Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, CJ Sapong, and Alistair Johnston preview Atlanta United

Alistair Johnston photo from file

Watch or read full comments from Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith, striker CJ Sapong, and fullback Alistair Johnston as the Boys in Gold prepare for a trip to rival Atlanta United.

How has the week of preparation gone?

“It seems like I’m a bit of a broken record, but I think when your training’s at a very good level, everyone looks sharp, they’ve got a smile on their face, there’s just a real positive vibe around the place, and we stay in touch we’ll be in good health then it has to be a good week, and we’ve ticked another one off this week.

Does the preparation change because it’s going to be played in front of a big crowd and atmosphere?

“I’m not sure that we can do an awful lot about that. We certainly encountered one of our own terrific atmospheres this past weekend, and that will serve us well going to Mercedes Benz. But it is a unique place, you know they do get a fantastic following, and if it doesn’t inspire the guys to drag another five or 10% out of themselves, then I’m not sure anything will.

“So it’s a game on the schedule that I think everyone licks their lips and looks forward to. If you’re a top, top player, these are the ones that you want to be involved in.”

What sets the game between Atlanta and Nashville apart from an average matchup or rivalry game?

The firs tthing that we have to look at is, any team that’s won a championship and have achieved what they have in their history, there’s got to be a certain amount of respect for what’s gone on there. This group are stacked with talent. We all have our own issues and problems with getting playuers on the field, but the bottom line is, they are one of the top MLS groups, and are fighting to remain in that place.

“You can see exactly what Gabriel Heinze’s trying to implement and some of the ideas that he has in mind for the team. And I think that’s given them maybe a slightly different look to before. But I don’t think that makes them any easier to play against. In fact, I would say it makes the game a tad more difficult.

In front of their own crowd, they play their field well. They get that crowd behind them. It is a different environment, and a different surface, and I think you’ll find a lot of home teams that have those sort of assets to build on. Normally, have a very good home record – and they do.

We’re not taking any of this for granted. We have a tremendous task on our hands, we know that. But to your point, Drake, I think we’re in a really good place. The players have not only taken steps forward this season, but I think they’ve found themselves mentally taking steps forward as a group, and I’m sure we’ll feel in as good a place as they could at this point in the season of going to Atlanta and competing.”

Do you see your team climbing into the top tier of the league with the early-season results?

“I think every season and every campaign, there’ll be just about every team wanting to break into that higher echelon or top three. We hear constantly about the Premier League ‘breaking into the top four,’ and I think the top three in each conference [in MLS] are the areas that every team are trying to achieve.

“I think we’re capable of competing for those spots. What I will say is, when you’ve got sides that have regularly achieved that, when you’ve got teams that had had probably a longer history to try to piece together, and have back-to-back and season-after-season been competing for that, it does give you an advantage. It would be our first time of ever making that level, and the first time for anything is always the most difficult time.

“So we’re way, way early in the season to be considering those sort of things. I’m very, very mindful of continuing to take baby steps to improve our group in innumerous different areas. I think we’re slowly-but-surely doing that. We are a difficult prospect for most teams, and I want to keep it that way. I think if we can continue down that line, who knows what the future holds for us?”

Is Daniel Ríos closer to returning?

“I think this is the first week that we could truly say that, if need be, Daniel’s available. He’s had another very good week, I am very mindful of the fact that Daniel, because of the offseason, has been inactive for four or five months. So, that in itself is something that I do have to consider. But the other thing is Daniel’s record is a very good one. He would be an asset for any team, and that has to come into my consideration for this weekend, especially with the way that we’ve been playing. The more forwards the merrier at the moment. I think those guys are doing a very, very good job.

“I’m not going to answer the question of who is involved, and how am I going to play. But we’ve been on a good run, and I think whoever we put out on the field will be in a very confident mood. I’m getting more and more players to pick from, which is making my decision on the squad harder and harder. But it’s also creating more and more competition, which in itself, of course, brings more out of players.”

When you reviewed the film from the Austin game, did you see anything underlying in the finishing issues? Is it something that’s needed to be worked, or just bad luck that you may snap your fingers and it goes away?

“I do wish that the snapping of the fingers was the way forward, Tim. It would make all coaches’ lives a hell of a lot easier. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. There is only one way of trying to improve – be it in front of goal or anywhere else, and that’s to work hard at it, and try to put players in the most natural positions you can to replicate a match situation: under pressure, at-pace, and in situations that are not stereotypical. It’s very rare that you receive a ball 12 yards from goal, under no pressure, and you can pick your spot and choose whatever type of finish you want.

