Nashville SC

Press conference: Nashville SC draws in Toronto

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and defenders Alistair Johnston and Robert Castellanos met with the media after their 1-1 draw against Toronto FC. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“It goes without saying: very, very pleased to add another point to the board on the road. This Toronto team – as I think I said in the postgame broadcast – they look invigorated, understandably so. They look more confident at home, and they are a very talented group. To be perfectly honest, I thought we did a very, very good job of limiting any sort of goalmouth threat, efforts on goal, whilst also giving ourselves what I felt were the best momentns to have possibly won this.

“Two set-piece goals, in the end, have obviously earned the point for each team. But I couldn’t be happier for the group, how they’ve worked, the buildup into this was not easy, a lot of omissions, and there’ve been some players here that have really stepped up, annd none more so than Robert Castellanos.”

What gave you confidence that Castellanos would be able to step up in these circumstances?

“The circumstances surrounding it made life difficult, should I just say. We had numerous players that were battling against different levels and avenues to get across the border to be part of this group. There was a circumstance this morning on the day of travel, for one player, given how he had to move across the border, and it became untenable. It just wasn’t the right thing to play that individual. It wasn’t fair.

“And Robert was the next man up. He’s been very, very determined, patient, and certainly has improved and honed his trade at the club since coming in in the Summer. For all of these guys that are not getting regular minutes, it’s really important – I’ve said it before – that they stay focused, they work hard, and they’re ready to take their chance. If you look at the way Robert just conducted himself – forget about the goal now – his presence, his ability to read aerial threats and get his head on the ball, his composure and his sound possessional play: look, I’m not sure I’ve seen many defensive debuts that are better than that.

“It’s an incredibly good opening game for Robert for the group, and he should… if he can go to sleep tonight, I’ll be blown away. He should be staying up all night watching the game over again to see how good he was.”

What did you see on the set-piece goals, particularly another given up without Walker Zimmerman available?

“It really is a case of not just being able to compete with an individual like Omar Gonzalez, who’s had a career that has shown us how invaluable he’s been – to any team he’s been in – in the air on set pieces. And he’s a handful, there’s no doubt about it.

“I felt as though we had the right way to deal with him, and it’s then down to players to do their jobs. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up on that goal. It was discussed at halftime. So that’s frustrating, but if you look at probably 98% of what we’re dealing with, with individuals like Walker who are so incredibly dominant in those situations, I think we’re doing a good job.

“Omar is very unique and I’m very disappointed we conceded, but based on how the day unfolded, how this week has unfolded, some of the problematic issues that we’ve run into, I’m so pleased with the way that the guys have still been able to go about their work tonight, and add a very valuable point to the board, in an Eastern Conference that we say time and time again is so incredibly competitive.”

How was Alistair Johnston able to jump right back in after joining from Canada’s camp in Houston mid-week?

“I’ve not seen him! He played Thursday against Mexico, and he flew straight here, and has recovered, and I was happy to bring him back into the fold.. Alistair’s performances, experience now, we’re talking about a young man who’s only in his second season in MLS, but I’m already saying that he’s a foundational pieve in our backline.

“And if you look around at the amount of changes that we’re having to make in that backline, it’s a real testimony to those guys coming in again. So I was very, very pleased to be able to add him for the hour or more that he played, and we were always going to be very thoughtful about his minutes, given the nature of not only Thursday – which must have been a real tough game to play in – but the emotional aspect of that Thursday night and of course, the tournament. Canada had a terrific tournament and I’m sure that took an awful lot out of him in particular.

“It was a very good hour, hour-five, -ten, whatever it was. And I’m delighted he’s come out of it unscathed.”

How important has Dave Romney been with the rotating players around him?

“Dave’s been as good as it gets, as far as professionals. We’ve seen this individual in, I think, every single minute of last year’s campaign. He’s tracking in the same way this year. It’s not just about the standard of his performances: to your point, he always performs at a very decent level, he’s very reliable – other than that pass that he played back to Soteldo, the attacking midfield player, which I was pretty bemused about. But look, he looks after himself, he’s a great pro, and I’m not sure that there’s too many people that can churn out the type of work and performances that he does.”

