Gary Smith photo by Tim Sullivan/Club and Country
Nashville SC dominated a rival Saturday evening. Watch or read full comments from head coach Gary Smith, striker CJ Sapong (who was involved in all three goals), and defender Taylor Washington here.
“As you can imagine, a fabulous evening, a terrific win to wrap up what has been a tough week. Those three games, and a real challenging midweek game in Columbus I think took a lot out of the guys. But to put on the sort of display we have tonight – in front of goal, especially – was just what the doctor ordered, of course. There was always the concern that there’d be some fatigue and maybe a little lack of quality given the amount of football some of these players have played, and some limitations on rotating the group given bodies out and away.
But there were a number of guys that really stepped up tonight when it mattered. Our front line continues to be an absolute menace going forward. They’re really leading the charge, and the rest of the group are a fantastic supporting act at the moment. So I couldn’t be happier.”
How does it feel to get that first win over FC Cincinnati?
“It’s always nice to win, and I’ve got to be honest, the stats and history don’t really play into the equation too much until after the game, and we can think about it now. But I’m pleased we’re the first ones to obviously tick that win box in this rivalry. I’ve got to say: they’re a very dangerous and talented group. It’s enormously difficult to get pressure on them, to deal with all the overloads that they create in midfield and defensive areas playing out, and it’s easy to fall into a trap and try and be too forceful, too aggressive.
“But the guys carried out the plan of action tonight almost to a ‘T.’ We made very much and took full advantage of the opportunities that came our way. We were extremely clinical given the amount of – or the few – efforts that we were able to have on goal. If you compare it to obviously the first game of the season, it was a complete contrast, but we’ve been really clinical tonight, and I thought it was a fabulously professional performance.”
Are we finally seeing what you expected of Hany Mukhtar when he was signed?
“I think the questions that take a little bit of time to be answered are: you bring in a European player – and there’ll be teams around the league that bring in players from abroad, let’s just say a different environment, different culture – and it sometimes takes a little bit of time to adjust.
“Hany last year had a few issues physically. I think he took some time to adapt to a very different league from obviously where he came from. But I think some of the bigger difficulties were dealing with the rigors of MLS. If you think about it last year, it was completely unique in the way that the season unfolded: traveling and playing on the day, the heat certainly played into the equation for him, there was a lot of adjustment there, training days: I think he found it pretty difficult.
“But what you find with top-class players is that they adapt. They find a way to show their quality. And of course, the combination of relationships and understanding with the players around him: CJ’s been a terrific physical foil for him, and Randall – who I think have benefitted from his style of play. But all-in-all, he’s starting to come into and round into the sort of form that we absolutely expected. He’s a very, very talented and intelligent guy. We’re talking about an individual that is very, very capable of either picking a lock and finding a pass, scoring a goal.
First goal, the choice of passing into the pocked behind the centerback was completely the right choice. It was a long way out, the execution was phenomenal. If I liken it to a scenario where Taylor Washington goes down the left-hand side, then he tries to pull it back – when actually the ball was probably a very similar one. So all-in-all, you’re talking about an individual who’s extremely talented, and we’re starting to see that.”
How will the defensive performance – no shots on-target for Cincinnati and limited involvement for Luciano Acosta – stick with you as a characteristic of this performance?
“I think there’s a couple of things that come into play here. Firstly, the group are starting to round into some form, and some appreciation of moments that maybe we haven’t seen before. They’re managing games in a far better fashion, and maybe we should expect that. You know, they’re developing and the evolution of the team, and the environment. But I can’t give the players enough credit for how they went about their business, and some of the information they had to take onboard at short notice: two-day turnaround from a tough game on Wednesday.
“Acosta, of course, was part of the focal point or discussion leading into the game. I think the information that was offer up was he was involved in 29% of their creative opportunities; he’s a huge part of what they achieve. And the guys did a wonderful job of shutting that down, and limiting him to very little in the attacking third. He dropped deeper and deeper, and in his own eagerness to try and make an impression on the game – he was going away from those valuable creative zones that he gets in – and that’s testimony to the group. They worked that well.
“I think they showed this group a lot of respect as well, and deservedly so. As I’ve said multiple times, this group’s very, very dangerous. I think this is the type of team that if you throw caution to the wind and you maybe belittle one or two of the qualities within the group, then you pay the price for it. They’re a good group, and I think we’ve done a very professional job tonight.”