“As far as our guys are concerned, No. 1 I am very, very pleased with the amount of good opportunities we’re creating. It’s a step forward for the group. It’s something that I think we always felt we were capable of. But it’s growing, it’s having that confidence within – and I mean within yourself, as well as within the team – that those moments are going to come along, and we do have the quality to create them.

“Clinical finishers are the most expensive soccer players in the world, and to have one of those individuals is normally a king’s ransom to get in the team. But listen: I’ve got some very good forwards here, I’ve got a lot of belief in those forwards, and I do believe, if we continue to make the chances we are, that we’ll see those guys not only come good, but hopefully hit in the sort of digits that we would like to see our forwards hitting, and up there with the contenders at the end of the season.”

Gabriel Heinze’s team has been heavy on possession, but isn’t creating a ton of chances yet. Does that impact the way you set up to defend them?

“I’m sure it’ll play into the gameplan for both coaches. They do possess the ball very well, and I expect them to maybe take that stat. I would think that moving forward, a little bit like ourselves, finding that balance for Gabriel to understand his players a little bit more and to maybe ask more of them, to add, take away players – whatever it means to develop a group. I honestly think he’s, in a short period of time, had a really positive impact on the team. You can definitely see the shift in the way that they play and what they’re trying to achieve, and that tells me that the players have bought into a lot of the things that he’s talking about.

“You’ve also got one of the best, if not the best goal-scorers in MLS history still finding his way back to top form. Take 25, 30 goals out of any team, and you’re going to find that pretty difficult. I would think they’re going to be patient in that world as well, and give Josef [Martinez] the time he needs to get back to full health and sharpness.

“It’s important to us to make this game a difficult one for them. I think all home teams want to have it their own way and create chances and possess the ball and get the crowd on their feet, and it’ll be our job to, in many way, do our best to spoil the party. Because it is a rivalry game, there is a little bit of edge between the two teams.

“I think we’ve improved. I think the result last year when we beat them at home gave us a hell of a lot of confidence. I know we’re not running into exactly the same team, but I can only tell you from where we sit, we’re ready to go and make it a very tough game for Atlanta. And may the best team win on the day, and if it ends up that way, I’m sure we’ll both be happy with the way the teams have performed.”

Striker CJ Sapong

How has the week of preparations gone?

“It’s gone well. Obviously we’ve been in high spirits from the win this past weekend. Just able to get some rest. Today, I think everyone was feeling pretty rested, and the training was sharp. It’s a good feeling and good energy to be going into a game this weekend.”

When you know the opponent has a weapon like Josef Martinez, do you feel additional pressure to know you might need to outscore the other team rather than engage in a tight defensive battle?

“There’s always going to be pressure that I put upon yourself as a player. I definitely can’t say that it’s dependent on who’s across from me in terms of the other forwards. The only members of the team across from me that I’m looking at are analyzing and seeing where I could have an impact are the defenders.

“I will say when it comes to Josef, with his ability and the success that he’s had in the league, there is a respect there. But ultimately, before I even get to that point, I’ve run through a lot of different scenarios in my head, I’ve tried to visualize myself in situations to help my team win.”

What are the differences in your role depending on the two-striker or lone forward formation?

“Playing two forwards, it’s a system that’s kind of faltered over the years. I personally grew up kind of playing in that system. I think it gives you the opportunity as a forward to find yourself in spaces and blind spot of defenders


“You’re able to find yourself in spots that defenders can’t really see. Ultimately when they have somebody else to worry about, it gives you more of an opportunity to find spaces. In that regard, I like the two-forward system. However, when we don’t have as much cover int he midfield – it’s going to require a little bit more work defensively. That’s something I don’t mind doing and have done, even when I’m at the single striker. But it is work that has to be done with a level of cognizance, because if you do it wrong, you can leave the team exposed.

“When you have a guy like Jhonder and Badji, ultimately I look at us three as just forces of nature. When you have two of us on the field, we’re going to work at the defense, and we’re going to hack away at them, and I believe over time, find our opportunities.”

What are the things that you need to continue to work on, beyond just getting comfortable in the system?

“For a forward, it’s always just becoming prolific, right? And becoming proficient and being that forward that can make that half-chance a goal. The area that allows me to consistently get on the field and feel confident is I know I have total control over the mentality in which I approach the game. With that, I can bring effort. With effort, mostly likely you’re going to push the scales in your direction a good amount of the time.

