Nashville SC

Postgame press conference: Gary Smith, Hany Mukhtar, and Walker Zimmerman after a draw in Atlanta

“You need me to hit unmute?” Photo via Zoom

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith, midfielder Hany Mukhtar, and defender Walker Zimmerman met with the media to discuss their team’s 2-2 draw against Atlanta United. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“That was, uh, a hell of a game. I have to be perfectly honest: I was very hopeful that we would take something away from this, as you can imagine. I always knew that it would be an incredibly difficult challenge, and that certainly played out. We looked flat in the first 10 minutes of each half, and paid the price for it. I don’t know whether that was the field in the first half. We certainly chased the game an awful lot in that first period, and maybe the opening exchanges of the second half just looked a bit leggy.

“I did feel as though the two goals were a tad soft from our point of view. But nevertheless, the character and the internal fiber that this group have shown on many occasions was there for all to see. I just don’t think too many people come back from a two-goal down situation in this stadium, in front of this crowd, on this field, against this team.

“We’ve shown some tremendous character today.”

What did you see on each of the two Atlanta goals?

“We looked at the areas that might cause us a few problems in trying to win the ball back. They’re a team that possess the ball very, very well. We were comfortable if they kept the ball in front of us, but certainly didn’t want them to penetrate too often. A local derby, we wanted it to be a real blood-and-thunder affair if we could make it that, and try and upset them a little bit, as well – and not maintain any rhythm.

“[Miles] Robinson’s distribution in the first half was very good: it caused us a lot of problems, and the goal came from there. My concern was that I felt as though we might have dropped slightly quicker. It was a little bit too easy for the ball to be dropped in behind our backline. A pretty routine run from outside to in, and before you know it, it’s gone through Dave [Romney]’s legs, and it’s caused Joe [Willis] a serious problem. I just know that the guys are in a better place normally than that. The ball did kick up, it didn’t skip on which is what it does on turf, and maybe there were a few difficulties there trying to read the bounce.

“The second goal wasn’t dissimilar. I just thought we’d done enough to force [George] Bello wide. It wasn’t the greatest cross in the world, and the guys normally do a fabulous job of protecting that near post. It was just a little bit too easy for their player to nick in at the near post and get a flick on it.

“Given the type of game it was, I felt it was maybe a bridge too far for us at that point.”

What did you think of Hany Mukhtar’s ability to make something out of near-nothing on both goals?

“At 2-nil, you can imagine we were trying to think on the line of how to try and just get a bit more energy, and a bit more of a focal point up front. Hany had looked bright, he’d been creative, he’d been a real nice piece of the puzzle for us, if you like. And moving him into one of those wider areas but playing more narrow to try and link up the forwards with something that I certainly know he can achieve, and he’s more than capable of playing there – he’s done that before. And it just gave us a different dimension and a different dynamic.

The front two for the 25-30 minutes that they were out there, the pair of them including Jhonder, of course, gave it a real good go. I couldn’t have asked for any more from any of the guys in terms of their efforts and trying to work down the side of their defensive group.

“They have one or two slightly different ideas about their defending, and it ends up being a little bit man-for-man at times, and it leaves big gaps. You’ve still got to work the ball and find areas to take advantage of that. And as the game wore on, I just thought that our guys – especially the end of the first half, and of course once we got that first goal – I just couldn’t see how we were going to level it up.

We were really in the ascendancy, it seemed momentum had shifted massively, there were some rumblings in the crowd, and suddenly 50,000 people were groaning rather than cheering. That is the difference. But Hany’s the one that’s got to put it in the back of the net, and today he’s been our hero.”

Were Atlanta’s attacking midfielders able to keep your fullbacks pinned deep?

“It’s not just [Jake] Mulraney and [Erik] Lopez. You’ve got two fullbacks on their team that play almost like wingers, because of the controlled possession that they have – and they possess the ball very, very well. They’ve got good distributors of the ball, but most importantly they’ve got guys that can angle the ball in tight areas, and they get away from opponents, and they can play positive passes.

:When Bello kept getting high up the field, Mulraney kept coming inside Alistair – now Alistair’s got a choice. He’s getting overloaded out wide, Robinson’s hitting good cross-field balls, and we knew it could be a problem if we couldn’t get enough pressure on the ball.

“Few little tweaks at halftime, couple of things that we were able to shift around. That’s why I was disappointed with the second goal, because we actually started reasonably brightly. We got a shot off within 30 seconds of the half commencing, and I really felt as though the guys had maybe got the bit between their teeth and it might just move our way. So for them to score the second so quickly in that second half was a body blow for certainly us [coaches] on the line, and it must have been for the players. To that degree, we have to give that group of players in the locker room out there an incredible amount of credit. They’ve stuck in the game, they’ve managed to work their way through some really difficult periods, and when the opportunity came around, we’ve somehow someway hit the back of the net twice.

“I’ve said before: you sometimes need an hero to step forward, and today it was Hany.

What emotions were you going through on the sideline?

