Nashville SC

Postgame presser: Gary Smith, Luke Haakenson, and Jack Maher after a win against Toronto FC

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and goal-scorers Luke Haakenson and Jack Maher met with the media after last night’s 3-2 thriller against Toronto FC. Watch or read their full postgame comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Well, it didn’t start out in the best of fashions, did it? Going a goal down, that must’ve meant there were some disappointments at that stage, and I felt the goal was certainly avoidable. What we saw was a group again that never say die. They’ve shown incredible character. Moments in both halves where we should’ve really gotten ourselves in front or extended our lead, but we didn’t – there were some very good opportunities.

“All in all, I think it took every sinew of their energies and fiber in their bodies to win the game. And it was a very important win of course, against a close rival, and one that gets us on the right track for this long home stand that we’re in.”

What was the process for bringing Jack Maher back from his loan? What did he bring?

“I mean it’s part of development for a lot of our young players: we’re looking for opportunities to get them games, we’re looking for situations where they can experience different environments and styles. But most importantly, gaining minutes at the professional level. It is very, very difficult for someone like Jack – though he’s an extremely talented boy – we’ve got two very, very good center backs who’ve stayed fit and healthy. To get those minutes are not easy.

“So we decided as a group to try and further his development by sending him away for a little over a month – or maybe just under, he got five games with San Diego [Loyal SC] – and in many ways, it gave him the opportunity and probably, I suspect, the confidence we saw tonight. Minutes under your belt, a competitive environment that he’s got to deal with and certainly different types of opponents.

“We got him back from his loan period early in the week. There were some circumstances that we were beginning to become aware of that lent itself to us to the fact that we might need an extra body in the area, and that’s pretty much what happened. At the end of what I’m saying here about Jack, I’ve got to say that he’s handled this opportunity
incredibly well. It wasn’t just the goal. Whilst it is important, and it was a pivotal moment in the game, his performance in general was very, very good.”

How how Luke Haakenson’s development allowed him to see more time?

“Look, he’s come into the game, and he’s made all of the difference. Two goals, one of them a winner. in the dying moments – and to be quite frank, there have been some opportunities tonight that haven’t been converted that we would all have suspected would be. He’s kept his cool, and he’s given us all this incredibly exciting moment.

“What Luke’s been able to do over the past 6-8 weeks is get himself some minutes on the field through some incredible hard work during the week, showing fabulous signs of improvement, and again, because of the way that development of our youngsters is set up, Luk’es learning on the job, as it were. He’s come into the first team, and now he’s got to earn some trust – not only of the players around him, but of the coaching staff, and he’s been able to do that. Slowly-but-surely, he’s taken those moments, and he’s grown, and he’s moved with it. And we see tonight an incredible impression from what was 35 minutes or so.

After a couple home comebacks, how cathartic is it to get one all the way back and earn a win?

“Well, it’s not nice to go behind at home. I did feel as though we were creating opportunities, and this is a real talented Toronto team: some incredible players in that group. It’s tough to seize the initiative from them. They’re good footballers, they want the ball, it inspires them and they do it very, very well. So there were some real qualities within our group but to go and go down against that type of team makes it a little tougher.

“As I’ve said: the resilience, the determination and character in this group is unquestionable. But I think this come-from-behind result and to get three points on the board for the first time this season is something that should really resonate inside all of these players, and it gives us a great platform to go towards the weekend.”

Were there adjustments going into this game that separated it from previous wins at home?

“In fairness, not too many. There’s limitations with forwards, with some injuries and omissions. CJ’s been immense for the group. He’s battled for another 90 minutes tonight and had a tremendous impact on the game. He creates the first goal with a wonderful header down for Jack. So there are limitations off the line or otherwise, and choices as to how we would go about our business.

“I’ve got to say, playing a 4-2-3-1 again tonight, the front two – as I would describe them, Hany being that 10, a withdrawn striker – the pair of them were terrific, really were. And they led the line for us, they gave us our best moments. Aside that, really of course, it was Jack. The choice to replace Walker in some difficult circumstances and some personal ones that he’s had. On short notice wasn’t easy. Jalil [Anibaba]’s a fabulous replacement, and was at the weekend, but I just felt that there were some aspects of this game that might suit Jack a little bit better. And I think that was borne out.

“Aside that, we had some great moments, some good possession, the guys worked the ball well. But to come from behind twice and win the game is a fantastic feeling and again, great character in the group.

Rodrigo Piñeiro got a longer run-out. What has he done to earn that, and how did he perform?

“There’s a lot of competition, and I could really package the likes of Luke and Rodrigo and Handwalla [Bwana] in a similar sense, because all three of them are young guys, they’re lacking experience at this level – Handwalla probably having the most. Rodrigo’s got a lot of first-team experience abroad, but he’s adapting to the environment and to the team. Honestly, I wanted to try and get as many attacking players on the line as I could. I wanted to have options: we have got injuries, and we do have some problems on the line with regards to forwards.

“And I just though in that moment, he’s shown some really bright and positive signs, and his attitude has been spot-on in the last week. I think it was just a feeling: I felt as though he deserved the minutes. He gave us some nice moments, he certainly injected some energy. I’m not expecting him to turn the game in 10 minutes, but I think he will have walked off today feeling as though he’s done his job, and he’s certainly planted a positive seed in everyone’s mind on the line.”

