Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, Dax McCarty, and Joe Willis after Nashville SC draws Columbus Crew

Head coach Gary Smith

“Well the first period, I thought, was very even. Especially the opening exchanges, we started off very brightly. In fact, the first five minutes, I think we forced a couple corners and an effort or two at goal. With some changes in the group, there’s always going to be a little bit of understanding and appreciation, getting on the same page. But the first half was almost according to plan.

“The second period, understandably, they started to take more chances. Some of the guys who have not necessarily seen loads of minutes started to maybe tire a little bit, and coupled with some moments where we were just below par with our quality on the ball. I think we helped them to gain a bit of momentum towards that final 10 minutes, and we showed all the resilience and determination that we’ve seen so many times out of this group to earn an incredibly good point against a very good team in what I would class as one of the better atmospheres that I’ve been in in MLS. It was terrific here tonight.”

What was the reason some of the offensive success from early on dried up?

“Well, there’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think Dax’s omission from a more-advanced position left us in a bit of a void with the two guys – Matt and Brian (who by the way got through some incredible work) – we lose that experience. We lose that composure on the ball. Coupled with the fact that I changed Randall out for Alex to find some fresh legs and maybe think about rotations at the weekend, and once you start taking those individuals out, espeiclaly away from home, it was always going to be maybe a new page turned. We’ve had a lot of home games, and I was waiting to asee what the mentality and appreciation of that shape might be like that we’ve played at home the last couple of games.

“Look: I actually thought the first half, we played the game in that period very, very well. They made some changes, just purely to some of their tactical approach, and of course, the additions that they brought on got stronger and stronger in an attacking sense. And Hany and CJ have certainly done their bit for the team tonight, and things started to get a little bit tougher for us as people got tired. But look: when you come away from home, we’re not going to have long stages of the game and multiple opportunities at goal. We’ve got to learn to be a little more clinical when those moments come along, but we’ve also got to show the sort of discipline and desire that we showed to earn points and keep ticking over.”

What did you think of Aké Loba’s first competitive appearance for this team?

“Really, really pleased. Yeah, really pleased. I’m learning more and more about him every day. What a wonderful lad he is. We were just talking about it in the locker room there: he’s very team-oriented. You know, he’s got some incredible individual ability, but his overall mantra is for the team. And I thought he worked hard for the group, he dropped in very, very deep a couple of times to help out with some defending. And even though his English is still in a difficult place, he understands what it means to have that extra body there. He’s not silly: he comes from a terrific club and played at a very high level, and he’s rolled his sleeves up for the lads when we needed him most.

“Really pleased. We were never going to see what might be his true quality shine tonight. Last 10-12 minutes, under some pressure, the hope was that we may find the odd counter-attack, but he certainly gave as much as he could for the group, which is wonderful for the future.”

What went into Dax McCarty’s new role tonight?

“I felt as though there’ve been plenty of periods at home where we’ve played with a back three, and it’s helped us. We’ve looked bright. When I looked at the personnel available to us and some of the things that I wanted to do in terms of rotation, I sat down with Dax and said to him: ‘look, this is what I’m thinking, when we’re under pressure you’ve got the experience to help these guys when needed, but I really want you stepping into that midfield where possible, and making up what can only be classed as a front screen to try and negate the qualities of Zelarayán, mostly.’

Columbus in general are a terrific footballing team: they’ve got players who want to be in and around the ball. Santos wants to make his movement inside to allow that fullback to get on, likewise Molino wen he was on and Matan. And I just felt those extra bodies there would be very helpful to the group. And I think it proved that for a long period of the game. Fatigue meant that they got a bit a head of steam up, and got themselves in some good spots, and in the end, there’s some players that had to put their bodies on the line, and I think they know the answer to that: nobody’s going to come up short there.”

When you have fewer options available personnel-wise, does it limit the options you have tactically to implement them?

“I think what we’ve been able to do in a short period of time is offer ourselves as a team very good flexibility. And it goes without saying that competition in all areas is the key to form and success for any individual. If someone feels as though they’re a shoo-in for the team and ever-present, then unless you’re super-human, you can dip below the standards that you set. So, competition is key for that.

“But to your point, I think this group have shown – at home for sure – that playing with an attacking three and a combination of players in that role with possibly wingbacks has helped us. I’m certainly not averse to going back to a back four – I would love to be playing 4-4-2, you know that’s my preferred shape – I think we’ve got some terrific forwardsnow. We’ve probably gfotr more forwards on our roster than most teams in MLS, and I want to utilize those guys when they’re fresh and they’re bright: they make such a difference.

“So we have some real ability now to change shape, to rotate the group, to stay competitive, and to ask some questions of teams that maybe before we just weren’t able to.”

