Nashville SC

Postgame presser: Nashville SC 5-1 Chicago Fire

Nashville blew out Chicago Fire behind the earliest hat trick in MLS history for Hany Mukhtar and bonus goals from Tah Brian Anunga and CJ Sapong. Watch or read full comment from head coach Gary Smith, Anunga, and Mukhtar here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Well, an electric 15 minutes from Hany [Mukhtar] and the front line really and truly set us up for what is a monumental win here against what I have to presume was a confident Chicago team coming into the game: nine goals in three games, there were certainly concerns [for us] going into the game with the talent that they have and the ability that they have. But I think we’ve proved yet again that this stadium and our home field has been a place that we’ve produced some
very, very good football.

“Tonight, I think maybe we just got some of the reward that we’ve, seen either not quite go our way or squandered in the past, and certainly results that I felt we’ve deserved. But tonight, we got what we deserved. We managed the game well when we needed to, and five goals is always a very nice feel.”

What did you think of the nature of the opportunities that you received from Chicago with transition opportunities? Were they surprising?

“Yes and no. But if you look back at the games that we’ve had recently at home – Philadelphia, we scored very quickly in the game from a bright and positive counterattack or attack in the opening exchanges that obviously CJ scored – the one thing I would say is that: that trio of CJ, Hany, and Randall have shown some really lovely not just qualities, but connections. There’s some real nice interaction, and probably the most productive thing about their play is they’re constantly on the move, and asking questions of their opposing players.

“I think tonight, they took advantage of a back trio that are good defenders, but big, and maybe not quite as nimble to get that pressure on and move their feet. The first goal was an interception and a good choice, obviously, from CJ to set Hany up. But I think all-in-all, there was a real vibrant feel about our attacking. It’s not something that we haven’t seen. What we’ve been unable to do before is take full advantage of the moments that are created. If you cast your mind back to the early games – Cincinnati and Montreal – we created some terrific opportunities, but were unable to obviously claw back the deficit that we were in.

“I think there’s a maturity in the group that we’re starting to see, and certainly here, we’ve become a tough proposition.”

How does this win help the attitude of the group in knowing that the process can lead to big rewards?

“There’s a number of emotions of course. No point looking back: the only way for us to function is to look forward and be positive. And tonight’s result at the start of a week where I think just about everyone’s playing three times, gives everyone the opportunity to make up ground or solidify certain position in the league. We’re no different: we were after a good result and maybe a bit of a statement result tonight with five goals.

“It gives us a confidence boost, but also reinforces the fact that we’re capable of putting that type of scoreline on the board, and also taking advantage of a very good team, let’s not forget that. Chicago, whilst they started the season slowly, have certainly rounded into gear. They’ve looked confident, they’ve score nine goals [in the past three games] as I’ve said already. And I would think they came here thinking if they could get themselves nudged in front, that this could be a good day for them, as well.

“And in 15 minutes, we’d really got on the front foot, and given ourselves a fabulous opportunity of bagging all three points. That’s testimony and character to the group, and I’m delighted that, obviously, we’re able to not only bag the three points, but in such an exciting fashion.”

How were you able to shut down Álvaro Medrán, who had been on a hot streak? Was it just about sticking to your game?

“No. In answer to the last bit, yes it was about playing our game, but how do we negate any of the qualities that our opponents have, not just Chicago tonight, but that’s always part of the way we go about our business. There’s a lot of positives, there’s a lot of qualities in our group, but I certainly believe that we should be respectful of what other teams are capable of.

“I think he’s one of the most talented midfield players in the league, full-stop, and there was certainly in my mind a necessity to prevent him from really taking hold of the game, because he’s capable of really making their team tick, not just in terms of managing the game and possession, but he’s a creator, really, at heart. He’s slightly deeper in his role, very [Andrea] Pirlo-esque in the way that he’s positioned in their group, and the guys did a fabulous job of limiting him to what he could do for their group.

“But I suspect the sending-off certainly caused them some serious problems, and going in at a big deficit down was not going to be easy for them, full-stop.”

What did you see on the Chicago goal to open the second half?

“Listen, I’m disappointed. I don’t want that to be anywhere close to a feature of how this game’s gone. Me, I’d love to have kept a clean sheet, and I would say flat-out I’ll take a 5-1 any day of the week over a nil-nil draw and a clean sheet. I’m disappointed that we started the half so slowly. There was a big part of the conversation at halftime that was wrapped around how we affected that second period, and in the early exchanges, they needed to throw caution to the wind and take chances, because they were lagging behind heavily. And that was really the only way of getting back in the game, so I’m sure it gave them a big lift. I was very much aware of them getting on the front foot and still being very capable. They’ve got a lot, a lot of good players – real good players – and I don’t think it should be overlooked tonight just how little they achieved in those opening exchanges, especially. I know it’s tough when you go down a man, but they’re a good team, real good team.”

Is this performance a bit of validation?

“Yeah for sure, absolutely. I’ve looked at multiple results here – even when we’ve won – and felt as though we could have made our life a lot more comfortable. Tonight, we’ve been able to do that. What we know in this sport is, it’s rare to put yourself in a position where you feel as though you’re going to be difficult to catch.

