Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and defender Dan Lovitz sat down with the media before their Saturday contest against Philadelphia Union. See what they had to say about the upcoming game and more here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“It’s nice to have that week leading into such a big game against a top side like Philly. More preparational opportunity: guys get the ability to do some extra work and to just be in what we would class as maybe tip-top condition for such a big challenge. We got lucky today, as well, with the weather. It looked like it was going to be a difficulty for us with storms rolling in, but maybe that’s a little bit of an omen, so all good.”
How have you felt about Rodrigo Piñeiro’s progress?
“I’ve seen progress from him, Drake, since he’s been here. And I’ve been asked this question multiple times about Rodrigo. He’s a terrific kid, he’s very talented – hence the reason he’s with the group – but there are a lot of things that I don’t think any of us realize coming to a brand new culture, first time he’s been away from his home country and family. He’s here without his girlfriend, without his parents, and as I say, the first time that he’s been somewhere outside of Uruguay.
“He’s coming to terms with the language, he’s trying to get used to new teammates, possibly a new style of play and focus on the game. Listen, this kid’s very, very genuine, and I do believe that he will be a good player for us as we continue to move in our evolution.
“But at the moment, he’s got competition from a number of other players. And at this point in time, there are one or two that are just getting the nod in front of him. As long as he continues down the path he’s on, there’s no reason why, as we move forward, he’s not going to see more time on the field.”
Who could be in line for more playing time with the upcoming absences of Walker Zimmerman, Anibal Godoy, and especially Alistair Johnston who you haven’t really had to adjust without since he emerged last season?
“The good thing is, we’ve been able to either construct the group in a way originally to give us some depth, or certainly in the case of our right back spot, have added an individual like Dylan Nealis who’s incredibly capable. We’ve got a good young right back in Alistair Johnston’s who’s jumped in leaps and bounds to his national team from the college draft, and understandably playing regularly in the group.
“But you know this is a good opportunity for someone like Dylan, Eric Miller, Jalil, these guys are all capable if we’re playing with a back four in that shape. You know it’s something that I certainly enjoy: to have guys that are competing for that position and getting more out of one another. Competition anywhere on the field is vitally important.
“Listen, the other positions that we we talking about at centerback and central midfield with the losses of Walker and Aníbal… Again, it goes without saying that I don’t have a preconceived idea of ‘this player much play, and will play at all costs.’ It is about the best option and the most in-form player at the time.
“Jack has given us a really good insight as to where he’s at in the last two games, but if I know and understand Jalil, he’ll be working tremendously hard to try and unseat Jack as maybe the next body into that position. Likewise in center midfield. Brian Anunga’s back fit. Matt LaGrassa has been a real good support in there. We’ve got good competition.”
How are you considering using different shapes in situations?
“As far as looking at different shapes and ideas, for me it’s an opportunity to have a plan B if the game’s not necessarily going the way you want it to. You know, if injuries are such that we need to look at something slightly different, and it was just a nice opportunity to do that with a window of time. I’m comfortable – and so are the group – with the way that they’ve been playing. We’ve had two very good performances in the last two home games. The players have been positive and energetic and really upbeat in their outlook, but it’s always nice to have that added string to your bow.
What is Dom Badji’s status in injury recovery?
“As far as Dom, he still seems to be having some issues with that ankle. I don’t think he’s too far away. It’s sort of the final piece of soreness that he’s trying to get rid of. But at the moment, he still remains unavailable to us.
What have you seen and what do you expect from the Union this weekend?
“I do think it goes without saying this is one of the top teams in MLS. I have to say that over a period of time, Jim [Curtin]’s done a terrific job with this group. I’ve got to say, it can’t have always been easy. I think we’re seeing the reward for an organization that have supported their coach incredibly well. They’re getting young players through a wonderfully talented youth system, Jim’s integrating those players at the right times with very good experienced players, and the reward for that is a consistently-successful team that play a style of football that is incredibly competitive but also very exciting.