How has your front line’s success impressed you with the recent shifts in tactics, and how much competition is this group presenting with players returning from international tournaments and the recent signing of Aké Loba?
“Fantastic. As a coach, you can’t wish for anything more. Competition is everything. It should raise internal juices in any individual to achieve more and want to be part of the group. If you’re not in the group tonight, if you haven’t played a part in the group tonight, surely you’re sitting there thinking, ‘how do I get in the team, and how do I become part of this?’ And that’s what competition does.
“So in answer to your question, we’ve got multiple options going forward. The trio that you spoke about have done a fabulous job of connecting and understanding one another. Very briefly, I think the freedom and a little bit more freedom for Hany and Randall to try and be creative and work into different areas. They’re very instinctive individuals, and I think that’s helped them. I do think that CJ plays a big part of that. He’s a physical focal point that they can trust.
“Yes, the shape has helped them, but I do think as well, this isn’t the end of how we develop and where we go. We’ve seen success in other shapes, and I’d like to think that the group have now appreciated and understood one or two different ways to play. Ultimately, plan for any game is to try and add points to the board, and I think all the guys understand that. So there’s some great product, there’s some good competition, and certainly up front we’ve got a lot of energy and sparkle about the group now.”
How have you seen CJ Sapong add more to his game and finishing as he’s gotten comfortable in this team?
“I think you’re doing him a little bit of an injustice when you say he’s just brute force, first of all. It might have just been your terminology, but CJ’s 32, now. I think the key here is CJ looks confident. He looks understanding and appreciative of the players around him: the balance between the three of them looks excellent. There’s a synergy that they’re working with and for, and I think it’s bringing out the best in all of them.
“If you look at the second goal in particular – to your point – I think this understanding and connection with Randall is all-important in this. He knows that Hany and Randall are going to be in and around him, and they are individuals that can find a pocket, they can create an opening, and he’s doing his very utmost to be part of that process. But they’ve just got a terrific understanding, and they’re in a very confident vein of form, all three of them.
“So, it’s nice to add other players to it – Aké’s a wonderful lad and he’s going to be a great addition to this group. I mean, love what he’s about, love him as a person, he’s very team-oriented, and he’s also extremely talented.”
How has the competition in the backline been improved for when your injured/unavailable players return?
“I just said to the guys in there, you know: what we might see as a normal back-four or -five, and those individuals that would occupy those positions is completely different now. But that is what a squad and a roster’s all about. There’s more than one or two of those players in there who’ve been out in the cold: on the outside looking in, and maybe questioned, ‘when do I get my chance?’ and frustrated and disappointed.
“But what I can tell you is the quality of their character has enabled them to perform the way they are right now. They’ve carried on working. When there’ve been sessions when they’ve had to do extra running and extra work, it is a grind, and it’s not nice. But if you’re as professional as some of those guys, you put yourself in a position where you’re ready to succeed again.
“And if you look at Taylor, Eric, Jalil, Dylan: these guys have done a terrific job of keeping themselves in a great place. And we’ve now had two clean sheets on the trot again, with a very different and almost unrecognizable backline. And that, honestly I can’t be more complimentary about the way they’ve gone about their work.”
You were frustrated about settling for draws earlier in the year, so how encouraged are you to close the homestand on a couple positive notes?
“It won’t stop me feeling as though we should have 2-3-4 points more on the board. I think every coach will look at games at the end of the season and feel that. And it’s no different as you see those games ticked off. But to your point, I think the guys are using it as an energy as a driving force to really put themselves in a good spot.
“I can only reiterate again that the guys are feeling confident, they look in a good place, I think you’re seeing some of the things going on right now because of the hard work that’s being put in. And we weren’t always as fortunate as I believe we might have been earlier on in the season and maybe we’re getting our good luck back here. We’ve had fewer efforts at goal and on goal than probably any game I can think of here. Yet the way that the guys have executed has been really top-drawer. So maybe there’s some lessons learned, bit of experience as we move forward, more understanding around the group as to manage the game and what’s needed, but for sure the group are ticking some nice boxes, and we’ve put ourselves in a good position.
“What we know is we’ve got some tough games coming up. So it was nice to finish this week off on a good note.”