Midfielder Dax McCarty

What does it mean to you to be in fourth place all-time in MLS games played, and how did you take to your role tonight?

“Yeah, I mean: thank you Cristina, for bringing that up. There’s a few ways you can look at those accolades, if you will. One way is that you’re getting old, and another is that longevity is really important to me, and I’m really proud of that. Obviously I’ve been really blessed and been on some great teams in my day, so hopefully I can play for 10 more years, we’ll see.

“But the game tonight was difficult, obviously. Coming to a team who I think has been struggling a little bit for the standard that they set for themselves being the champions last year, opening up a new stadium – we knew that it was going to be a very difficult place to play. It’s a beautiful stadium, obviously kjudos to the Columbus Crew fans and the entire organization for getting it done.

“But like you said, Cristina, a new role for me tonight. A little bit more defensive, kind of in the middle of a back three with the freedom to step into midfield when I so chose, depending on what the game gave us tactically. Just tried to play my role, tried to be safe, tried to support the backline but also help the midfield a little bit with Zelarayán, who’s been fantastic. He finds pockets, he picks up good spaces, really difficult to track. We weren’t really tested in the first half. Second half, they started to throw the kitchen sink at us. You know: we bent, but we didn’t break. Joe Willis was fantastic. Just felt good to get another shutout again, and we’ll move on to a really big game, and the focus will be on getting three points against Cincinnati over the weekend.”

What do you credit with your longevity?

“I certainly have my days – trust me, buddy – where I walk up the stairs with my little guy and I feel a little pinch in the back here and there, and I just tell myself that it’s nothing, it’s not important.

“I just think I’ve learned throughout the years what works for my body. Something that I have always been blessed with is a pretty good engine, a pretty good base of fitness. Some things I have not been blessed with, like speed, height, athleticism, all that fun stuff. You have to make up for it somehow. So I try to take care of my body as best I can. I have adjusted some things in my diet, I’ve adopted yoga, I’ve done a few different things throughout my career as I’ve gotten older to try to continue to not let my legs get out from under me, so to speak.

“Honestly, I feel good. I have my ups and down, I have my good days and bad days, but for the most part, it’s really important to me to stay on the field. I think that’s a player’s greatest skill: more so than talent, more so than technical ability, more so than anything else is the ability to stay on the field, and if you can do that, you’re well on your way to being able to try to have a fulfilled career. So I’ve tried to do that. Like I said: sometimes I’ve played well, sometimes I’ve played like crap, but being healthy? You have to stay healthy to be able to have those ups and downs. So I’m just thankful I’ve been able to do that.”

What was your mindset late in the game as Columbus pours on the pressure? Are you just praying to hold on for a point?

“Well, the mindset is that we have to get out of here with a point at the bare minimum, but we would like to steal three if we can. I thought the second half, you know: they’re a good team, man. They subbed on Bradley Wright-Phillips, one of the greatest goal-scorers this league has ever seen, Kevin Molino, one of the better players in this league when he’s healthy and a full international, a Designated Player in Matan – those are three subs that they made to try and change the game.

“It’s quite impressive and remarkable the depth that this team has, and even saying that, they’re still missing players. And so we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Obviously the players that we are missing are important players, but I thought our depth stepped up. I thought Eric Miller and TaylorWashington come in and give you just an unbelievable shift at wingback, and do exactly what’s asked of them. Same with Matt LaGrassa: that’s a guy who’s been patient, and came in and stepped up when called upon.

“So the mindset is to get out of there with at minimum a point, but we were going for three. I just think in this game, while we were very solid defensively, very organized, very tough to break down, we just didn’t have a lot of quality going forward in the attacking third. When we did get a chance to breathe and take the sting out of the game – try to take the crowd out of the game – everything we were doing through the defensive third and the middle third with the ball was pretty good. it was that attacking third where we just didn’t see the connections that we saw the last game.”

What was the experience like in playing a position you’re inexperienced at, and what does that trut in you say about Gary Smith?

“Yeah, Gary’s one of the best, honestly. He simplifies things, he makes things really easy for players to understand in terms of what he wants out of the gameplan tactically, and he puts trust in his players. I think that’s one of the best qualities in a coach, is a coach who puts trust and faith in players to go execute a gameplan. Gary knows me very well by now, he knows my strengths, he knows my qualities, he knows my weaknesses. He just said to me before the game: obviously we are a little thin in the back, and he wanted to rely on my experience to kind of step into that position and try to shepherd the backline along, and continue to try to keep shutouts like we have been doing in the past.