“And they’re selling players; they’re moving players on. They’ve been able to see the rewards for their academy system. In many ways, it’s almost the ideal scenario. Tremendous respect for the team and for the coach. We’re expecting maybe the toughest challenge at home that we’ve had yet.
I said that about New England. I do believe New England slightly different makeup to this Philadelphia team. But in terms of challenges and certainly at the time we’re going to play them, I think this Philadelphia team will to push us to our limits.
Defender Dan Lovitz
As a Philly native, how will you feel playing the Union?
“For sure, I mean the club itself is something that was very exciting when I was a youth player to see the formal implementation and the start of the franchise within MLS within Philadelphia I think around 2007 – somewhere around there. It was a very exciting time for the sport.
“Something that I always had in my head of the level that I’d like to play at. I couldn’t imagine ever doing it. And then when I got drafted, I think my first-ever start my rookie year was in Philadelphia in front of all my friends and family, which was incredibly special.
“That sort of excitement and appreciation for the club and the matchup in particular sort of wears off over the years as I’ve played them many, many times playing for Eastern Conference teams. But certainly always something very different,. I’m familiar with a lot of the guys, I’m able to train with them in the offseason sometimes, so it’s great, I’m familiar with a lot of good players, it’s been really interesting to see how the club has sort of developed and evolved into the competitor that it is now. It’s always a pleasure to play against them and to have the best team in the conference is what it’s all about.”
They’re known for a fairly rigid tactical approach. How do you guys match up with their 4-diamond-2?
“Good question [Thanks!]. It’s something obviously to avoid getting into the finer details of it. The broader strokes of the situation is just that they’re a team that’s consistent in how they defend and how they attack. They’re basically one in the same, and they’ve had a consistent continuity about the group whether that’s personnel, but more stylistically that makes it a little bit easier to pick up on. Again, they do it incredibly well.
“But it’ll be a different look. We don’t expect it to be the diamond midfield that you see against Red Bull, which is incredibly high-octane. I think Philadelphia – no disrespect to Red Bull – has a little bit more soccer-playing ability and can be a bit more methodical in how they go about and be effective. Just to be aware of those areas that they look to accomplish a lot of that, and then as always, to be aware of where we can implement what makes us very good offensively, and look to be a little bit more – I don’t want to say aggressive, but I think just to have some teeth in the final third I think would do us a whole lot of good in a game like this.”
The Union Academy was just getting going when you headed off to college. What have you seen in the growth of your hometown soccer scene, and what do you see in terms of Nashville’s potential in the long-term?
“It’s incredibly valuable. I was certainly – like you said – on the tail end of that process being integrated into youth soccer in Philadelphia. And we were approached a few times – my club team – to be the first real iteration of that at the club level to become an academy. We decided to go a different route. I was very thankful for that at the time, I thought we had a good thing going from the club perspective.
“But in general, look, they had to really predicate – of course they go about things in their own way, but at the time, Dallas might have been the Gold Standard within the league in terms of getting young talent acclimated to the league levellevel, and then being able to expose them to other markets and leagues around the world, which is incredibly valuable. To have the more recent headline success of the Mark McKenzies, the Brenden Aaronsons, those guys, is incredible.
“Like you said, to tie it back to Nashville, it’s something that’s attainable. I think as the net becomes bigger and more effective in grasping talent from different markets, different areas of the country, we’re going to start to see this more and more. It’s something that I think we should take a lot of pride in, being able to pump out players that we find in our backyard here in Nasvhille and we can have them contribute on the first-team level in MLS, but also help them grow and become players that can go and represent Nashville and this club on an international scale which is become more and more prevalent.
“It’s something I thin kit’s incredibly valuable. I think it’s only a matter of time, and to see what’s sort of the grassroots movement here and how things are becoming formalize and organized at a very early stage in the club’s history is very promising for what we’re going to end up accomplishing here.”