Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, Dave Romney, and Brian Anunga preview Toronto FC

Watch or read the full pregame press conference here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Well first of all, it’s been a very, very hot week, that’s for sure. A lot of places are encountering this sort of humidity and heat. So, we’ve tried to adapt accordingly. The guys are in a very good place – they’re very confident, as you might imagine after such a useful and productive week last week.

“But as you say, this is our first venture into Canada. I’m sure the Canadian teams are delighted to get themselves back home and get in front of their own fans. I expect we’ll see a very different group to the one that we met not so long ago down here, and obviously won in the very late stages of the game. But tough, a difficult trip, a difficult week, and it starts off with a very talented and difficult group that we play against.”

You’ve had a number of players unavailable with injury. Are you expecting any of Dan Lovitz, Jack Maher, Aníbal Godoy, and Walker Zimmerman back?

“Lovitz and Jack Maher are now back in training, and ready to go – which is really good news. Aníbal is very, very close. He’ll be a last-minute decision; he’s progressed extremely well, and has been involved in pretty much everything up to now, so I’m really pleased about that. Walker will be out. He’s still trying to nurse his way through this hamstring, although he’s making good progress.”

What was behind the decision to trade Dominique Badji, and what does the striker position look like now that he’s gone?

“It’s a pretty straightforward one really, Drake. We’ve had additions along the way, the group’s gotten stronger. We have multiple bodies in that area that are fighting for limited minutes. And this wasn’t a case of disliking Dominique or not necessarily feeling as warm and fuzzy about him as we have before. It’s just a matter of business, and improvement. It was always going to be difficult for him – or even some of the guys that are still here – to break into the group with the type of individuals that we have. And it ended up being a good deal at the right time for all parties concerned, I do believe.

“I think the dynamics outside of the playing are better-off fed into Mike [Jacobs]. From a pure playing standpoint, it’s about competition.”

What are some of the dynamics involved in preparing for a first international trip, the beginning of a road stretch, etc.?

“Well I’m trying to actually think back to my last venture into Canada – and certainly into BMO – and it took me back to 2010, where obviously I had a very successful night in Toronto [leading the Colorado Rapids to a victory over FC Dallas to win the 2010 MLS Cup]. So, my experiences of being in Toronto itself are very good.

“In terms of changes to logistics or to challenges, the border always presents a slightly different dynamic to get players through, and the timing of that, and the difficulties that are attached to it. But what I do hop is that, in terms of climate, we’re going that much farther North. I’m hoping that we’re going to leave the extreme humidity and heat that we have here at the moment behind us to a degree. And we’re into much more comfortable climes, if you like.

“So whilst there’s all of the usual challenges of facing a team at home, and especially as talented a team as Toronto are, they’re going to have their Canadian guys back, I would think they’ll be close to full strength. They’re on a decent run. This current spell that they’re in has seen them bag the best run and best amount of points haul in a good period for them, and I’m sure that talented group are starting to find their way again. And it’s no shock that they’ve found themselves in this run as they return back home. I can only imagine what it must have been like for all of those Canadian teams to be away from home as long as they have been.

“But in terms of our challenge, we now have to go to their home field, and try and produce a performance that can point points on the board. And I’ve no doubt that we’re capable of that, but it gets that much harder of course, because of the way that the schedule has changed again.”

How do you find the balance between good defensive performances like you’re recently had on the road, and the high-flying attack that’s been present at home?

“Well I think first and foremost, it’s trying to get the right players on the field to do a particular job at any given moment, so we’ve seen at home that the trio of Hany and Randall and CJ have been very, very exciting, but we’ve got other players in this group – and most notably, of course, our newest addition in Aké Loba. Aké’s coming on terrifically well, he’s absolutely stunning in training. And it’s now my job to try and get that balance right, and get the right moments to integrate him in the group, and with the right players around him.

“So I do believe we’ve got as good an attacking group as we’ve had in the 18 months that I’ve been here in MLS. And to get that right balance now, the right amount of minutes, sharp, fresh forwards, players that are looking to make a bit of a name for themselves, or to get the very best out of themselves now that there’s that much more competition in that front line. But wrapped around that of course, we’ve still got to make sure that we’ve got a good balance and a good foundation to the group. And whilst it’s been something that we almost take for granted at times, there’s no doubt about it: there’s a mentality and a focus that’s needed – especially in a fixture as this one, we expect to maybe forsake the ball a bit more than usual against a very capable team. But we’ve also got three tough games in a week, and I’ve got to make sure that I get the right group out at the right time.”

