Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, Alistair Johnston, and Joe Willis preview Toronto FC

Alistair Johnston photo from file

Nashville SC’s headman and two of his star players met with the media to preview Wednesday’s game against Toronto FC. Watch or read their full comments here.

“It’s the first midweek game that we’ve had this season. It does present a slightly different look to it physically, of course. Getting adjusted to the warmer weather and that draining aspect that it can have on players. So we had a recovery day yesterday, and we’ve got about some work this morning, and likewise we will tomorrow. Most importantly, we’ll do our utmost to keep the players fresh and ready and just as bright mentally as well as physically for the game on Wednesday, which I’m sure will be a very tough one.

You mentioned after Friday’s match that Walker Zimmerman was taken off as a precaution. How has he responded physically in the couple days since, and how are the three injured players, Daniel Ríos, Tah Brian Anunga, and Dom Badji recovering?

“So Walker’s in a really good place. Delighted that he didn’t have any reaction to the game on Friday. There was some concern when he went into the game as to how he would a) cope with the rigors of matchplay, given his difficulty, and then of course the reaction to it. But he’s in a really good spot – he’s trained today, no issues, so that’s great news.

“The other guys that you mentioned are all progressing very nicely. I think one or two of them are going to run it close for Wednesday. Brian Anunga and Daniel Ríos probably being the two closest to Wednesday’s game. And then I would suspect all three of them are not going to be far away from being in contention for the Montreal game.”

How would you rate your team’s finishing so far this season?

I think it’s always a difficult one. First and foremost, I think every coach and every team wants to be creating chances, and we’ve certainly upped the ante in that aspect. I was talking to the guys about some of the statistics from the weekend, and we always like to try and support the story of the game with some of the stats out of it, because they are very factual, of course. We’ve been generating, on average, 15 effort at goal a game, and we were way below that at the weekend in New York.

“As far as execution goes, I think we can say that Friday’s game fell short. But when you look at maybe the way that the Atlanta game turned out – Hany’s finishing in the latter stages was very, very good, and given the amount of clear-cut chances, because there is a difference between efforts at goal and what we would class as, of course, expected goals or very clear-cut moments – I thought the return was good. When you look back across some of the other games that we’ve had, certainly in the early stages, the games that jump out are Cincinnati and Montreal, with the real glut of opportunities that we had there. I’ll be very, very happy if we can continue to create as many moments and be as bright and purposeful as we have been, because I do feel that those moments, over the course of a season, will fundamentally turn your way, and you’ll make the most of them. At the weekend, we didn’t.”

Do you feel torn between trying to give guys returning from international duty an easy integration back into the team setup, and getting your best players on the field?

“I think everyone’s very different, Drake. Their circumstances are different. For example, Alistair, whilst he’d had an awful lot of playing time with Canada, was only traveling from Chicago, and he was able to join the group on the Thursday and train before we traveled to New York. Randall had been much further afield, he was up in Salt Lake, he’d played at altitude, and there were some different pressures that were attached to the games that he played in, and they were under what we could probably class as far-more duress than maybe Alistair’s games were, and the position he plays. And then of course you had Aníbal who was much further afield, and had all sorts of difficulties in trying to navigate his way back, hence his exclusion at the weekend.

“So I do think everyone’s different. We take an awful lot of care and attention in trying to gather the data in the GPS units that the players have used while they’ve been away to see their loadings, their workloads while they’ve been in camp with whatever group they’ve been with. And most of those international setups are very helpful and very supportive of that.

“What I would like to see, of course, is our strongest group out every time. There’s a real, I think, understanding and appreciation with a core of players in the group. That’s not to say we haven’t got individuals that can come in and get the job done, but for sure, there’s a stronger group, if you like, that is always nice to put on the field. However, I think the opportunity for others is closely coming, because as we run into Gold Cup, and we’ll have omissions from our group then – as other teams will – it opens a door for other players to step up and to really take advantage of that.

“The games coming up are very important to us: five home games on the spin. It goes without saying we want to take advantage to the greatest degree of those games. I’ll be putting out the strongest groups I can, make no mistake.”

What’s the difference in preparation and setup between home and road contests?