“While I’m on the line, it’s one of frustration and disappointment, of course. I just felt as though they had been able to effect their plan slightly better than us with the ball. I never, ever feel that we won’t find a way at some point to make life difficult, and then maybe get that goal that really turns the mentality, the belief, and the momentum our way a little bit.

“But it’s tough to see where two goals were going to come from, up until the point that Hany scored. You keep hoping, and you try to urge the players on. I thought the guys that came on not only added some energy and injected a little bit of an incisive look about the group, but when you look at Dominique Badji – he turns his ankle badly – the character that he’s shown to hobble that half out was really, really important to us. We needed that extra body out there. It enabled me to do one or two other things to see the game out.

“But that is what rivalry games dish up. You often walk into a match thinking ‘Ok, this could well be the path we travel and the journey we take.’ And by the end of it, it looks nothing like the one you had in your mind. That’s certainly how the day unfolded.”

Midfielder Hany Mukhtar

What did you feel on that first goal in tight space?

“It was a pretty similar goal to my goal against Montreal. I each get a good touch, then I come in front of the opponent. Then yeah, just low-corner. I hit the target from there. I’m happy to help the team.

Is this the type of draw that feels more like a victory than a tie?

“We all know it’s a very tough place to be, but yeah – we were a lot under pressure, and I think we go out of the game and it’s more: we won a point than lost two points.

“We need to keep the head up – we are still unbeaten. It’s a great run.”

Do you feel like this game is one that shows the importance of your role and how you can execute it?

“I’m here, obviously, to help the team, and that’s my job. I’m here to really help the team, and I try to do my best. I had some issues with my hamstring. I worked hard to come back, but now I’m back. Yeah, I’m happy, and I will continue to work hard.

“We have big goals in our club, so we need to work hard.”

What was your thought process as you worked to come back from injury, and then how did the payoff of a game like today feel?

“It’s always frustrating for a player to not play and miss a game. But for me, it’s really important to stay 100% fit. I try my best; I do everything I can. That’s my job, that’s my life.

“I will work hard, and I will always believe in myself, even in a bad period. No career is just always good. That’s part of your job. It looks nice, but there is a lot of hard work behind it.”

What was going through your mind as the comeback was mounting?

“We know, we said in the halftime: we are a strong team, we are a good team. So we need to always believe in ourself, even when we are playing bad – or not playing bad, but we are behind. You never have like a good, good feeling. So we just have to keep the head up and work hard.”

Defender Walker Zimmerman

Since you’ve been so stout so regularly this year, does it become even more frustrating that semi-fluky plays have been the ones to beat you for the most part?

“We definitely take a lot of pride in that, in goals-against. For sure, we talk about it a lot.

“But look: if you’re going to get scored on, you want it to be an absolutely world-class goal. That’s just not the reality for either goal tonight. I know that we’re not going to be happy with the types of goals that we allowed. It definitely is frustrating, but again, super-proud of the group for showing some fight and getting us a point out of here.”

What has led to some of the defensive lapses?

“I think communication is always a key component, and pretty much any goal you can always look back and think ‘is there anything I could have said, or that could have been said to prevent that?’

“And then at the other side of it is, is there a reaction, was it the right decision. You always look back at split-second decisions: ‘should I go for this ball? Should I let it hit the ground? Should I try and toe-poke it out, should I slide?’ There’s all these decisions that come through all of our minds who are involved in the play, and those are the decisions that kind of got you to this level, and you trust in those. There are going to be games where you’ll probably look back and think, ‘man, yeah, I probably could have done something different.’

“But I think again, we still believe in this team, still believe in the defensive prowess, and still believe that we can go out there and keep guys out of the net. Offense stepped it up bigtime. Team showed a lot of, I guess, fight to get back in this one, and really happy to keep this unbeaten streak going.”

What is the challenge of playing against Josef Martinez?

“Josef’s a great player. I’ve gotten to know him a little bit over the years – at the all-star game. As a person, he’s an unbelievable person. Now to me it was not a surprise, but a great thing from meeting him, getting to know him.

“And so when he tore his ACL last year in the opener, it was very sad for everyone because he is such a high-level player and you always want guys to – you always want to compete with guys when they’re healthy and go toe-to-toe. He’s still working through things, getting back fully fit, fully sharp. But I know he gives them a boost. He’s a bigtime player, gives them a boost when he’s on the field. And so it’s always fun to play against him.”

What was going through your mind as you see Hany Mukhtar’s goals?

“As for the goals, Hany… amazing for him to come back into the lineup this week. In a game where he probably had to cover a lot more ground defensively than usual, or if we were playing at home. To stay focused for 90 minutes and leave everything he had on the field and walk away with the goals was phenomenal for him.

“And really, all the subs that came on, I felt did a really, really great job. That’s been a strong theme for us this season. When guys are getting called from the bench, they’re coming on, they’re producing, and they’re also just giving us a lto of heart, a lot of fight. CJ [Sapong] was battling up there, Dom battled – even came back in hurt, giving everything he had to try and see the game out. Luke has done a great job, particularly these last two games. LaGrassa, again making things happen. All of those guys contributing was just good to see.

“And getting happy for Hany to get back on the field and also get back on the scoresheet.”

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