“I still felt at halftime that if they could get themselves on the sheet, they had enough goal-scoring players on the field to cause us a problem. And it was all about attitude at that point. But to that degree: it’s so exciting for the fans, it’s a huge confidence boost for the players, it’s wonderful for the organization, and again, I don’t think any of us should forget that we’re not much more than 18 months into our history and our world, if you like. And we’re sitting in joint second spot [in the East]. With some tough games coming up, but so much in front of us to try and achieve.

“I think we’re in a terrific position, we’ve got plenty to fight for now. What we know of old is that this league constantly throws you a curveball. One week I’m sitting here like the grouch and moaning about set-pieces, the following week I’m sitting here with a big smile on my face – if you can see – and everything’s rosy. But the one thing that I don’t think any of us have done – other than me moaning here the game against Atlanta – is think that everything’s achieved: it’s not. It’s a great win. We’ll be excited and I’ll enjoy it and so will the players.

“Unfortunately, we won’t have long to enjoy it because we’ve got a tough game on Wednesday. But it’s certainly much better for us going into that game feeling the way we do, than having had a tough night tonight.”

How have you been able to find new pieces like Dylan Nealis in this stretch to add to the group’s ability in the future?

“Dylan’s got a little more experience than maybe one or two of the guys that we’ve brought in this year as college recruits, but it’s still very early on his professional career. I think as defenders, you’ve got to be won over. It’s a different position: the attackers are about inspiration and creation and sometimes they get their chance a little bit sooner. As far as defenders go, I need to be convinced that those guys can be reliable mentally as well as physically. There’s an understanding an an appreciation of what this team’s about and what is needed. It’s taken Dylan a little bit longer than maybe he would have liked – and there’s probably been some frustration and disappointment along the way – but he’s a good kid, he’s a very genuine kid, and I think his display couldn’t have been much better tonight for the team and for him.

“He doesn’t need to be a 9/10. He needs to consistently be a 7/10. And tonight, he’s been a 7/10. The more times he can do that, the more trust that’s built. He’s played wingback before, I know he has, and I’ve wanted to try and give all of these younger players when they’ve had their debuts a position that they’re comfortable with, they understand, and that they can warm to and really put themselves in a good spot, fulfill what they’re about. Dylan’s been able to do that He was terrific in the opening exchanges: lots of energy, good pressure, very competitive, wonderful cross, I remember in that first 10-12 minutes, and he was part of a group that really started off on fire. So I’m delighted he’s played well, and I’m sure he is.”

You’ve talked about the team’s struggles to finish chances. How good does it feel to see Hany, one of the guys who has taken some lumps, finally get the results he deserves?

“Absolutely delighted for him. He’s been extremely bright along with other two lads up front. They’ve really given us purpose and a buzz about our frontline that, when you’re at home, you desperately need, of course. Maybe the shape’s not a forever thing, it’s certainly been productive for us at home, and we’re going to run into some games away from home now that will present different challenges. But as part of that attacking group, he has been a real catalyst not just obviously for his own gain, but for others as well. And I couldn’t be more delighted for him. As I think I said in here, or someone in the changing room, that it’s the quickest MLS hat trick in history I believe, so to that degree, it’s a nice record for him to hold at this point..”

Midfielder Tah Brian Anunga

“It felt good. It’s always a good feeling to get your first goal in Major League Soccer, and I’m happy. I’ve been working on it. I’m grateful.

“I just follow a lot of what Gary keeps saying. He kept always saying to: on that goal I was following up to just like be in the top of the box, maybe win the ball back, but also the opportunity presented itself, and so Dylan played me a great ball back, and I just remembered what the coaches always tell me. I tried to stay over the ball and it was a cultured finish.”

What was the inspiration for the way you celebrated?

“It’s a funny story, because I was getting a massage yesterday before the game from one of our physios, Jorge [Santana], so we were just having this conversation, and I was telling him he never massages me. And so it was my first time he ever touched me and I was saying, ‘hey, you touched Abu [Danladi] and Abu went in and in 15 minutes he scored a goal [against Montreal],’ so I was like, ‘hey, I’m going to score tomorrow.’

“So when I scored and I remembered him, and remembered having that conversation, it was a beautiful thing to go find him and celebrate with him.”

Did you feel that you had a good performance, even if you hadn’t scored?

“You konw, I feel good. I’m trying to improve my game, you know? I’m trying: the will to learn and improve. With Dax [McCarty] coaching me, little advice here and there, Gary, Steve Guppy, Coach Brett [Jacobs] – all the coaches. I’m trying to improve my game goin forward, trying to add to the attack, and also not forgetting the basic of what player I am, which is to win the ball and help the team be stable.”

Does that come from more confidence in understanding what is asked of you?

“Yeah, I’ve been also given a little bit of – I would not say freedom, but – a little of license to go forward, which was not the case last year, because we were not in that spot to like open up the field and go forward. We have a much better balance and understanding now. Like, I’m being told a little bit from the coaching staff to maybe drive forward a little bit, which wasn’t much my role last year, was more stable, stay in, and helping stabilize things. But I’ve been given a little bit of a license, I think.”