“I think all teams want to try and dictate the game, wherever they are. It does become slightly more difficult away from home, of course: I think there’s a natural emotion for the home team to want to be more aggressive, and there’s a natural inner feeling for the away team to make life difficult. Whether it works out that way: circumstances in the game, goals for sure change the perspective of how teams play. But as far as we’re concerned, the home games we have coming up – and I think if you look at the picture of any previous games we’ve had at home – we’ve had a culmination of things that have presented itself to make our home field difficult for opposing teams.

“Number one, the fans have been terrific since we’ve had the opportunity to have them back in the ground. It creates a wonderful atmosphere and environment for the players to work. I think the players have gained confidence in the fixtures that we’ve had up to-date. Our record’s been good. That itself creates an internal belief that we’re capable of earning points when we’re at home. And I do think, slowly-but-surely, the guys have got a much more comfortable feel about the surface, the dimensions, the whole environment that you have, and of course the preparations for the game, being in your own bed the night before, the day leading into the kickoff – all of those things become far more natural when you’re at home, and we’ve been able to take advantage of that nicely.

“It shouldn’t be taken for granted, though. It just doesn’t happen. The guys have to go about their business and apply themselves, and stay focused, and really try and put their best foot forward from the opening minute. All things being equal, we’ll get all of those things aligned on Wednesday, and into Saturday and beyond.”

Defender Alistair Johnston

“It was a successful international break for us Canadians. Now, sole focus is back here with Nashville, and we’re trying to get some results, get some points on the board. It was a tough start in New York, but we’re looking to bounce back. We’ve got two home games and we’re excited that it’s such a quick turnaround, because there’s nothing worse than waiting a week after dropping some points.

“So we’re lucky, we’re happy to have that opportunity to go against Toronto this quicker turnaround, and Montreal as well. We’re excited for this week, and it’s a big week for us. Lots of points there to take, and these are teams that we know are going to be in that playoff hunt in the next couple months, so it’d be great to pick up some points and really get a gap on them.”

What do you think the difficulties have been for the Canadian teams being unable to return home as they make home bases in the States this early portion of the season?

“I can speak to it from both sides: I got lots of family and friends in the area that area Toronto FC fans, and it is tough when you can go out and really feel the atmosphere and be a part of the team. And for the players, just from talking to the guys who I know on the team and saw over the past couple of weeks, it’s been tough. It’s a lot of things you don’t see behind the scenes. I’m sure it’s not the worst thing living and a hotel and all this. But for a lot of guys, it’s being away from their families, and not really being able to do the things that they’re used to doing and getting that rhythm – which is really important for us soccer players. When you want to go home and kind of relax, and you do your usual things that you’re used to being at home, and kind of getting into your groove. So it’s been tough for them, I know.

“This year’s definitely been better, in terms of the accommodations and everything being the second year. But still. I know that group is – especially as an older group, I would say for that TFC group, some young guys as well that are coming through the ranks – it’s been a bit of a transition of really taking that in stride. Just the uncertainty, I think’s been the hardest part. They kept giving all these dates when they’re expecting to be back in Canada, and it’s just so up in the air that it’s really tough to have that hope that you’re going to be going home soon.

“I understand for them how difficult it’s been, and I think that it’s something that us teams that get to play in-market and play in front of fans, we really should be grateful for and excited about, because I’ve seen it first-hand how difficult it’s been for these guys. I know they’ve had a tough start to the season, but I have no doubt in my mind that they’ll bounce back, especially once they get back into Toronto and all the Canadian teams are back home – how big of a thing that’ll be for them and their families. And the fans too. So yeah, it’s just been a rough moment I know for everyone there, for those organizations.”

When you were with Canada, were you talking smack to the TFC guys knowing that you’d be facing them almost immediately after the international break?

“Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of smack-talk going on – don’t get it twisted. I was pretty happy going in there saying we were undefeated. No matter what the record was, there were no Ls in the column at that point, so that was fun going with that. They were all joking that, ‘you guys will be the invincibles that didn’t make the playoffs.’ Not sure that’s ever happened before, which is good fun.

“But there’s definitely been some smack-talk. We’ve all been excited and looking forward to playing with each other, same with the Montreal guys. We all know that we’re going to have a lot of glut of games against each other coming up, especially with both of us being in the Eastern Conference and playing each other three times this year. So we’ve all been excited for that. There’s definitely been some good smack-talk, and we’ll see if both sides can back it up on Wednesday.”