Striker CJ Sapong
“I mean, it feels good. I would say just now it’s showing up on the statsheet. I’ve felt confident in the team even in the games that I wasn’t getting on the statsheet or scoring. Wearing the defense down, putting myself in positions to win free kicks for our team. When you have a team with so many dynamic players that all have an opportunity to have an impact, it’s about just putting the next guy in the best position to help the team. That’s an ideology that I’ve carried with myself throughout my whole career.
I really think it speaks volumes to the team and the personalities that we have. There’s a chemistry that’s flowing through us. You’ve been able to see the last couple games that guys are in, in spots after maybe not having as many minutes there, and really showing their worth and their value. So it’s a beautiful thing, and this is what we work for every day. I’m excited, but I still want to give more.”
How has the chemistry in a new-look front-three helped you find recent success?
“Like I said earlier: there’s so many different guys that bring so much. Especially playing with Hany and Randall, I think the areas of the individual games that they have: with Randall driving towards defenses, it’s always going to open up spaces. With Hany’s quality on the ball and technical ability – as you say today – he had an opportunity to put the ball in the right place and then I feel like for me, always just staying hungry and being ready to capitalize on any opportunities.
“A perfect little trio that we have there. Having a couple games under our belt, there’s definitely chemistry there. You know, it just makes things a lot easier when you learn tendencies of your teammates. I always know Randall is going to be somewhere: he’s always running, he’s always trying to get forward. So it just adds a little bit to my game to be able to put him in positions to score. It definitely speaks volumes to the work us three have put in.
“But I’m telling you man, if you’re on the training field, you see guys that can do this, too. We’ve been fortunate to be on the field and we’re in form, and this is how it goes at this level. But I’m pretty confident that a lot of guys on this roster could step up too.”
How does Hany Mukhtar compare to some of the top guys you’ve played with in the past?
“That’s the thing, like: I’ve played with many. One, Hany’s probably navigated his transition into this league the best out of any attacking player that I’ve played with that’s come from outside the league. His quality can change the game in an instant. If you see that enough in training, when I step onto the field before a game, it’s like we know we’re going to get a chance, we know we’re going to get an opportunity. Our full focus is just being ready for that moment and capitalizing.
“I think it’s definitely been on showcase the last couple games. I’m just excited to see how much more we can produce moving forward.”
Have you been able to use more of your skillset lately with chemistry and experience in this team?
“Yeah, I think the thing that is definitely helping me is just having guys around me that are creative and can open spaces. I feel like my past stops, maybe being the point forward, and kind of being that first line of attack but also first line of defense – maybe doing a little bit too much work, maybe getting myself out of position – whereas here, it’s like, even the work that we put in on defense, as soon as the other team loses the ball, for me, get towards the goal.
“You have, like I said, Randall – his ability to drive toward the other team, it really puts them on their back foot. That’s when they make mistakes, that’s when I can slip into different positions. And to be fair, earlier in the season, ask the wife: I always want to score, it’s just natural as a forward to get upset when you don’t. But I was very excited to know that I could look back at the game and see that, ‘OK, I was half-a-second off here, I meant to go to that spot, I said in my head I should, and that’s where the ball ended up.’ Or I was getting chances that maybe just didn’t go in the goal or on-frame.
“So I was never too down. I always believe that, at some point, it would start to translate into actual stats on the scoresheet. But ultimately like I said before: I feel like I’m having an impact in many facets of my game, and that feels good.”
Defender Taylor Washington
How does if feel to get a win in this rivalry?
“Yeah it’s huge. As I was walking in, I saw [club CEO] Ian Ayre, and he said, ‘we finally got ’em.’ It’s funny, I was watching some of my clips from I think Cincy game in 2018, just tie after tie after tie – we even played them in preseason and it was a tie. It’s such a rivalry for us to win it in such an emphatic fashion is incredible.
“I think everyone put in a real shift today. The game against Columbus was a lot, and you saw however many guys played, that amount of warriors: just blocking, trying to spring a counterattack, everything. This game meant a lot.”
What was the long run to block Brenner’s 2-v-1 opportunity like from your perspective?
“Yeah, my mom – or one of my friends – texted me like, ‘God blessed you with some speed.’ And yeah, I just saw Brenner on the break, and Gary does such a good job in training of putting us in situations that are applicable in games, and I knew that – I don’t even know who was behind me on my right, but I knew he was there as well. So the minute that Brenner took that touch a little bit more in, I thought he was going to try to play it.
“And sometimes in this game, luck is the residue of design. You just get lucky, and you put in the hard work, and good results happen.”