Nashville SC beat DC United 5-2 in Nissan Stadium Sunday night. Head coach Gary Smith, winger Alex Muyl, and defender Walker Zimmerman discussed it after the match. Watch or read their full comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Well, to be perfectly honest – and I’m sure you all felt the same way as me in the first half – it could have been any score at halftime. Disappointed with the way that the game opened up for us, but of course very, very pleased that at one point we were two goals to the good, having started so slowly. There were many, many things in that first half that weren’t quite right with the group, that we corrected and looked far more natural with at home against a side that have been very confident, they’re in a good run, have turned a corner incredibly well. And it was never, ever going to be an easy night, but in the end, I think we made a difficult game in the first half look that much easier in the second with a couple of very, very important goals to give us some distance. So yeah: really pleased, delighted with a win of course after last week’s events.”
How do you manage the front three when you have a guy in CJ Sapong who is in such good form?
“There’s a lovely connection between that – what we would class as a – front three, Hany [Mukhtar], Randall [Leal], and of course CJ. I think they’ve connected incredibly well, especially here. They look so bright, so confident. And I think that understanding leads to quick attacks, early crosses, areas that they start to understand and appreciate that their teammate may well be working into. And of course there’s got to be good quality between them. But I think they’re a
great catalyst for each other. There’s such a nice energy about it, they feed off one another, they’ve been assisting each other, they’ve been scoring off of those, of course, and it’s looked really, really bright for the group.
“Of course confidence is a great thing: CJ’s in a nice run, he looks like he’s gonna score before he does. He’s an handful, especially here. I keep saying that because there is a difference, there is a different feel about the group, and they looked – even after the opening goal – they looked like there was a belief that ‘we can turn this around, we’ll do enough here to get it done.’ Although, obviously gave me kittens* at times with the way that it came about.”
* I’d never heard it before. It’s like nervous energy stuff
How did your team manage to adapt to the DC press and possess more after the opening stage?
“I think there’s a couple of things. I mean, No. 1, their game is about high energy, putting teams under pressure. And they’ve had a lot of success from it. With a confident team coming into town, you expect them to show some of those abilities that have got them in that position. We haven’t played DC before, so there’s an unknown quantity. I’m sure the guys are fully aware of some of their opponents, having played against them multiple times for other teams. But we haven’t as a group played against these, and certainly not in the shape that they’re currently offering up, and the way that they’re playing. So there was always going to be a little bit of a feeling-out process, but to go behind from a dead-ball situation so early, without even really seeing what the game was going to offer, was very disappointing and frustrating.
“But I’ve got to say: the character of the group and the spirit of the group shines through again, and of course the qualities of the said front three in creating opportunities – which they did on numerous occasions without the goal scored. Another terrific statistical tally at home. The guys are enjoying playing here, that’s all I can say.”
Alex Muyl isn’t necessarily known as an offensive dynamo, but does a lot to create to goals. Does that surprise you? And what’s going through your mind as your team earns a penalty shortly after you take off your primary penalty taker, Hany Mukhtar?
“Yeah, I mean, Alex is so capable. I don’t think he’s shown us – certainly not the fans, I mean we see it in training more often – but he certainly hasn’t shown us on this main stage his ability in front of goal, and his creativity that he’s produced for Red Bull. And with the competition we have, it makes life more and more difficult to get into that group, the way those front three are playing. All you can ever ask as a coach is that when players come in, they try and raise the bar for the players that are out there, they give them some respite, they add some energy to the game, and they try and make a difference. And I couldn’t be more complimentary about the guys that have come into the game, what they’ve done, and how they’ve performed.
“As far as the penalty goes, I was trying to find a dark corner so that I wasn’t getting pointed at, because Hany had just come off, of course. I was really hoping that there wasn’t going to be a melee in the penalty area of people grabbing at the ball. Fortunately, Alex showed a tremendous amount of confidence to grab the ball. I’m sure Daniel [Rios] will have been ultra-keen to have taken it, as there may have been one or two others. But they showed a lot of professionalism, and of course, Alex got the job done.”
Does it sometimes help your team over the course of a game to concede early, and make the style of game one that you need to really go for?
“I’m not sure about that. I think the opponent – and of course who you’re playing makes an awful lot of difference – this DC United team have got a real mantra and the coach has slowly-but-surely pointed these guys in the direction that he wants to play, and that is all about energy, positivity. The front three were really exciting from start to finish. A real handful, and I’m sure they are for most defenses, and I think we can all say that our guys normally do a very stout job. But in the first half especially, there were numerous moments that they could have taken advantage of.
“And I’m not sure that there’s – can I put it this way – I don’t think at one-nil they would have felt the job was done here. So therefore, they continued to go about their business. I think their business offers opportunities. It left their back three isolated on occasions, and that’s the way they play. And they’ve performed very, very well up until tonight, and tonight we’ve taken advantage of it. But I think over time, you have to look at what a system and style of play is doing for you – and it’s obviously working very, very well for them – tonight it didn’t, but that doesn’t mean to say it won’t on other occasions.”
What sort of freedom is given to the front three to freelance in the final third?
