Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith and Dax McCarty preview Chicago Fire

Dax McCarty repping #fortheculture via Zoom

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and midfielder Dax McCarty sat down with the media to discuss their team’s upcoming game against Chicago Fire, a new signing in Aké Loba, and more. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“These elongated periods of time with the Gold Cup weekend has given us a nice opportunity again to get the right balance of work and preparational time: rest, recovery to be mentally and physically ready and stimulated for Saturday’s game against Chicago. The guys look in a good place, as always.”

How long have you been working with Aké Loba, and do you change playing style with him available?

“I don’t think so at all Drake. I’ve seen a reasonable amount now of Aké in training. He looks in a good place, he’s fitting in brilliantly with the group: fluent in Spanish and French, he’s a real good character, got great personality, which goes a long, long way when you’re trying to make these big moves in the transition he has done from Mexico to here.

“But of course, the most important thing is the language of football in general. When you’re on the field, your talent and your quality speak for themselves. And he’s been able to show what he’s capable of in quite an abundance. So really pleased with him. He’s on-track and he’s in a good place, and he’s in the reckoning for everything that we’re talking about right now.”

What have you seen from Chicago Fire this season, and in particular, their recent run of form?

“The last three games for Chicago have been, I would think, their most effective. Nine goals in three outings, and they seem to have found a much more comfortable and effective format or shape to the group. You know, it would be a conundrum to me from a distance as to why they started off so slowly, because I do think they’re one of the most talented groups.

“And in answer to your question, I felt last year – I remember the game, they were playing very, very well, they were looking extremely positive when they came to Nissan Stadium last year – and strange enough, they’re in a very similar spot when they come to us this year. They must be buoyed and confident by the recent games that they’ve played. They’ve got the majority of their senior and effective talent – if you like – on the roster and available to play, and it’ll be a tough, tough game, there’s no doubt about it.”

With a few days to reflect between games, has your overall view of the Atlanta United game changed or evolved at all?

“Yeah, time’s a great healer, as we all know. I’ve been able to maybe look at the game in a more-calculated and philosophical fashion. I actually thought we played some very decent football in a fierce rivalry game. And look: we’ve conceded those goals, that doesn’t need to be, we don’t need to harp on from those dead balls. But the positives are not a lot of opportunities in open play, not a lot of goals scored against us in open play. Some really bright and positive creative football from our group at home. I feel as though we’re in a good groove. I think there’s a good feel – and there should be: we’ve had a long run of home games. And whilst we would love to have taken advantage of one or two of the previous games, we can only ever look at what’s in front of us.

“We have a great opportunity against what I would class as a playoff rival. Yes they started slowly, but they’re certainly one of the in-form teams. And it’s important that we get a very positive result against them at the weekend and keep ourselves in the hunt for those top spots in the Eastern Conference.”

What have you seen out of Aké Loba in his time training?

“It’s amazing when you see players close up: we get the opportunity to look – be it from a video, a live TV, but nothing’s ever quite the same as being next to him in a training session or match, even watching live from the stadium which is obviously next rung down – it’s been wonderful to watch him in full flow. He’s got great footwork, he’s very light on his feet, really good center of gravity and great change of pace as he tries to get away from defenders. And I think just as importantly, he looks to have a very good understanding and appreciation of others around him, which is something I think we all saw. But again: until you get him in your own group, it’s hard to determine how he’s actually going to settle into that and what sort of relationship he’s going to build. But already I can see some very nice connections, and I do believe he’ll give us a dimension that we don’t have at the moment, which will be important as we move forward and try to achieve something that we didn’t last year.”

Have you had a chance to watch your guys who are away on international duty? Are you able to watch just as a fan, with a critical eye, just hoping you see them make it through each game healthy?

“Yeah, it’s a very different one. I saw some of the game, I didn’t watch all of it. I felt as though the US would be a tad too strong – as suspected – for Haiti, and maybe some of these earlier games. The Canada game, I’m sure will be very competitive, but understandably, the US are one of the big favorites.

“As far as Walker or Alistair goes, I’m never sure, obviously, what they’re being asked by their national coaches to try and achieve. Alistair played right side of a three, as a defender. What I will say about Walker is: his distribution was very good, he looked very composed and confident, as you may well expect him to be in a very good US team. But I think what he is showing right now, and what he shows here regularly, are those leadership qualities. He looks like one of those individuals that you can rely upon, and that’s maybe got a slightly different edge to him than one or two other of the other defenders that I’ve seen, be it in the US group or in any other nation.

“It is tough to watch as a fan. You’re always trying to look at your own players and be positive or critical, constructively, in whatever way you can, because you know you’re getting him back – hopefully in one piece – fairly soon.”

Midfielder and captain Dax McCarty

“Preparation’s gone really well this week. Obviously, it’s starting to get hot and humid, but I think training has still been sharp. Preparing for a team that I think is dangerous, a team that’s been on a little bit of a resurgent run. They have, I think, four games at home, and they picked up quite a few points, and so I think they’re confident.

“But so are we. I think we were a little bit disappointed with the result against Atlanta, but we continue to look forward and to try to learn from the things that we’re doing well, and the things that we need to work on. We are putting those things into practice in training. So training’s been sharp, and we’re ready for the weekend.”