What have you seen change in Toronto FC from a style standpoint after interim Javier Pérez replaced Chris Armas at the head coaching position?

“You know, I have to say, probably not an awful lot. I would think a lot of things that have gone on – and I’ve seen it multiple times before – teams get into a difficult run, almost a rut that they’re incapable of finding their way out of. And in many ways, it’s the strangest of things that can sometimes lift what looks almost like a spell over the team, a dark cloud is just not leaving. That’s not me being critical of Chris Armas, or anyone else that’s been there, it’s just the fact that there’s change. A different voice, it’s a different personality.

“Having been in that position myself, you walk into the locker room as a new coach or with a new challenge, with an energy and an invigoration that the players latched onto. And I’ve also been in a changing room or locker room where things are not going well: that lack of energy and that negativity can sometimes emanate towards the team without even knowing. And it’s just a consequence of the sport and the way that it shifts and moves, that we’re in.

“I do think going home: being back at BMO, being back at home generally, with their family, they pick up a couple of results. From the stats last week, life wasn’t easy in Chicago, but the difference is they’ve come away with a result and a win, which will have been terrific for their confidence. And it can be those small differences that really start to kick-start a team’s season and their belief again in what they can achieve. And there’s no doubt about it: this is as talented a group as any in MLS. History tells us that with as many final appearances and a championship under their belt: this group’s more than capable. They’ve got quality in all areas of the field, and it really is just a matter of time for them. And maybe this is their time where they’re getting into a rhythm again. But our job’s going to be to obviously stick a little bit of a pin in that, and come out of there with some points on the board.”

Defender Dave Romney

“I mean, recovery is enormous. The tough one’s definitely going to be the two road games coming up [Toronto and New England without returning to Nashville in between]. The Sunday-Wednesday’s never easy, just having those two days in-between. Just doing everything you can, hydrating-wise, recovery boots-wise, treatment-wise, rest-wise, sleep-wise, to just make sure you can be as close to 100% for that Wednesday game, even though it’s pretty near-impossible. You’re always going to start kind of feeling it like 60th minute onwards.

“And then just a rotation of bodies throughout the team: as many guys as we can get minutes on Sunday and Wednesday, kind of switching out, then the fresher we’re going to be, and we’re going to look a lot more lively than the team we play on Wednesday.”

When you are the stalwart on the backline, what sort of leadership and responsibility do you have to take on when Walker or Lovitz or other regulars on the backline aren’t available, and less-heralded players like Taylor Washington and Jack Maher have stepped in and done well?

“I mean, just prior to the game reaffirming them how good of players they are. They’re in this league for a reason, they’re being called upon for a reason: they’re really good players. And just having the confidence to go out there. Once you get past the first 5-10 minutes, it’s just like any other soccer game you’ve played. You kind of calm down, the nerves go, and you’re just out there playing soccer. And then just calmly talking throughout the game, communication-wise, making sure they’re in good spots, making sure they’re not tuning out mentally, stuff like that.

“And they’ve both stepped in and done an extremely good job since they’ve been called upon these last few games and few weeks when we’ve had guys missing through Covid, or Gold Cup, or injury, or just normal game congestion. So as much as those guys can step up and do well, it helps the team so much. And we’ve picked up a lot of very important points in these last few weeks, so I think everyone’s kind of done their job and stepped up when we’ve needed them.”

Midfielder Tah Brian Anunga

“We just do our best to recover every time we play a game – and mentally as well. We’ve had some success with our last three games, and I think we’re just trying to put all of that behind us and focus on this stretch of away games, because we’re going to have a difficult week ahead of us.”

How do you handle the longer road trip after being able to play in a comfortable environment for so much of the season thus far?

“Now that we have to go back – and playing in Canada as well – it’s a different mindset. We haven’t done that in a while. Going to another country, getting everything right to be able to travel: we’re doing our best on and off the field to get ready to prepare for this game, especially in Toronto, which is the first game. I think the team is in a good place, and in good spirits, good confidence, and we’re just doing our best ot be able to go into Toronto and get the result.”

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