Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, Joe Willis, and Luke Haakenson after a draw at Real Salt Lake

Nashville SC met with the media after drawing Real Salt Lake on the road. Watch or read full comments from head coach Gary Smith, goalkeeper Joe Willis, and midfielder Luke Haakenson here.

“I think we all knew it was going to be a very difficult game. Longest journey that we’ll have this season, time change, altitude: you name it, we’ve got to try and contend with it. It’s always been a very, very difficult place to earn points here, Salt Lake.

“I thought we took too long to get into our stride in the first period. A lot of simple and silly mistakes that were made in possession. I felt as though that improved in the second half. We started to make a little bit more of a game of it, but on a night where our quality, our creativity, and some of the very good attacking play that we’ve seen at home wasn’t going to be the difference, we needed to maybe go back to basics, roll our sleeves up, and show the sort of discipline and determination that we’ve seen from this group on many, many occasions to earn a very, very good point.

Walker Zimmerman mentioned in postmatch that he was upset with how he and the backline connected with teammates. How do you balance that with a defensive performance that prevented RSL from getting a shot on-target?

“Look, there’s a multitude of mistakes that were made tonight. I think we’ve seen a below-par performance with the ball from the group. We’ve created some very high standards, and I think everyone in our home games would agree that we’ve looked very bright, we’ve looked very creative. And tonight, that deserted us a little bit. I don’t know the reasons for that. Every away game is a difficult one in this league, as we all know.

“But Walker – along with a lot of the other guys – are very self-critical, they maintain good standards, and they hold each other accountable, and they won’t have been happy with one or two things that went on there, coming out of the back with the ball.

“As far as keeping our goal intact, and showing the sort of courage and discipline that I’ve spoken about, I’m not sure you can ask for an awful lot more. We restricted them to very few opportunities. They built some nice pressure, but they found it very difficult to carve and clear openings. If you look at the fact that maybe we defended a little bit deeper than we usually would, but I wanted the group to try and manage the altitude, and to put ourselves in a better place to see the game out. The guys worked the plan well, they defended terrifically. We just weren’t as bright as I think we would all like to have been with the ball.”

How are you preparing for a comeback at home?

“The home games are very, very different to what we’ve encountered today. It sounds as though, with an easing of restrictions in Tennessee in general, I believe, we could be in for a bumper crowd. As you’ve seen tonight, the atmosphere makes a hell of a lot of difference to the way that the teams go about their business. And it’s been fantastic tonight to see so many fans back in this stadium.

“I look forward to seeing as many if not more back at Titans. But as far as we’re concerned, our home form’s been very good. We go about our business in a particular fashion. The guys are very confident, and I would think looking towards next weekend, as long as our preparations are not troubled, we’ll be in a good place, and we’ll be ready to take on an Austin side that have started their season in very good fashion, and look very tidy.”

You rotated personnel up front a bit, what went into those decision? And how did you evaluate that unit?

“We found it more difficult to find any traction, probably for a couple of different reasons. One: service and quality into the front lads was below par, and I think their movement and ability to retain the ball was below the sort of standard that they set last week. They certainly worked hard enough to trouble the two centerbacks tonight. So there’s no issues there.

“Randall was really popped into that pocket underneath to put Dominique out wide and just try and see out the 10 minutes until halftime, because we just couldn’t get any real traction with the ball.

“The second period, I still felt as though we might get something from the front two, but it wasn’t to be. I’m not going to dismiss that 4-4-2 shape because we didn’t get what we wanted tonight. I think we’ll go back to the training ground, have a look at some video. I think all of the guys will be critical leaving here of what they’ve given with the ball tonight – I’ve said that more than once. But certainly not with what they’ve given physically and for the team in general to come away from Salt Lake and have a long journey home with a point in our pocket.”

Did playing your backline and midfield particularly deep make it difficult to transition?

“We looked at possibly defending the middle third, and just being a little tighter with our lines, and not exposing ourselves. This Salt Lake side in the opening games have looked very, very bright on the counter-attack when they can build momentum, when they can get down the side of you. We saw on two or three occasions [Andrew] Brody on the right-hand side drive at players and build that energy, and I wanted to try and negate that. So yes, we were maybe 15 yards, 20 yards deeper than we have been at home. Don’t think that’s a big deal.

“The issue for us was connecting the passes, building out of that shape, managing the ball in a slightly better fashion, and still being a threat. And it wasn’t to be tonight, and there’s different reasons for that. We can discuss it on Monday.

“Listen, overall, I’m very, very pleased with a result. I know we can be better than that, we’ve shown it. But it takes all sorts of qualities to do well in this league, and tonight we’ve shown yet again that we can roll our sleeves up, we can be tough to play against, and we can earn a point when maybe many other teams may not have come out of here with a point. So for that, we’ll all be very grateful.”

What did you make of Luke Haakenson’s performance in his longest MLS run-out?