“It was a responsibility I was happy to take on. I’m a player that, no matter what a coach asks me to do, I’m going to try to do it to the best of my ability. Tonight, there were a few instances where I’m not happy with myself. I made a couple decisions where I could have been a little sharper, I could have been a little better. Luckily I had Joe [Willis] and Jalil
[Anibaba], and Dave [Romney] there to cover me whenever those situations occur. But for the most part, I was really happy with how we played defensively, now it’s just a matter of trying to improve things going forward, getting back to the chances that we were creating. And I know that we’ll do that when we’re at home, but obviously, a lot of appreciation for the trust Gary places in me.”

What have you seen from Aké Loba that can speak to his mentality and willingness to track back?

“It’s not a surprise, Drake. He’s a very nice guy, he’s a humble guy, he’s a quiet guy. He’s come in and he’s put his head down, and he’s tried to get to work. I haven’t heard him speak much, but certainly when he does, you don’t hear one complaint come out of his mouth. He just wants to get on the field, he just wants to play and enjoy the game.

“The game tonight was a very difficult one for an attacking player to come into. We didn’t have a lot of possession, obviously. We didn’t have a lot of field superiority, if you will. But it was difficult and a struggle for us to hold possession fo the ball in their half of the field, which is I think where Aké is really going to shine. you saw a few moments where he got on the ball in the corner of his technique, his rtechnical quality, his ability to try to beat a few players and hold the ball and try to create csomething out of nothing

“Once he gets fitter, once he gets more integrated into the group, he’s going to be able to add a whole lot to our attack. Certainly that’s not to say he’s not going to be asked to defend and track back, but he’s humble enough to do it. He just has to get fitter, and once he does, I think you’re going to see the best of him.”

Goalkeeper Joe Willis

“It was a tough game for us, for sure. the first half, we kept a lot more of the ball, and limited their chances, and did pretty well defensively to make sure that they weren’t too dangerous. Second half, they started throwing more people forward and started getting a little desperate for the win, so we ended up dropping back a bit, and had to absorb more pressure. But at the end of the day, the guys on our team, we all take a lot of pride in keeping a clean sheet, and the defensive effort was incredible from every single person who was on the field tonight.”

Often after a shutout for this team, you’re asked how you stay engaged when you don’t have to see much of the ball, but this was a very different game. What is the difference in your mindset, and how to you keep the defenders upbeat in a tough situation?

“Yeah, I mean, Columbus is a good team, and they’re going to create chances. To be fair, our defenders played really well. Sometimes they’re still going to get chances. When you’re seeing a lot of action like that – you know, we had guys making big blocks, big clearances, some saves from me. And when you’re playing like that, your confidence grows and you get to the point where you start building up… it’s almost like not quite the level of a no-hitter in baseball, but it’s similar where you start playing well and you keep the shutout and it’s like, ‘alright, we’ve gotta keep this going, keep this going. Just five more minutes, five more minutes, five more minutes.’ And then you just keep that attitude. Stay short-sighted as far as looking at the game and what you need to do for it, so, that’s how I stay engaged, at least. I think the effort from everyone was pretty great and like I said: Columbus is a pretty great team, so they have a lot of good attacking players, so they’re going to get chances. But the effort that we put in tonight was definitely deserving of a clean sheet.”

Where does Dax McCarty rank among the centerbacks you’ve played with all-time?

“I mean, he’s one-for-one now as far as shutouts as a centerback, so he’s gotta be up there. His success rate is higher than anyone else I’ve ever player with.

“But yeah, he had a great game. It was a new role for him, but Dax is such a smart soccer player that you could put him pretty much anywhere on the field, and he’d be able to figure it out. That on top of his leadership qualities, it was something obviously that was new for us – having him in that role – but something that everyone had a lot of confidence in.”

How did what you prepared for compare to what the reality was playing Columbus?

“Columbus is a team that, they like to get the ball wide, but to be fair, they don’t really send many crosses in. They like to combine, they have a lot of technically-gifted player up top, so they like to play in combinations and try and work their way through the middle. That’s one of the reasons why we had Dax in that role, even though the personnel maybe could’ve allowed for a four-back system, we knew that if we were able to kind of clog up the middle back there that they would have a difficult time getting chances. So yeah, like I said: they have a lot of technically-gifted players who like to play up the middle, so that’s something that we kind of looked at and tried to negate.”

When you have a less-experienced backline find this type of success, what does it say about your team’s depth and mentality?

“Yeah, everyone who played tonight played really well. I thin kit’s a credit to the system that we pay and the way Gary prepares us. It’s at a point where if one guy goes down, the next guy steps up and fills that role and we don’t skip a beat. And I think – especially this year with so many international tournaments, we obviously knew that we’d be missing some guys at some point, maybe didn’t know we’d be missing this many guys right now – that’s something that guys who aren’t getting a lot of minutes always keep in mind. Guys are training. Most people only see the games, and they see guys playing or not, but they don’t see the work that those guys put in every day at training, and the attitudes that they have and that’s why a lot of them are ready to go when their number is called.”

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