When do you expect Walker Zimmerman to return?

[Club spokesperson – will provide an update when one is available]

What does the dramatic nature of the game do for your team’s mentality?

“Of course it goes without saying that it does a world of good for the group. I think we can also look at the game as a whole – not just the three goals and the victory, but the performance itself. There were some really bright spots and nice creation. I did wonder at one point whether or not we were going to be able to keep our cool in front of goal, and ask them some serious questions. And of course in the end, we were able to.

“At one-nil and two-one, there’s always a fear that ‘have we got one more in us?’ and to get something out of the game rather than, of course, walk off with nothing. In the end, the guys have really dug deep and given everything. As I’ve said previously, it’s set this homestand up on a very good footing. There’ll be confidence in the group at the weekend. When you’ve got a quick turnaround, it’s a hell of a lot easier for those guys – weary bodies – to galvanize themselves again when they’ve won a game. It’s the complete opposite, as you can imagine, if you don’t win it.

“So delighted, excited, overwhelmed for the fans – it must have been a wonderful game to watch: five goals. You don’t get too many that are won in the final moments, in injury time for the victory. A night to remember for everyone, I do believe that.”

Winger Luke Haakenson

LUKE HAAKENSON  
(On his two goals) 
“The first one, I believe it was a cross and CJ nodded it down. I think I can put that down to being in the right place at the right time. The second one was a long run with Dan [Lovitz], great vision by Dan, honestly. I really didn’t have to do too much: he put me in a great spot and I was able to put it home. That’s the last one.”

Is that the least upset you’ve ever been to get a yellow card?
Haakenson was carded for excessive celebration after removing his shirt

“Ha, great question. I would say that’s the least upset I’ve probably been to get a yellow card, yeah.”

What was going through your head on the sequence for the second goal?

“I think you don’t see the behind-the-scenes. Guys in our positions, we do that constantly every single day of the week in practice, just those moments. If I looked comfortable, it’s probably because, as a team, we put ourselves in those positions every single day in practice to make sure we’re ready for it.

“Don’t remember much about it. I was in the moment. Obviously really happy and excited to help my team get three points, and personally for me to get two goals.”

What was it like to celebrate with the teammates?

“We have a really close-knit group here. They’re all really supportive of one another and I think we all appreciate each other and how much we really root for each other. If anything, it was happiness for the group that we were able to win the game and those guys that we work with every single day. It means a lot when one of us gets to succeed because it means all of us do.”

What did you and Gary talk about before you entered the game?

“‘Do the best you can.’ That’s kind of the message, I would say. Obviously, ‘go in and make a difference, do the best you can.’ Tactically, we’ll save that for another time, but I would say Gary’s always really supportive of the guys coming in the game. Gives them confidence going in to make a difference, and that’s what he did for me.”

How exciting is it to succeed on the night along with your fellow Class of 2020 draft pick?

“Yeah, I think it was us two tonight, but ultimately, it could have been anyone. I don’t think I was really necessarily as special as anyone else. the most important thing was it was a special occasions, we came back from a deficit against a good team, and as a group, we were able to rally around one another. Tonight that was Jack and myself with the goals, but other nights, other guys, and ultimately, as a group, we came through.”

Defender Jack Maher

What did you see on your goal?

“It was a fantastic ball from Hany, there were a lot of guys just in front of me and I just ended up seeing the ball late and did whatever I could to get my foot on it. I think It was a great ball though.” 

What’s the mental strain of returning to the group and getting into the starting lineup so quickly?

“Yeah, honestly this game’s just about opportunities and chances. Tonight, I was able to take advantage, and I think that has a lot to do with the coaching staff and the teammates that I have around me. They were able to instill confidence in me, and at the end of the day, we’re able to come away with three points. At the end of the day, that’s really all that matters.”

How much were you able to train back with the team before playing?

“I had one regen day where I pretty much just stretched, and then one training session yesterday. So I pretty much just hopped into it, but that’s part of the game: take the opportunities when they come, and just happy to have taken it today.”

Walker Zimmerman’s shoes were pretty big ones to fill on this day, right?>

“Walker is an absolute beast in the air. I think that was something that we were missing today. Knew that I could step up on a set piece, and found a way to help out whatever way I could.”

What have you taken away from the experience in San Diego that’s allowed you to step right back into the MLS lineup?

“You really can’t replicate 90 game minutes. I think that’s the big thing: I had a stretch of five games, and then on top of it, going into a very, very good environment in San Diego with Landon Donovan as the coach. He was just able to instill confidence in me. Honestly, it was an opportunity that, whenever it came up, I just really couldn’t pass. I think a lot of the credit goes to San Diego as well for having me be prepared for this moment, and this opportunity. I know they’re extremely happy for me.”

When did you hear about being recalled from the loan and what information did you get from Nashville’s end about the role you’d play?

“We played – San Diego played against Phoenix – on Saturday night, and then Sunday at eight in the morning, I got a text saying they wanted me back as soon as possible. I hopped on a flight later that day around four o’clock. Came in, did one regen session, one practice with the team, and was just happy to step in and get the start.”

How exciting is scoring the first MLS goal, particularly in front of a big crowd?

“Yeah, It’s fantastic. Nashville is home for me. To be able to sort of give back to some of these fans that drove all the way to my house a year ago, I think that’s just a moment that I honestly will never forget, and I hope that they don’t either.”

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