However, obviously, I would like to be as sharp as possible, and as proficient in my striking to the point where I’m that player that just needs one chance, and can put it away, and win the game for the team.”

Defender Alistair Johnston

How has the week of preparation going?

“It’s gone well. Getting used to the summer weather here in Nashville. But we’re excited. This is a big one for us: kind of another local rival, to a degree down in Atlanta. We’re excited to play in front of a big crowd again, and hoping to have a good away crowd as well, make the trip down to Atlanta.

“It’s one of those exciting games; I think it’s one of those ones you look at and you just can’t not get up for. Looking at Atlanta and looking at their lineup, this is the kind of club that we try to emulate to a lot of degrees with how they’ve come into the league, and really taken it by storm. That’s kind of what we want to do as well here in Nashville.

“We’re excited for it, the week’s gone really well. The Boys look good, look prepared, and we’re just excited to get out there already.”

What different spaces does Atlanta’s 3-4-3 formation present to you offensively, and alter what you need to defned?

“We’ve seen it before with Montreal. It gave us some different pictures to look at, I think. As a team, I think that we get excited by it, especially I know us fullbacks and us wingers. I think we look at it, as, ‘you know what, we potentially have an overload out wide.

“It’s one of those ones that we’ve played against it, we understand the strengths of the 3-4-3, and we also understand the weaknesses. So it’s going to be all about just playing to our gameplan that we have laid out, and just really takin advantage of those areas that are going to be vulnerabilities when you play three at the back.”

What makes Atlanta special as a franchise, and how are they approached as a rival?

“First of all, that crowd does a lot. I know they’re going to be fueled playing in front of, what is it, 70,000? down there at Mercedes Benz Stadium. So it’s a bit of a madhouse going down there.

“But yeah, they’ve got quality players, they have an identity that they want to play. I think they’re one of those teams as well – one of those big franchises you look at, you see on the calendar, and instantly you’re going to circle that one. I think for us – and just looking at this team – they’re kind of at that level. They’ve reached that elite status over the past couple years once they came into the league.That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We want to be one of those teams that’s kind of a perennial contender.

“I know they had a bit of an off-year last year, but at the same time, you’ve got guys like Josef and [Ezequiel] Barco – players like that who are just that top-level quality guy – they’re always going to be up there. Obviously we’ve seen already this year what they can do, and we’re going to be prepared for it.”

When you look early in your career at the position, who have you tried to emulate?

“Coming into the league, I mean: Dan Lovitz is a great one, someone that I would try to play like. But I just think there are so many good fullbacks in this league that I’ve looked at. The obvious one for me would be Richie Laryea for Toronto FC. I’ve been lucky enough now playing with Canada to meet him and really get to see it up close what his game’s like. So he’s one of those guys that I’ve always tried to emulate.

But there are tons of really good fullbacks in this league. It’s one of those positions in this league that’s really under-appreciated to a degree. I think there’s some serious players from [Anton] Tinnerholm to [Ryan] Hollingshead, the guys like that that I think are honestly under-appreciated to a lot of dgerees. But no, those are the kind of guys coming into the league that I always wanted to be like.

“Growing up you watch overseas all the time, and there’s obviously some players that you want to play like: like Dani Alves, Marcelo, guys like that. But for me, it’s been over the past couple of years looking at guys like Trent Alexadner-Arnold and players like that over in England who follow a little bit more what my kind of style is like in terms of getting crosses in, and being a little bit more of a long-legged defender who’s athletic as well. Those are the kind of guys that I’ve been looking at across the league as well as internationally.”

Atlanta: do it hit different?

“I think yeah: the cookie-cutter answer is that every game you take the same. But everyone knows that’s not necessarily completely true. We feel what the fans feel: at the end of the day, we’re part of this club, too. We know what rivalries are. We see it all over social media.

“We know that Atlanta and Nashville aren’t going to be the best of friends in this league. We understand the geographical proximity as well, and we know that this is a big one for our fans, and at the end of the day, you look around the league, you look at leagues overseas, that some teams they’d lose every single game of the year as long as they beat their crosstown rival or local rival.

For us, I don’t think it’s to that degree yet, and we hope to kind of build this rivalry up. But at the same time, it’s that: it is one that everyone on our team has marked on their calendars. This is one that we could give up something to take a win on the road somewhere, this would be a great one to really go out there and make a statement win.”

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