With Aké Loba and Jhonder Cádiz coming on late in the contest, what made you feel like this was a game to go out and grab, rather than potentially being satisfied with the draw, like might sometimes be the case on the road?

“Yeah, you’re right: you’re absolutely right [😎]. I mean, what we would class as the attacking trio that have been so bright and successful over the last month: Hany [Mukhtar], Randall [Leal], and CJ [Sapong] had given it a really good shot. But we’ve got a lot of competition now, and the guys that come on are more than capable. I felt as though there was just a little slide, maybe the fact that they’re forcing the issue themselves, they got a little bit exposed, and it actually opened up two or three moments for us, and really and truly, we should have made more of it. It wasn’t to be, but you’re right: I felt as though we could win the game, and I think it was the right move.”

Defender Alistair Johnston

“It was an exciting experience: it was nice to be back with the guys. It’s been a little while now, I was counting down the days: it was like three and a half weeks or so. But yeah, it’s great to be back with the group, excited to be back. To show them – of course I can’t really show them – around my hometown. Getting them to see the Toronto skyline and show them what Toronto has to offer was pretty cool, and of course playing here is always a pretty special one, especially with my first time being here. Hopefully I’ll be here a lot in the future with Canada and with Nashville.

“It wasn’t exactly the result that we wanted, but at the same time, starting off a roadtrip with a point is not the worst thing in the world either, against a good team. It was an exciting night for myself and my family, and I’m just excited to be back.”

What have you been able to bring back to this team from playing in a different team and different role with Canada?

“If you ask [assistant coach Steve] Guppy, he would tell you exactly that: that I do kind of bring something back when I come back from the national team. He said I always look a little bit more confident on the ball, and everything when I come back, and it’s a weird one. But I definitely would agree with him: it’s one of those ones, playing a different position, you’re seeing different pictures too. We play a slightly different system there, in the national team with Canada, so just seeing those different things and getting those different perspectives, I think, of the game is really important for developing as a young player, which I am.

“Just seeing different pictures, and playing different positions does not hurt at all. I think it’s only going to help the development of my game, and you know, just going out there and putting in a performance in a spot that I haven’t really played in for a while, in a different kind of formation than we’ve been used to playing with Nashville – even though we have tended to play the three at the back a little bit more – yeah, it was just something that’s been a learning curve. IT’s one of those things that I think is good to have and it only adds to the badges on me sleeve at the end of the day, and it just shows this team’s versatility, as well. We’re able to adapt and play different ways to match up with opponents, and to cause them issues. I’d say that’s probably the gist of it coming back.”

What was the schedule like for you this week with the quick turnaround from CanMNT play?

“It was funny: it was a lot of watching of trainings through video, which is how we record them: with the drone. Just watching the sessions, trying to figure out exactly what we’re doing and how I’d fit into the team in terms of how we’re going to press, how we’re going to build out, and really just kind of attack this game with the gameplan.

“But for me, I played – it felt like it was in Mexico – on Thursday night: even though it was in Houston it was a pretty raucous crowd. That was so far, the biggest game in my life, and unfortunately it didn’t go exactly how we wanted it to go. But I was pretty awake that entire night, didn’t really sleep much, and got on a flight – me and [TFC winger] Jonathan Osorio back to Toronto the next morning. Flew there, and it was nice: I actually got to spend some time with my family, who I hadn’t seen in a really long time, since I haven’t been back to Canada in it feels like forever, and they haven’t been able to enter the US. So that was really nice, to be able to hang out with them for about 24 hours and relax, think about what I just went through, and then mentally get myself ready to play in this game.

