Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith, Jack Maher, and Joe Willis discuss scoreless draw in New England

Watch or read full postgame comments from Nashville SC here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“It goes without saying I’m absolutely delighted with a point here. I think we all regard this New England team as not just the best team, but certainly the most in-form team at this point in the season. Multiple ways of scoring goals and winning games, and on their own turf and on this field, they’re an extremely tough proposition. So look, the plan was to try and make life difficult. I think that we did that.

“There were some bodies that I’m trying to rotate back into the group, there are bodies that have not had a lot of football at all that have come out of the group: Aké [Loba], Jhonder [Cádiz]. There are players like Alistair [Johnston] who have performed incredibly well for their country and taken an awful lot of minutes in the Gold Cup, so some rotation was necessary. And given all of those things, I couldn’t be more proud with the way that the guys have gone about their business, and ultimately, I felt, showed more aggression and enthusiasm and even had a hint of ‘we can win this’ towards the final 10 minutes of the game – which is phenomenal.

“Great to see one or two of the guys come back into the group again, Aníbal’s [Godoy] been out with an injury, obviously Daniel’s [Lovitz] been out of the group. So, all-in-all, a fabulous night, a wonderful point, and the end of what has been a difficult four or five days for us on the road.”

What was Aké Loba’s attitude when he came off the field at halftime?

“First of all, I don’t have long at halftime to sit down and have a debrief with people. Aké understood why he came off, and the reason was, that’s the first 45-mintues he’s played in a long, long time. I wasn’t unhappy with how he performed and what he offered the team along with Jhonder up top. It was always going to be a really, really difficult first 45 minutes or an hour. Absolutely no issues whatsoever.

I think as you look at the way Aké will blend and mold into this group – the likes of Hany [Mukhtar], and Aníbal, and Randall [Leal], and Dax [McCarty], and CJ [Sapon] – we can go on and on and on. There’s a lot of guys missing out of our group tonight that maybe would have helped in the process of his acclimation in his first start. But make no mistake here: this plastic field is not easy to play on, No. 1. No. 2, New England play the field incredibly well. And No. 3, they’re the best team in the league.

It was never, ever going to be easy for any of those players out there. So I’m delighted with the 45 minutes he got, he’s come off healthy, and he’ll be better for it.”

What did you see from the in-form “big three” of Leal, Mukhtar, and Sapong coming on against tired legs, even though they weren’t ultimately able to score?

“As you might expect there was a bit of sparkle in their play, they come into a game where the other players have obviously put a good shift in, so no more than I expected. But the management of three games in a short space of time is always difficult. And we’ve now got a really competitive group. It’s an easy example to look at Robert Castellanos on Sunday: Robert’s stepped forward and he’s meeting the challenge as is the likes of Jack [Maher] and Taylor [Washington] and Eric [Miller] – who have been outside for long periods.

“The last six weeks, those guys have been stalwarts in this team. they’re unbeaten since they’ve come in the group.
So there’s some rotation to be had, the guys who came on did a fabulous job; it’s not easy coming off the bench, especially with the conditions that we’d had. And my hope is that some of those guys that have not gotten as many minutes are maybe going to be in a better spot for the weekend.

“But look, that’s a long way off right now, plenty to consider and to think about and we’ll take stock of where the group’s at when we get back.”

What did you ask of Alex Muyl in a slightly different role, and what did you think of his performance?

“Alex is an incredibly genuine individual, as we all know. He’s more than capable of joining in and being part of any creation or any attacks that might be unfolding. I’d asked him to be a little bit more thoughtful and selective about joining in, and getting too high up the field, and exposing the central two players – when I say ‘central two players,’ I’m talking about Matt LaGrassa and Brian Anunga from the start – I wanted him to give them a lot more support. There’s a lot of ground to cover in there, and having watched Montreal come in not so long ago, and maybe suffer a little bit in certain areas, there were some things to learn from that, some lessons to be had.

“And what he did was make us more difficult to break down, and to obviously penetrate. But unfortunately in the first half, when we were in possession, maybe a bit of pressure from them, re-pressing, a little lack of appreciation, awareness, or quality from one of two players. And of course, if you’re working that hard off the ball and trying to prevent any creation – which they did to a wonderful degree – then there’s a lack of energy in some cases to try and make the most of the ball.

“So the first half, the only disappointment was we didn’t actually achieve more with the ball and manage the ball a little better. But overall, Alex’s role was one of a more stable and workmanlike role rather than an attacking role.”

What did you see on the initial penalty call that was reversed on Video Review?

“I can only tell you what my feelings were, and what I saw as the game evolved. I thought it was a handball: I thought Buksa handballed it, and it popped down and kept the game alive for them, which ultimately ended up in what I thought was simulation. That’s what I saw. Now, I didn’t have the ability to look at a replay, I didn’t have slow-motion to look at – the referee was closer – I’m glad that he took the advice of, I’m guessing, VAR, and went and had a look. And until I see it again, I’m presuming that they’ve all come to the right conclusion. Because that was what I felt from teh outset: that it wasn’t a penalty.

