Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, CJ Sapong, and Joe Willis after a win against Philadelphia Union

Nashville SC earned three massive points against one of Major League Soccer’s top teams Saturday evening. Three of the men most responsible for the victory – head coach Gary Smith, goal-scorer CJ Sapong, and clean-sheet keeper Joe Willis – chatted with the media after. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Well I think – maybe to put in perspective our win – I’ve got to really talk about Philadelphia briefly first: A lot, a lot of respect for what Jim Curtin and the group have done there with this team. Incredibly consistent group of players. Up close and personal – first time that we’ve run into them – I was even more impressed with some of the quality of their group. They have ability to score from all areas of the field. Set pieces, they have pace, they have power, they have quality on the ball.

“So I think it leads nicely into how well we played, how well we executed a very different plan. There were what I felt were some heroic performances from individuals that took on a lot of information in one week, and gave us not only a very important victory, but a clean sheet, as well.”

Did you feel anxiety building as you had to absorb pressure in the second half?

“I think – and I’ll have to look back at the game Drake, but – the final moments, the last 10, maybe 12 minutes, they built some very good pressure and you might expect that. We certainly had opportunities to make life a hell of a lot more comfortable for ourselves. So when all is said and done, those final moments, there are players that have got to earn their money, and they did.

“Now, we can say probably that the most difficult moment was when Joe came and missed a punch, and it creates some confusion. But I think all-in-all, if you look at the way that back-three defended, the way that the wingbacks went about their business – Alex Muyl was fantastic when he came into the game, Daniel Lovitz looked like he’d been playing it all of his career. But what is important in that shape is the quality, the energy, and the ability of our attacking three players: Randall, Hany, and CJ were vital to the way that we went about our business. All three of those guys have an impact in different ways. CJ obviously with the goal and was terrific with his setup-forward play, but the energy, creativity, and perseverance from the other two constantly kept a very good team on their toes. And in many ways, it’s as important as the defensive duties. You’re making chances, you’re getting into good areas, I felt we made some much better choices tonight to manage the game, as well. The shape of the group gave us some natural width in areas that we could just control a little bit more, and the guys did a great job through all of the game tonight.”

Do you feel like beating a team the caliber of Philadelphia shows you’re turning the corner into contender status?

“I think credentials, Gentry, are what you’re maybe getting at. I’d like to – it’s great to be thinking that way, but you forget we’re an 18 months old as a group. There are still definitely areas of our game and our group that we can continue to improve, but I think one of the most encouraging things is the way that we’ve been able to go about our business at home here.

“We’ve continued to make it a very difficult place to play. Yet again, we’re in double figures with opportunities at goal against a very, very good team – top team. We’ve kept a clean sheet in the process. But the growth of the group, their experiences together are getting better and better week-on-week. Of course, look: we can look at it and say ‘we’ve had a lion’s share of home games, we need to take advantage of these.’ That’s not always easy. It might sound so, but when you’re at home week after week there is the tendency to go, ‘ok, if we don’t get it done this week, we’ll be fine next week.’ Well, suddenly next week becomes a difficulty as well, and before you know it, you’ve not picked up enough points. So we saw it earlier on in the season when we had those exchanges and home games earlier; I think we’ve learned some lessons from that and we’re certainly moving in the right direction.

“No doubt about it, the lads will be confident in the way that they’re playing, and if we continue to show the sort of endeavors, discipline, determination that we do, then I think we’ll be in a reasonable spot. But you look at those top
teams, there’s a lot, lot more experiences together that take, or that give you or make you a top-three team. And I think we’ll obviously fight tooth and nail to be part of that, but I think in the end, you’ll see the likes of New England – there’s a lot of experiences as a group there.”

What were the decisions on the back-three shape?

“I do genuinely think and felt that [Philly]’s type of system, that diamond shape – and we ran into it in New York in slightly different circumstances – but that shape is incredibly competitive. They win a lot of second-phase balls, and because of the quality of their group, they tend to – for want of a better terminology – work you over a bit. They’ve got two excellent forwards, whoever plays. And if you look at their stats, what they do is just, in the process of a game, get their fullbacks higher and higher, work crosses into good areas: they’re incredibly efficient in the way they go about their work, and they make the game quick.