“The body was definitely a little sore, but I think it’s one of those ones – when you get to play in your hometown in front of your family and friends, and lots of people that you know – it’s one of those ones that: I could have played last night. I could have played this morning against Mexico and I still would have been up for this one. So that was kind of the 48 hours: it was pretty hectic, but definitely enjoyable as well.”

Were you able to predict Toronto FC’s pressures to help build out against them?

“It’s been one of those ones, I think the whole team, we’re all pretty big and avid soccer-watchers as well. We all watch the MLS, and we know this team: you look at that roster, they’ve got talent. It’s a top-tier talent kind of team. You cann just see by how far they went last year, and they’ve made additions. So there’s no reason why this team, if they want to show up and they want to play, that they can’t run with anyone in the league.

“So we knew what to expect, especially since the coaching change happened, and we’ve seen the momentum they’ve been building, with some results. And we knew: guys like Soteldo becoming fit and kind of finding their groove, and obviously the guys from Canada coming back as well, from the Gold Cup, they were going to hit a nice stride, as well. So we knew what to expect. I don’t think we were blindsided by anything: they’ve got some good players, man.

“At the end of the day, when you look at the table, getting a point against them doesn’t necessarily feel like the greatest accomplishment, but I wouldn’t be surprise by, at the end of the season, we look back on that and see where they’re going to be by the end of the year, playing on the road in Toronto isn’t going to be the worst one. Considering the injury bug we’re fighting and all that, as well, and the adversity we’re going through.

“So I think that’s a big thing, and it’s a shoutout to our depth, as well. Robert Castellanos, first start in MLS, didn’t look too worried out there. He looked real comfortable on the ball, and goes out and gets a goal. I think we saw that earlier this year with Jack [Maher] as well: pretty much gets his first start of the year, so it’s just been a great opportunity for these young guys – like myself and other young guys around my draft class and age – get to step up and show they belong. I think that’s been huge, and will continue to be huge for this team.

“When we go on the road, and we have to rotate the squad, we know 1-30 on this roster can stand up and make the play.”

When you were away from the team, how did you consume the games, and especially when you and Walker Zimmerman were both at the Gold Cup, how did you watch together over FaceTime?

“That was an interesting one. I get it: I get it for all the Nashville fans how difficult it is to watch, because when we play, I’ll tell you what, we don’t have a lot of games when we’re up three-nil in that first half like we did against Chicago. A lot of it is on the edge the whole way. It’s exciting, but at the same time, man, you’re nervous throughout. You’re really hoping the boys are going to pull it through. So it’s just such a weird feeling when you really can’t help out, and you’re just kind of helpless, you’re just watching, you’re just a fan as well. So that was always a tough one.

“But it was nice being able to watch with Walker when you’re both in the same shoes: just kind of texting and FaceTiming the whole time. Talking about the game, going through things, and just being impressed with the performances that the guys are putting in, no matter who was on the field: it was pretty cool. But at the same time, me and Walker have always been tight. He’s been great with the young guys, especially Jack, Elliot [Panicco], and myself, our kind of draft class coming in.

He was unbelievable, so for me it’s not even like a weird thing when you FaceTime one of these older guys. He would have FaceTimed me first, and surprise: every day this guy was asking me to get on FortNite or something. I’m like, ‘man, we have training, too.’ Some of the things going on: I was trying to work out what lineup the US was going to play against us, and he’s pretty good with his poker face. We were both kind of playing that cat-and-mouse game as well, trying to get a little leg up for our country.

“But it’s all fun and games: he’s a great guy, and excited to see him soon, and get him back in the lineup, too. Because it was a real bummer seeing him go down. I think that was the moment, he was captaining America, he was having a great tournament so far and really showing he belongs – is going to belong – in that US team for the octagonal World Cup Qualifying. It was a bummer to see him go down, especially in the Canada game, and I’m just hoping for a quick recovery for him. I know he’s enjoying his time right now with this kid and his wife back in Nashville, so it’s not the end of the world.”