“As you know full well, this game’s very fluid. There’s not downs or plans that you can – set-piece of course, we can have some movements and some picks and whatever else – but in the flow of the game, you’re very reliant on the work that you do in the week, the type of foundations that you offer to those players, the freedom to go and make those movements and runs or not, and then of course, the synergy that they create. And if you look over history, there’ve been some terrific partnerships, and there’ve been some wonderful attacking front lines that just have almost a telepathy that works. And these guys are confident – I’m only going to go over the same ground – they’re confident, they look bright and purposeful at home, they’re taking chances at the right times, they’re showing terrific energy, there’s a wonderful feel about the way they’re going about their business. I think it’s what, 13 goals here in the las three games? If I’m not mistaken. That’s a terrific return. And if we look at really what we are about and the pathway that we’re traveling in the development in the group, we’re making some nice strides. It’s lovely to be in a good position. I don’t think anyone’s going to be comfortable of happy until we’re mathematically above the line, and we’re into the postseason, and until then, we’ve got lots of challenges. And there’s another huge one coming up on Wednesday night.
“But in the process of that, I and the players and the coaches have to make sure that there are areas of our game that we’re continually moving forward with, that we’re improving, and we can feel a hell of a lot better about. Because if you stick to that plan, invariably the results come. You can’t just look at a game and go, ‘ok, we need to do this this week, because then we’ll win.’ Well, there are certain foundations to any group that you have to be comfortable in working with and towards, and the players are. I couldn’t be more positive or complimentary, as I’ve said before, about the way that the guys go about their work every day, which takes them into the games.”
Midfielder Alex Muyl
This was probably your first [Tim is an idiot, this was not right] brace. What’s the feeling as you’re jockeying with teammates for the penalty kick?
“I had one against San Jose a couple years ago – off the bench as well.
“Yeah, I just think that, obviously we have guys on the field that want to take the penalty, which is really good. We have set penalty takers but they weren’t on the field so we were pretty much down the pecking order in terms of who would take it. I feel a little guilty because I know there’s attacking players that want to get going and get some goals, but at the same time, I think it’s good that we all want to take it, and when you’re feeling confident you just want to put it away.
“I kind of had a feeling before the game – I actually visualized – what happens if I’m on the field and I win a penalty? I’ve never taken one in my career, so I wanted to cross that one off the list. I’m very grateful to those guys for letting me do it and for trusting me. Even though I they wanted to take it, as soon as I scored they’re so happy for me, so that shows the kind of guys that we have on this team, and the kind of relationship that we all have. So I’m very thankful for them, and it just makes me want to sacrifice for them and give them that feeling back.”
Is the bottom-right corner of the net becoming a sweet spot for you?
“It might have to be now. No, but I think it’s just an instinctive thing for me. I’ve been trying to get extra reps after practice shooting, because obviously the things you do repetitively, they become second nature, and then that’s something that you’re doing in the game. And for me, I’m trying to create a mental checklist of things I want to do when I’m in a game: I want to get at least one shot on target, one cross, one successful one-v-one, so I think these are good things to be thinking about and to have floating around in your mind, because obviously when you kind of manifest those things, it comes from having them in your mind and being focused on them.”
What is the difficulty of the opportunity that you scored on today, and what’s the feeling of scoring on that after having easier opportunities in other games that you couldn’t quite finish?
“I can’t think of too many opportunities I’ve had this year, which is part of why I’ve been focusing so much on making sure that I take shots and create chances, because you’re never going to score if you don’t create chances. But yeah, it wasn’t super-easy. It’s something that you have to do it quickly, but you also have to be calm in your mind, and a little fortunate as well, you know? Sometimes you need to that as well.
“For me, I’m very grateful to have this happen, but ultimately the main thing that I feel is that I want to add things to the team. Whether or not I’m on the scoresheet, whether or not I get an assist, I want to make sure that I’m helping the team. And that’s the most important thing. Especially when you have guys like CJ: he’s scoring goals and it’s amazing. But he’ll play, and even if he doesn’t score, he’s helping the team, so I want to be that kind of guy and contribute in as many ways as I can. Tonight, I was able to get on the scoresheet; other nights I wont, but I just want to make sure I can help impact the team in a good way.”
How good did your connection with Daniel Ríos feel, especially on the play that led to the penalty kick?
“He’s a player who’s very good. He’s very easy to read, because he makes it easy to play with him. When we came on the field, obviously it’s an open game and maybe some tired players out there. So just to be able to play with each other and have a good understanding is great. Obviously, he was a very big part of the penalty that I win. I hope to keep working with him and keep creating that connection, and when I get an opportunity to play with him, I’m going to make sure I try and combine with him.”
What’s changed in the team that has led to higher-scoring games?
“I just think you have a group that’s played together and got a lot of good repetition together. I think creating understanding and kind of chemistry is something that… you can’t just force it. Sometimes it takes games, and it takes time. I think you’re seeing a group now that’s been together for a while, and that’s started to really understand the way each other want to play, and the way other guys want the ball, and are able to help each other.