With the mentorship that Aníbal Godoy and McCarty have given you, do you feel like you’re getting to a point where you can push for a try starting position?

“Yeah, at the end of the day, it’s gonna be: rely on the coaching staff to make that decision. I just have to, if my name is called up, we have great midfielders – whether it’s me or Matt LaGrassa, we have Koze [Donasiyano], you guys don’t see him, but he’s working hard – whoever’s name is called up to perform, and I think we’re all ready. And also as a soccer player, you’re playing for the future, you know? I love Nashville, obviously I want to stay here, but you never know with sports.

In this game specifically, with a quick three-goal lead and a man-advantage, do you feel like it’s perfectly suited for you to take advantage of that license you have to play forward more?

“Yeah, I mean, how many times have you seen teams come back with 10 men? It’s not easy as some people look at it from the outside: it’s very difficult, because they have to lose, and they just play. They push and you could see they got one goal back. But we were determined to kill the game and get as many goals as we want: we wanted to go make a statement. The message was passed from the captain, we all followed. To go forward, to push, and re-press.”

Does this win give you more confidence as the team gets ready for a road trip to Columbus?

“It’s amazing, I think; it’s what we needed. From the game with Atlanta where we were very disappointed in not getting the win, and especially playing at home for the fans, we really wanted, we really needed that win against Chicago. I was feeling good before the game, and I knew we could do it, bewcause I believe in the training sessions that we’ve been having all week. So it’s a good boost to go into Columbus, and why not get a result?”

Midfielder Hany Mukhtar

What is the feeling of setting an MLS record and notching the club’s first hat trick?

“Amazing day for me, I mean it’s not happened every time, but I work hard every training, and I will keep doing it. Of course, I am very happy, but we have to continue this way – and me, I have to continue this way – and a lot of work in front of me.”

What inspires you to keep pushing for a fourth, including a could good chances?

“Of course, I am happy to score the three goals, but I had several chances: I hit the post before we scored the fifth goal. I think, I was very close – I think, I haven’t seen it yet – but where I chipped the goalkeeper was very close [it was called offside], and I had a big chance where the centerback missed the ball.

“I mean, that’s part of my job. I always want to score, and in that moment, I am not thinking about, ‘OK I scored already one goal or two goals,’ that’s not in my head. If I have a chance, I just want to score. I’m this type of No. 10: I like to score and I like to help this way the team. Of course I can give assists, but I’m a very attacking midfield player, I would describe it like that.

What did you think of the overall team performance?

“I think that from the beginning you could feel it that we want to win, and we have to win. Obviously the last home games we had, we were always the better team, but we couldn’t create our chances into goals. That’s part of our responsibility, Me, CJ [Sapong], and Randall [Leal]: we are offensive players. We need to score and we need to create chances. So, it’s very important for us offensive players to get these chances because last year we didn’t create this many chances, but also score the goals. Yeah, in the end, of course, it was a very good performance from all of us and we have a very, very difficult game on Wednesday.”

How does this 3-4-3 or 3-6-1 system give you the opportunities you’ve been finding?

“I mean, I like it, because we have a lot of players behind us. I mean, we have a little bit more freedom: I would describe it like that. We don’t have like a fixed position; we can move around. The last couple of games, it worked. So yeah, I don’t care which system, we just have to win and be successful. Then that’s the best system for me.”

You’re in the Golden Boot conversation at this point (tied for third with seven goals, the leaders have 10). Have you thought about that at all?

“I never think on stuff like that. For me, I am a team player: I want to win, I want to be successful as possible with Nashville. That’s why I am here. Like I said: I like to score goals, that’s part of my job. But in the end, the most important is to win. If we win and I don’t score, I am happy.”

Do you feel more comfortable now that you have found a balance that sees you attack more than just create?

“Last year, I never – I hate to find excuses – last year was one of the most difficult years for everyone, and me of course. New country, no one could visit me because of the pandemic. But I don’t want to look back. But in the end, now I know the guys better, and they know me better, they know my strengths, and I know their strengths, so it fits better. It take always time, but I think still we can develop a lot of our game.”

You’ve lost a couple close matches to Columbus. Do you feel like you’re ready this year to get those wins?

“Yeah, last year was very unlucky. But that’s a new season, we are better than last year, for sure. And we know how tough it is to play there, but we have the confidence, and we need to show it. That’s the beauty in football: nobody care about the last game, it’s always the new chance. We have to do our best and go with focus in that game.”

How did you feel seeing two teammates following up goals?

“First of all, I have to give credit to Brian Anunga. Lovely player, I love to play with him. He’a s warrior; he fights on the pitch. I love that, he knows that, I tell him that before every game. He’s a very, very talented player ij my opinion. And he really deserved that goal. He deserved one assist and I didn’t score – I told him that after the game. But yeah, he has to keep going, and I really believe in him, because he’s a great player.

“And CJ, it worked well with me and CJ on top, so I’m very happy that he could score.”

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