Defender Robert Castellanos

“Overall, I’m just thankful for the opportunity that our coaching staff gave to me tonight. Through the whole journey since I got here, Gary and the rest of the coaching staff telling me just: ‘always prepare yourself, be ready for any opportunity that comes up.’ And tonight was one of those nights. I had to come up and help the team, and they needed me in the back, so I was just grateful for that opportunity, and lucky that I was able to be in the right position to score a goal and get a point out of this game.”

How did you manage to play with such confidence despite not yet having the experience at this level? Do you carry it with you, is it something that you’ve added since you’ve been in Nashville?

“A little bit of both. Throughout my whole career, it’s just been something that – obviously in the position I play, you’ve got to be really secure, and show confidence within yourself so the team can build off of it. Gary, since I got into this organization, Gary and the coaching staff have really pushed that upon players. Especially when you’re young, and you’re playing like a centerback role, they real;ly want you to go in their and show your ability with leading, and just have confidence with the ball.

“I knew what I had to do out there, and obviously the coaches gave me the opportunity. And it’s been months since I got here, just working hard, being patient, and obviously just getting as much feedback from the veterans: Walker, Dave, Dax, everybody. So that helped me a lot. Once I got put in that position, I just did what I know how to do, just give as much as I can to the team.”

What was the emotional journey like to go from a top USL player to having to earn your way onto the field, and maybe it takes a little longer than you’d hoped?

“Honestly, it’s just a lot of being mentally strong. This industry, this game is really competitive and cutthroat. Obviously, you have high moments and low moments, and you’ve just got to stay through and be consistent. Joining this group has taught me a lot. Obviously, I was playing a good amount over there in RGV Toros, they gave me a good opportunity to showcase my talents. Coming in here, knowing that it’s a higher level, more competitive, more competition. I just knew I had to be patient and just learn as much as I can, absorb, be a sponge over here and learn from the veterans, listen to the coaching staff, and don’t lose faith in the process.

“It gets tough. It gets tough, you know: you’re not seeing the pitch often, but you’re working hard. At the end of the day, I believe in this organization, I believe in this system they have out for us. I just kept my head down and worked hard until the opportunity was given to me.”

What did you see on the long-throw play that led to your goal?

“That’s a play we’ve kind of been working on: I’ve been seeing the starters and all the other guys working on it since we put it in, so it’s a play we’re all kind of familiar with.

“But on this occasion, CJ just told me ‘stay a little bit deeper,’ because normally I’d run right behind him and just in case they miss the ball, I’d get the second flick. So yeah, I just listened to him on that position. I just stayed back, and I saw them both go up, I saw they weren’t able to get the ball, so the ball’s coming straight to me and I just tried to adjust my body as much as I can, just to get a flick on it. And I know if I get a flick in that position, it’s obviously going to cause problems to the goalie, give us a position to score, and obviously, it came and gave me the goal. It was a play we’ve been working on and I was in the right position at the right time.”

What does this forward group give you in training in terms of a challenge that prepares you for guys like Jozy Altidore?

“It’s amazing. Those are the top guys in the league, for me. All my teammates, we push each other, you know? I think when we work on that, Guppy really drills that in our heads that when it’s one-v-one as a defender, you’ve gotta be having that as one of your strongest assets. I just know going up against those guys gave me the confidence and obviously picked up my game better, sharper within my movements.

“When I got put in a position like tonight, I was able to adjust myself and put myself in good positions to defend guys like Altidore and [Dom] Dwyer and stuff like that. So all that work kind of helped to get ready for this positioning tonight.”

What did Dave Romney say to you in the celebration after your goal?

“Yeah, he just congratulated me. Obviously, he just said all the hard work pays off. The things that we all do individually on the background, just pushing each other. He just gave me congratulations on everything I’ve pushed myself in the team and everything. It feels good: players like David, that obviously have been in the league for a while, you look up to them and see what keeps them in the league and keeps them going, and obviously you try to learn from that as much as possible. He just gave me some good words within that, and obviously picked up my confidence even more. It feels good being back there with some guys with that kind of experience.

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