Without your teammates who are on international duty, what have you thought of the guys who have stepped up in their places, particularly Brian Anunga and Jack Maher, who are relatively young MLS guys?

“It’s a good question [thanks!] and it’s one that I think has been pretty obvious for all to see in these last few games. How Mike [Jacobs] and Gary wanted to build this team for these difficult summer months where your depth would really be tested.

“IO know Brian Anunbga, everyone saw the contribution he made to our team last year – which was a very important one – at times when Aníbal was injured, or me and Aníbal needed to be rotated, Brian stepped in and did a fantastic job. He was a little unfortunate with a tough injury early in the year, at which point you still have good depth with Matt LaGrassa being able to step in. These are things that I know coaches and technical directors and general managers prepare for, so obviously with the Gold Cup, we knew we were going to lose some very important contributors.

I think these months, especially, with everyone in MLS continuing to play regular-season games, but losing some very valuable pieces to the puzzle, there are no excuses. There are no excuses for any team to sit there and say, ‘oh, well we’re missing one, two three, four of our players, and so it’s an excuse for us to drop a level.’ Everyone is on the same playing field when it comes to losing players. Some more than others, but we have a lot of faith in our depth.

“A guy like Jack Maher is a perfect example of a young player who didn’t play hardly at all last year, who came into preseason, I think, with higher expectations for himself and from the team. And you can see that he is starting to deliver on some of the promise which made him be selected as high as he was in the SuperDraft, and the faith that our staff is putting in him. So another very important couple weeks coming up for those guys, and hopefully they can continue to solidify themselves, because obviously it makes Gary’s job tougher when it comes to team selection.”

What did you think of Anunga’s performance over the weekend? Was it one of his best in an NSC jersey?

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve been asked about Brian before, and I always try to be honest when I assess my teammates and certain players. I think Brian, the growth that he’s shown in the last year and a half has just been tremendous. You could see early last year the speed of play was a little bit too much for him. You see the work that he puts in in training, you see him staying after training, he comes in early to go out before to work on his technique and his passing, and his just awareness of space. Because in MLS, at a higher level, you don’t have as much time on the ball as you do in the lower levels, I think.

“So for him, I thought he was excellent against Atlanta. You know the things that you’re going to get from Brian in terms of his defensive presence: he’s going to win almost every tackle that he goes into. He’s going to be that enforcer in the middle of the field that teams need and they need to rely on. If you want to win the battle in the middle of the field, then that’s always an important factor. He’s impressed me a lot with how much he’s grown in confidence when he has the ball at his feet. When to play simple, when to play one-touch, when to play two-touch, when to drive into space, when t take what the defense is giving you: these are all things that I think for a young player are difficult to navigate. He certainly went through some growing pains, but for sure one of his best performances in a Nashville shirt against Atlanta.”

Has the intensity of communication ramped up in comparison to last year?

“Yeah I think it’s a fair observation from you. I think it’s been raised, certainly, up another level, up a notch. That’s always natural and that’s always going to happen when you have guys that have been around each other a little bit longer, they’re a little bit more familiar with each other. And I think the one thing that I try to communicate with the guys all the time, and the staff I think does a good job of is: everybody in this locker room needs to take ownership and accountability of what’s happening out on the field. This is not just on three-four guys, this is not just on the coaching staff: it’s on all of us to raise the level and raise the bar when it comes to training, when it comes to games. So when you see young players like Brian and Jack having conversations like that, when you see guys like Hany and guys like Randal and younger attacking players demanding more out of themselves, and demanding more out of the players that play behind them or in front of them to be more creative, to have better games: that raises the level of the whole team, and that’s something that I think when you’re an expansion team, you have to have that to try to be successful. When we had a successful season last year, how do you raise the bar? That’s by everyone else, little by little, taking ownership and accountability and making sure that they’re trying to get the best out of themselves and their teammates. It doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a good observation.”

The fanbase gets a little spark of energy with a new signing – especially a major one like Aké. Obviously this group already has great chemistry, but do you feel that little jolt when a new guy comes in? Or does he slide into the chemistry that you guys already have?

“I don’t think anything changes, honestly. I think that the goal when you add a player – doesn’t matter if it’s a rookie or a Designated pPlayer – the goal is to always make them feel comfortable, make them feel welcome. And I can see by the smile on Aké’s face and some of the brief conversations that I’ve had with him that he’s excited to be here, he’s excited to contribute.

“So I think the thing that I’m really proud of being an older guy on the team, being a leader on the team is that our locker room is a really welcoming environment. It’s a really great environment to come into. I think guys get along with each other off the field, and you see that translate on the field. So when you add a player of Aké’s quality, it’s always going to be – questions are always going to be asked about – how quickly can he adapt? How quickly can he adjust? How quickly can he contribute? Some of the answer to that question falls on him to be able to come in and perform and prove that he’s fit. But a lot of that also falls on the team, and how that environment helps get the best out of him. I think that for him coming into a new environment, I think it’ll take a little bit of time, but certainly there’s not going to be a lack of confidence given to him from the rest of the guys on the team, so he can hopefully hit the ground running.”

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