So I think part of that is chemistry, and another thing is mentality. I think this year, we said we wanted to be a little bit more going forward, and we’ve done that. So we have to keep coming, and hopefully start to get a little bit more clean sheets as well. Because once you put those two things together, it’s obviously a recipe for success.”
Defender Walker Zimmerman
After a long wait, how did it feel it be back on the field?
“It was awesome. Great to be back, and I felt really good about the work I did in rehab, really making sure I felt prepared to get some minutes. Props to all of the medical team and staff, the athletic training guys – and ladies – did a great job of getting me back. I was just champing at the bit at that point. We kind of knew I was on a minute restriction, so watching the first half was just antsy, waiting for that moment. And then obviously felt really good, calm, comfortable out there. And I thought we had a good lift in that second half to go out and take all three.”
What was the process like from leaving the US camp to getting back onto the field today?
“I mean, it was tough, but there was really no break in time, because I knew all of the schedule that’s coming up for both club and country, and the importance of everything that lies ahead this Fall. So, for me, as soon as I got home – even before I got home – there was no days off in terms of preparing my body. Probably that same night I had the injury, it was already treatment, recovery, rehab, doing the tiniest of movements to go ahead and start strengthening. So it was a very aggressive rehab plan, but again, throughout that whole time – it’s a lot different than it was 5-10 years ago of the ability that we have with science, and the ability to measure strength, measure speed, measure load. So it makes it a little bit easier because you have data, so we’ve been able to push the barrier with that, and again, it felt really good to be back out there.”
When did you make it back to Nashville after leaving the Gold Cup squad?
“I ended up flying to Dallas with the [US Men’s National] team right after the Canada game, and then got my imaging and then left after the imaging when it looked like I would be unable – a combination of things – unable to probably play in the final, and then also the medical additions that Concacaf approved after the group stage to bring people in, so I think maybe if there’s not that, it’s a decision: do I rehab with the National Team, do I rehab back in Nashville? Thankfully that decision was made very clear with that Concacaf allowance medically.
“So I flew back to Nashville, and immediately got started with the rehab, and just watched those Gold Cup games. Nerve-wracking for sure. Exciting, an incredible final with a great display of really, just character is what I think kind of showed from the group in terms of how they handle themselves with their intensity, handling their emotions really well in a final of that magnitude. And to do it in back-to-back months against Mexico was huge for the group, especially as we head into qualifying, and what that means for this country, and for all the players and people involved.
“So it’s a very exciting time to be a US Soccer fan, a very exciting time to be a Nashville fan, and to really embrace what’s coming in this Canada game as a qualifier just a few weeks ahead.”
Was the timing of your return to Nashville – just before the all-star break – the goal from the beginning, after your injury?
“100%. So as soon as it happened, we looked at – with Nashville and the US staff – once we got the results from the MRI, and I had this date circles on the calendar as the aggressive date to return. Because it gives me minutes today, minutes Wednesday, an all-star game, a game against Atlanta, and then qualifying if I end up getting called in. If not, obviously we have a stretch of games with Nashville.
“So it was a big date that I knew I probably needed to get enough minutes to prove that I’m healthy and fit. And this was a good first step in that process.”
How did you assess Jalil Anibaba and Jack Maher’s performances in your absence?
“It was honestly a great effort from everyone involved in the games with guys who were out. So it wasn’t just me who was missing: [Aníbal] Godoy was out of the roster as well, Alistair [Johnston] was gone, and it was a variety of guys who stepped up and stepped in. It’s always fun – it’s a silver lining – when you’re out injured, and you get to watch guys who maybe aren’t playing week-in, week-out, but you know they’ve been training just as hard as everyone else to get that chance, and to step up in those moments. So I think the team was… I think three wins, one loss, and three ties? while I was out. Which was amazing. That’s probably a very favorable record in that absence for any team in the league to be able to do that with people missing. So a great performance from them throughout the past couple months.
What is your take on the opportunity to make another statement against Mexico after two Cup wins for the US this Summer and then MLS All-Stars taking on Liga MX All-Stars next week?
“We’re excited. As a nation, as a national team pool, this has been talked about – I can remember slideshows from Gregg’s first camp in January 2019, and it laid out kind of the schedule of the path to World Cup Qualifying. And so now we’re here. Got delayed a little bit with COVID, but we’ve been looking forward to these now 14 games for a long time. And so to have the momentum of winning two tournaments back-to-back – again, against Mexico – that’s a huge step for this program, and it’s showing that the past is behind us, we’re looking forward, ‘the future is now’ is the slogan that US Soccer’s been putting forward for a little bit. So there’s so much talent, a lot of depth, and a lot of, again, character within that group. So we’re excited and we’re ready for that next challenge.”
What would it mean to participate in a qualifier here in Nashville against Canada Sept. 5?
“It would be massive. I mean, these fans here make me feel like a superstar every single time I get to step on the field. And the reception even today, coming back from injury, is humbling. And it makes you just want to keep working for them, you know? Keep getting results for them, keep putting your body on the line for them, and representing their hearts, their emotion. We’re lucky to have this job, t be out here playing, and playing at a high level. So the fact that we have a qualifier in Nashville for-sure makes it even more appetizing to hopefully get called in and be a part of that game.”