“I always felt that the tough part of tonight would be, ‘how can we get to grips with the game and ask them some serious questions?’ In our usual shape, it just looked to me like some of our more-creative players would get overwhelmed with either pressure or on the wrong side of the ball. Listen, it wasn’t always perfect, but I felt that there were some very, very good occasions for us to counterattack, for us to be aggressive, to manage the ball, and to ask a top team some serious questions. You’re not just going to be able to do what you want, and now you’re going to have to think a little bit more – which they did: listen, they created chances too, and these games are not going to be runaway victories. They’re always going to be tight affairs but trying to turn what might just have been a competitive game into a victory was never, ever going to be easy. And the guys have managed to do that tonight.”

What did you see on CJ Sapong’s opening goal, and what was the emotional rollercoaster of riding out the next 88 minutes?

“Yeah, completely different to the last two games. It was actually a little bit early to celebrate. It caught me by surprise. You know, a nice sequence of play and a great finish, and ultimately, of course, the winner.

“There’s so much football to be played beyond that. My first instinct – as always was to get the message to the group that the game hasn’t even started. We still have a long way to go to impose ourselves and to try and make sure that our style was going to be the determining factor on the night. There was a lot of work to be done.

“But of course, very very pleased to get the opener. You can look around the league, as we’ve said multiple times: if you get yourself in front, you give yourself a much better chance in this league in general. It felt a lot better than the last couple of games, and my anxiousness was slightly different for the last two games in the final moments.”

How do you adjust without the players leaving for Gold Cup duty, and is this tactical approach possible without them?

“We’ve got some very good bodies to come in and replace the ones that are going to be missing. It goes without saying that the type of experience that Walker and Aníbal, in particular, have is always tough to replace.

“Brian Anunga’s 45 minutes tonight, Matt LaGrassa was able to play a good portion of the game in New York – that’ll serve them both very, very well to try and fill those shoes. In Dylan [Nealis]’s case, I think he’s more than capable of fulfilling either role as a fullback or a wingback. He’s done that in Miami, and I wouldn’t have any qualms about playing Dylan – or even Alex – there in the future if we need to.

“Alex was absolutely astounding as a wingback. He did – I’m not sure he made a mistake. He was in their box when we were attacking – as he normally would be as a wide player, which you might expect from a wingback – and he was absolutely terrific as a defender in one-v-one moments. Maybe we’ve found another valuable spot for a very valuable player.”

Striker CJ Sapong

How good did it feel to score against your former club?

“It feels really good, feels really good. Philly was a place I think I was able to… come to an understanding of who I am on the field and off the field. I do owe a lot to them, but obviously when you leave a place and it’s unexpected, any time you play them again you want to obviously show what you feel like they’re missing out on.

“I felt like I could have scored many more. Ultimately, I am just happy that we got the three points, and it’s a good game for us to grind out, and get back at it on Thursday.”

How many times did you feel like you were close to that second goal?

“Many times. I mean, the most times I’ve ever had in a game in my career. And ultimately, I’m happy with myself because I found myself in those positions and I do believe the way we play, I’ll find myself in those positions many more times. Just staying focused, and doing the extra work in training, and I believe that those will come.”

How did you feel the defensive responsibility was ramped up?

“Yeah, you know it’s something that I personally have been used to in my career. I’ve played out wide; I know the ask when it comes to defensive work, and I have no problem doing it. It’s something where, if you can’t get two forwards to embrace that role, it makes it hard for other teams to break you down. I think we saw that tonight. It’ll be interesting moving forward, because we now have been able to show success in a couple different formations. It’s always going to be good to be able to be malleable and versatile, and ultimately that’s just going to help us in the long run.”

How did you feel about the role that you had individually in that defensive role?

“I have no problem doing it. I know it helps my team, and there’s something about forwards working hard, working backwards that motivates everybody else on the pitch as well. So if I can do that, and then also be in position to score goals, I’m going to be very happy at the end of the game.”

How do your relationships with the players around you change as you play in different formations or strike groups?

Yeah, I think for me, again, it’s my 10th year in the league so I’ve seen many different formations. While when I was younger, I felt like there was an importance to have consistency with a certain group of players, as I’;ve gone on in my career, you’re really bringing another aspect to your team if you can have multiple players in multiple positions.

“The way we train, and the way other guys – especially within the forward corps – understand what we’re trying to do, I think we do work seamlessly together whoever’s on the pitch. That’s exciting, and it keeps the competition high in training. Everybody wants to be on the field, and then when we get on the field, I think there’s always going to be opportunity no matter the combination.”

What can you take from this game to the Atlanta contest in just a few days?