What can challenges Richie Laryea and Jonathan Osorio present to you guys on Wednesday?

“I think that both of those guys is: Richie off the field is like a super-funny guy, big personality. Oso: business, just absolute business. Such a great guy as well, to talk to.

“I think both of them once they get on the field it just that warrior mindset. It was funny, we were going into the second leg of the Haiti game, and I know a couple of guys were thinking, ‘OK, what’s going to happen with this result?’ Someone said, ‘we’ve got older guys in this team, guys like Richie, guys like Oso, who aren’t going to let us lose.’ So that kind of summed it up for me, what kind of – they’re just those dogs in the field, you can trust them, you can rely on them. So I know once we cross that white line, they’re going to be putting – it doesn’t matter what friendship we have, it’s do-or-die for them, as well. They know, especially with how they’ve started, these points are extremely crucial.

“I think what I would be looking for as a fan with those guys is: look how intense they are, and just how important every single touch of the ball is to them. They hold everyone to such a high standard, and that was one of the coolest parts about being down in Canada. Every little ball, even if I played a good ball, but it wasn’t to Oso, he’s yelling at me constantly like, ‘hey! Find me, find me.’ It’s one of those guys that just demand such a high standard. I think that’s something that you see throughout that Toronto group, as an older, really mature team that has had player that play at such a high level, and player in massive matches both internationally and domestically. I think that’s something I would look out for with TFC and those guys in particular.”

You played a couple different roles – including CB in a back three – with Canada. What went into that with Canada, and can you apply it to NSC as well?

“It was funny, actually: John Herdman called me out of the blue, sent me a couple texts, actually, saying, ‘hey can I talk?’ I was like, ‘yeah, alright, what’s this about?’ I was kind of worried for a second.We caught up for a little bit, and he said, ‘have you ever played right-side centerback in a back three?’ I was kind of like no, but I was trying to sell it like, ‘I could do it if you need me to.’ He said ‘we looked at your profile and how you play, and we think it’d be a great fit.’

Honestly for me, I loved it. I really enjoyed that position, especially in a back-three. Just felt more back to my younger days when I was a center mid getting in more of a central pocket, and it really caused some issues. I think it really showed my ability to pass the ball a little bit more, and got me in a bit more of a central position to allow me to hit diagonals, and play entry balls to the middle, which I really enjoyed, and it kind of gave me a different outlook on the game. It also, with playing in a back three, they said, ‘be as aggressive as you want,’ which is something that as a defender, you always want to hear. I’ve always fancied myself in a physical battle, so going into the midfield to go fight a guy, or running into the channel, they said, ‘you’ve got the green light to go wherever you want, and really just get physical and be aggressive.’ So for me, that was really enjoyable, and it was definitely something different.

“I think that’s something that we could bring back to Nashville as well: that adaptability. I can play different spots and can kind of learn on the fly. We saw that a little bit against Red Bull: I played a more-defensive right back, staying a little bit closer to Walker in terms of almost playing like an inverted fullback that was almost a false centerback to a degree. So it’s something that maybe we’ll dabble with a little more in the future, and it’s something that I’m excited with. Because for me, it’s a position that I really enjoyed playing. Compared to wingback – I also like the wingback role – but I think the right-side centerback in a back three is something that I would definitely like to try again in the future.”

Goalkeeper Joe Willis

“A quick turnaround. After our first loss of the season, it’s interesting to see how the team reacts to it. It’s a new experience for us this year. But it’s always nice to play games in such quick succession, because you can kind of forget about it and focus on the next one.

“We looked at video of the New York game, and then put it in the past. And now we focus on Toronto.”

What do you remember about the Toronto game in last year’s playoffs, and how different is this team than the one you saw then?

“I remember the game being really cold. But yeah, other than that, they’re a good team: they have a lot of attacking pieces that can hurt you. So defensively, we’re going to have to get back to what we’re used to, and keeping clean sheets and staying organized. They’ve had an up-and-down year, but teams like that are especially dangerous because they’ve got to go for it at this point, and they’ve got to start throwing caution to the wind and trying to score goals.

“Like I said, they have a lot of attacking pieces, a lot of guys we’re going to have to be aware of. But I think we’re going to focus on our game and our gameplan, and try and take the game to them.”


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