I’m happy to help the team, but of course we are all disappointed that we lost today two points.”

Is there something Montreal did to slow you guys down at the start?

“We knew that after the victory last week against Toronto, they would come with a lot of energy. But we were prepared, the coach told us everything, and we had a good training week. I don’t have the answer for why we started so bad. But we need to watch video and need to do better next week.”

What’s allowing the team to create more offense this year?

“Obviously last year, we were a new team. We don’t know each other that well last year, so this year the attacking player, and most of the starting XI is the same last year, so we know each other much better, and it helps of course us to create more chances to know our players better, to know their running ways. I think that’s really good this year. Last week we created a lot of chances as well. We just needed to score one more goal.”

What difficulties did the Montreal 3-5-2 present, and what advice did you give Alistair Johnston coming onto the field after halftime to help adjust?

“I mean, the 3-5-2 is very compact in the middle. There’s not much space through the middle. Of course, I like to play through the middle, because I’m there. And I want to have the ball, but we saw that the center’s closed.

“I told him that he needs to ask for the ball, more to stay lower and get the ball. Because on the side, we have a 2-v-1. So yeah, the first goal we created from the side, and there’s the space. So that’s what we talked about in the halftime, and yeah, that’s what we have to do against the 3-5-2.”

Midfielder Luke Haakenson

“Obviously a really, really proud moment for myself. You often hear stories, and every player has their own story to get where they are today and debut. And mine was a long journey, like many guys. And it finally came, so I’m proud of myself, and obviously happy for me and my family, and everyone that supported me up til now.”

What preparation went into that process?

“I think the team has done a really really good job this preseason preparing. Obviously today, we aren’t satisfied obviously, with the way that we started, but the character that we had to come into the second half and tie it up is awesome. I think we prepared all week long, and I prepared all week long to contribute in any way that I could, and my name was called and I was going to be ready.”

Obviously not a full capacity crowd today, but probably the biggest one you’ve played in front of. What was that stage like for you?

“Yeah, great question. It’s pretty surreal, it’s hard to put it into words. As a kid, obviously, watching on TV, and especially in our group. Going onto the field today, especially with the likes of Dax, and Walker, and some of the guys we have on our team, it’s an honor, it’s a privilege, and I’m pretty proud of myself to contribute in any way possible.”

How have you been able to stay motivated when you were further from seeing the field to get that preparation in?

“I think for me in my position currently in the team, it’s just contributing any way possible, whether that’s coming in stoppage time, or whether that’s coming in earlier in the game, my responsibility is to be ready at all times, to be able to come in and see what’s going on in the game and then contribute, and make a difference when I get a chance, and help my teammates out there. Because that’s the most important thing: to help us get a result and move forward.”

Did it click for you this offseason knowing that you’d be contributing?

“I think for me, coming back after my loan spell at Charlotte, I think I got some great experience there, a fantastic opportunity to get my first professional games under me there, and then after that, it just made me even more hungry in the offseason. I probably took 14 days in the offseason, then I really put my head down and started to work again toward this preseason.

“So I mean, a lot of the guys were working hard in the offseason, as well as myself. So credit to all of them as well. But I think we as a group were in really, really early, and getting ready for the season. I think I put my best foot forward, and so did the group back in January and February when we started to come back early to prepare.

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