What can you take from these two games on the road as you head to Miami (the third opponent this week that you’ll visit after previously playing them at home)?

“I think you have to expect, every single away game you have, you’re going to run into a tough environment. I’m sure that everyone down in Miami would like to be in a slightly better position than they are. But when you look around their group, you can’t help but focus in on the fact that they still have some very, very good players.

“I suspect that time will be the necessity for Phil [Neville] to get the job done the way he wants to, and we’ll go down there knowing that we will be in for a very challenging game. The environment won’t help anyone: I’m sure it’ll be very warm when we kick off at six o’clock. The atmosphere looks like it’s been very good down there, so I’m sure they’re getting behind the team. And I don’t know the result tonight, but their first victory at home last weekend I’m sure will have infused all the players and given them some confidence for Sunday’s matchup.

“Our last outing against each other was a draw, and a very tough draw at that. I shouldn’t think there’ll be an awful lot in the game, and obviously we hope that we can turn it our way, but it’s going to take a particular type of performance.”

Defender Jack Maher

“Yeah, it’s great to be back, back with the guys. Always a fun one. The last 10 days probably haven’t been the best, but we got through it and tonight’s performance was very, very good. Of course, our expectation’s that we’re going to come in and win wherever we go. But I think that everyone on the team – Gary included – is very, very happy with the
performance that we had today.”

What is the particular challenge against this New England team – with its high-flying offense – that you were able to conquer tonight?

“This team is very, very talented. From top to bottom, they have a lot of really good attacking threats. But we trained it every single day. It’s our backline, it’s honestly the whole group of 11: everyone on this team is bought into defending. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal, CJ [Sapong]: these guys are all bought into team defending, and we have a guy behind us – that’s Joe Willis – that I think eight shutouts now, that really speaks for himself and just helps the group as a whole.”

Would you rank this performance as one of the team’s best?

“It definitely ranks up there. With that being said, I think we can even get better. That’s the really great part of what we have going forward: we expect this out of ourselves, we expect to not only be really good and keep shutouts on the defensive end, but how can we help get our special and talented players high up the field.

“This definitely for me ranks up for one of the best personal defensive performances against a really, really good team. But I mean, this team has been really, really talented on the defensive end for ever since we’ve been around.”

Did New England’s gameplan fall in line with what you expected, or did the game play out differently?

“Yeah, so we spent a lot of time analyzing game film, and this was something that we really hadn’t seen from them, especially with the news that Carles Gil was not able to be in the lineup, I think we were kind of really thrown off a little bit of some of our gameplans going into it. We had this idea that they were going to be pressing a certain way, but what we found was they just ended up overloading Eric and my side.

“So it took us a little while, but we were able to bend but not break. Honestly the second half, we fixed everything, and we were on the front foot on this side.”

What did you see out of Robert Castellanos in his first start over the weekend, and how does it feel knowing that there’s depth building?

“Robert had an absolutely incredible match, and that’s what we expect from him. He is a very, very, very talented player, and someone that is always pushing. He’s always pushing the guy in front of us, and that’s the culture that we’ve built here. Whether it’s me and Jalil [Anibaba], or Robert always trying to push Dave [Romney] and Walker [Zimmerman].

From the top guy – from No. 1 to No. 30 – this is a team that continually pushes the guy in front of us. I think that expectation and that reality has really been a keypart that contributes to the team’s success.”

Goalkeeper Joe Willis

“It feels pretty good. New England is a tough place to play so we knew it was going to be a battle up here. With them being at first place in the East, we knew we couldn’t let them take three points from the game. There were times where it felt like we could’ve taken three points, but at the end of the day getting one point at a tough place to play on the road? We’ll take it.”

You had a number of saves, but they were mostly routine until New England’s most dangerous moment in second-half stoppage time. What’s the mindset when that scary moment finally arises?

“Yeah, you have to stay focused for 90 minutes, or sometimes 95 minutes. I think you see it – I’m not saying we’re at the level of Barcelona or Bayern Munich – but you see it with some of the top teams in the world that they control most of the game, and their opponents will get one opportunity, and you have someone like [Marc-Andre] ter Stegen or [Manuel] Neuer, they make those big saves, and that’s what makes them great.

“That’s the type of attitude that I try to take, especially with this team, where we’re so good defensively, and our opponents might not get a lot of opportunities. I know that at some point, they probably will get one. The guys in front of me are putting a lot of hard work in, so I need to be ready to put some work in myself.

“And I also don’t want to be the guy who lets the team down when our defenders are putting in shifts like they do. If something happens where I let in an easy goal – or a goal period – I take that responsibility and feel like I maybe let them down.”

What did you see on the penalty that came back via VAR?

“No, I didn’t think it was a penalty. My first thought was that Buksa had a handball in the build-up to it. And then, I didn’t think it was a foul either. So once he made the call, the first thing I told him was that it was a handball and he needs to check it. Several other players let him know as well. So yeah, I was pretty confident that it would get overturned, but sometimes you never know.”

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