“Yeah, I think there were some tactical issues that we had, that landed to start the game. When you couple that with the atmosphere there – their stadium – it was a bit of a hurdle for us to get over. But I think again, the resiliance that we showed in that game to be able to come back, we were able to see what would work against them, and now we have a lot of confidence. I think we just do what we’ve been doing, we’re going to be able to get a win.”

Does getting this sort of win build confidence as your season’s arc progresses?

“Yeah, 10, 11 games in – a third of the way through – we’ve been able to get wins against two of the top teams in our conference. We ultimately have found ourselves in positions where we either got a tie or a loss but we know we could have given more, and while that is a bit of a stinger, it is better to know the only reason why we’re not higher up in the table is because of ourselves.

“So, when we go into training again, the confidence aspect leads to more sharpness in training. There is a belief now amongst this group and I believe that will carry us through the rest of the season.”

Goalkeeper Joe Willis

“Good, it feels really good. Philadelphia’s a really good team, ahead of us in the standings, so getting three points – plus a clean sheet on top of it – a few things went wrong, but for the most part, it couldn’t have gone better.”

How does it feel to persevere through some of the intense moments in the match?

“Yeah, I mean, CJ getting the first goal was huge for us. We’ve obviously gone down early a lot this year, so to get that goal, it gave us a platform for the rest of the game. Then with the saves, you just have to prepare and always be ready. It’s an interesting position, because – especially with this team – there’s a lot of games where you don’t see a lot of action. But then all of a sudden, you’re called on, and you have to step up and make a save. Trying to stay focused for 90 minutes and always being ready.

“And then, we also have defenders who take a lot of pride in keeping clean sheets, so you see a lot of blocks, and a lot of second-chance clearances from our defenders.”

What did you see on the biggest save of the night against Sergio Santos, and what is the sense of relief like after making it?

“To be honest, I don’t really remember exactly the buildup. I know they had a player on the ball on my right side who crossed it. I tried to just get myself to the center of the goal as fast as possible and get set. Fortunately, I had a clear view on the shot, and then he hit it right at me for the most part. So I was able to get a fingertip to it.”

On the other end, you had a scary moment with the missed punch clearance. How do you maintain composure there?

“It’s a mistake on my part – I should probably start a little higher and come a little sooner. But once you make a mistake – I always tell young goalkeepers, you have to have a short memory to play goalkeeper – the play’s not over, obviously, so when you make a mistake you have to not even think about it. We’ll assess it now after the game, but in the moment, as long as the ball’s not in the back of the net, you need to be focused and ready and trying to make up for any mistakes that you do make.”

How can you snap back into focus when you’re left alone for awhile and suddenly have a lot to do?

“It can be tough. Like I said though, you have to stay focused for 90 minutes because you never know what’s going to happen. In the first half, I had to make a few saves, but I think for the most part, we controlled the game. We pressed really well, we were able to win balls in good positions. And then, you know, you’re not going to dominate possession for 90 minutes. You have to know that at some point – especially when you’re leading and the other team’s kind of throwing caution to the wind and throwing numbers forward, that you’re going to have to step up and make some saves at some point or make some plays, whatever is may be.”?

Does a win like this begin to build respect around the league

“I think it does earn us a little bit of respect. It’s obviously nice to beat top teams in this league, especially when they’re ahead of you in the standings. But we need to keep this as the standard. Too many times, especially at home, we’ve gone down early and scratched and clawed and eked out a draw at best and those are games that if we start a little bit better, we get a win out of and we’re higher in the standings. It’s obviously nice, like I said, to beat the teams higher than you in the standings but we need to keep that same mentality and start that way against every team that we play.”

When you play behind a different formation, are shots coming from different areas than usual? Does playing out of the back get easier with Walker Zimmerman right there?

“Yeah, I mean, there’s a few differences. We worked on that formation all week, so we worked out the kinks in training, and knew pretty much what to expect from Philadelphia from watching their previous games. They’re one of the top crossing teams in the league, so we figured with wingbacks plus three big guys in the middle, we’d hopefully be able to negate a lot of that, and I think we did.

“As far as playing out of the back, it’s always nice to have Walker there. But basically five defenders at some point, because you kind of think that they’ll maybe throw three – potentially four – guys pressing. So you should always have numbers up when you’re trying to build out of the back. That’s something, when we do build out of the back, that we can be very good at, and create opportunities on the other side of the field. It’s something that we enjoy doing.”

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