“At the time he came on, I was looking for a similar change to Alex as we could get. Alex has got bundles of energy, he’s a great competitor, he’s a very, very good team player. Whilst his game’s improved on the creative side, I think we would all say that you couldn’t find a better teammate than Alex. I needed someone to do a very similar job whilst also offering the sort of creativity and energy that Alex gives us going forward. Luke was the best option for that at that point in time. We were not holding onto the ball well enough, we were not building pressure well enough, we were not creating enough good opportunities with the ball to maybe see someone like Handwalla come into the game.

I thought Luke’s inclusion was a very good one. He should be very, very pleased with his output in the 25 minutes that he came on. He showed all of the signs that we would hope to see more of from him: he was a bit of a goal threat, he got on the end of a cross, he was on the end of a shot, there was a bit of combination play that he was involved in, and in between, he gave us all the energy and discipline to the group that we needed.”

Goalkeeper Joe Willis

“Yeah, it’s nice to keep a clean sheet. I think defensively, we were really good today. I don’t think I faced a single shot, to be honest. I think the clean sheets are a testament to how we defend as a team. I think on set pieces, we were incredible. I think they probably had 10 corners or something like that, and didn’t really get a sniff at goal. So yeah, the guys in front of me did their job today.”

What you see from the D that led to such a strong performance?

“Yeah, we sat a little deeper. We got in kind of two blocks of four and the two guys up front, and tried to just keep them in front of us. Tried to be hard to break down. Tried to be compact and not let any little slipped balls in through the middle, tried to force them wide and make crosses.

“I think we did a really good job of that today. On the other side, I think the set-pieces defending was incredible. We have a lot of guys who take pride in defending and keeping clean sheets. We have some warriors on that back line who were cleaning everything up on set pieces.”

Was there anything specific that led to the backline’s difficulties building forward?

“I don’t think there’s anything specific I could pinpoint. It’s just sometimes that’s the way she goes. But when you have games like that where you’re having trouble keeping possession and connecting passes, then you need to really concentrate on being good defensively, and I think that’s what we did.

“Obviously, in the first half especially, we struggled to get forward, so we focused a lot of our concentration on being tidy in the back and making sure that we gave ourselves a chance to figure it out in the second half.”

Did you notice any effects from the altitude?

“I think possibly. You’d probably have to ask the field players, because they’re the ones that do all the running. I noticed it on my goalkicks, I got about an extra 10 yards out of all of them. But that was about the extent that it affected me.

“I would say I’m sure it did affect the guys who do more of the running, especially our winger and wingbacks, and the guys up top. But yeah, that might be a factor, but we don’t really like to make excuses. It was still sloppy at times, and it needs to be better.”

Does the third straight shutout show you’re getting back into the groove you found last year?

“Yeah, for sure. I think in the first two games when we gave up those early goals, that was pretty uncharacteristic of us. We needed to get back to what made us successful. Last year, we had a similar start to what we’ve done in the last three games now – which is maybe not scoring tons of goals, but we’re giving ourselves a good foundation, and giving ourselves a chance to maybe nick one at some point during the game.

I have no doubt that more goals will come. We have a lot of talented players in the attacking third, so as long as we can keep keeping clean sheet and giving the guys a chance, then I have all the confidence in the world that more goals will come.

Midfielder Luke Haakenson

“Yeah, it felt good to get some more time in the second half. Exciting for me and obviously it’s nice to know that the coach has trust to put me in in a situation that we need to have some energy and inject a little bit of positivity into the game, so that was exciting for me.

“A draw on the road is always a positive, but looking back, I think we’ll want three after we go back and watch the video.”

Gary mentioned that you were a like-for-like replacement for Alex Muyl. Do you go out there and try to do the same things he does, or do you have to just go be Luke and not worry about being Alex?

“Great question, Tim [thanks!]. I think there’s a lot of aspects of Alex’s game that I think that, if you look, both of us have similar qualities. At the end of the day, as you said, I am my own person, I am my own player, and I can also bring something that Alex doesn’t bring, which is a positive.

But like I said, we play the same position, I think we’re both guys that like to inject some energy into the game and positivity, and are looking to constantly work to give our best.”

When you enter in a cagey match, how do you balance trying to find the goal, versus making sure you don’t give it up?

“I think the coach’s job is big-picture like that. I think big-picture a point on the road is always positive. When you go into an individual like myself, my job is ultimately to create chances and help the team going forward, but also on the defensive side of the ball.

I think more big-picture, a point on the road is positive, but for an individual like myself in my role, we want to go forward, and we want to win the game and create chances.”

What did you see on your opportunity to either shoot or lay it off to Randall for a shot? Are you comfortable pulling the trigger there?

“I’ll have to go back and watch the video, of course. But in that moment, with my back to goal, I think it’s always a smart decision to play the way you face instead of turning and trying to whack something on goal. I know Randall was in a great position, he could even take a touch and shoot.

“I’ll go back and watch the video of everything that transpired during the game. But off the top of my head, I would say with my back to goal, Randall in a great spot, a touch and a shot is probably the right decision.”

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