Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and defender Alistair Johnston met with the media to discuss their 1-1 draw against Orlando City SC. Watch or read their full comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Yeah, really tough encounter. We all expected to be in the type of game that we saw: an Orlando team that are very efficient with the ball. You know, able to create opportunities, and I thought the first 30 minutes, for sure, was our best period: scored, really should’ve made more of one or two of the opportunities.
“And then the second period, they looked a lot stronger. I don’t know whether that was due to our game on Sunday and a very tight turnaround, but they certainly got a head of steam up. A huge disappointment to concede from a set piece, which ultimately ends up being the goal that denies us victory. Were there other chances? Yes, but what we now know is that if we’d have defended well from dead balls, we would’ve won the game.
“So, frustration, but happy in a very, very tight game to stay unbeaten and to get four out of the last six points at home against two very good teams.”
What’s behind the team’s propensity for giving up set-piece goals when it wasn’t a problem last year?
“Listen, we’ve looked at an awful lot of different things. You know, I’ve been around groups that have had issues like that before, and strangely enough, when you look at someone like CJ [Sapong] who was marking the centerback, Carlos, who ultimately scored, the physical matchup’s a good one. What we know is the movement, the delivery was a very good one.
But there are some fundamentals that are key to defending set pieces well. First one is you need to have contact with that player – certainly if you’re marking man-for-man you can’t allow him to drift off your shoulder or into space. There’s got be a determined nature about the way you attack the ball, because in the end, it can be the finest of margins that end up resulting in a goal. And then there’s some other qualities: body shape, and timing of headers, and picking up the flight of the ball. But the first two: being determined, and making sure you’ve got contact with that player. Because then the player doesn’t have an opportunity to get away from you and see the flight of the ball, and take his time to pick his spot. Under pressure, it’s a lot harder to score a goal.
“But when the boy finally heads the ball, he’s got a yard of space to pick his spot, and it’s a very good header. Being perfectly honest, I think I might have scored. So there’s no discredit to the goal that was scored. You can… frustration for me is that it’s happened too often. I truly don’t know what these set-piece goals, if you’d have taken even three or four of them out, where it would have left us in the league – I guess depending on what games they were in, we could’ve seen very different results. But it’s certainly today been the different between a victory and not, and that’s always a disappointment.”
What did you see out of CJ in the attack?
“The first 30 minutes was, you know, a blistering pace: there were some terrific counterattacks that we had, some very very positive play. They managed the ball really well, they looked like they wanted to control the tempo. They’re a good side, you know? There’s a lot of respect shown, but I think that first 30 minutes gave them an idea of just what we were capable of.
“Honestly, I thought we squandered some moments too readily. The moment was there to shoot from distance, we took it when there were better options. Look, they drop off, they don’t engage the ball: you can understand our guys looking and seeing clear sight of goal, but of course it’s that much harder to score from range. I suspect they would’ve been very, very happy on two or three occasions that there wasn’t another pass, or another individual was brought into the game.
“So we missed our moment, we should’ve extended our lead, and in the end, it’s cost us the game, really.”
Did it seem like Orlando was more up to win physical battles?
“Yeah, the second half for sure. I think there was a little bit more sharpness about their play, they started to get some momentum, they were on the front foot. When you can’t connect those passes, and there’s a lot of physical pressure, a couple of things happened: the quality of our passing started to diminish, the physical nature of the game becomes more difficult for forward to hold it up, the timing of balls in-behind are that much more difficult when somebody’s getting the server’s head down.
“So there were numerous things that, certainly in the first 30 minutes of the second half, that they were better than us. Yeah, maybe some fatigue. I mean look: I looked around the league before we went out, some of the teams – and I’ve done it myself, of course, with some rotation – some teams changed six, seven players: fresh legs. We changed two. Dax was a more-enforced one, he had a tight back from the weekend. But I just felt that the momentum that we had, the continuity that we had, and the confidence in that front three was worth taking a chance with. And I’ve got to say right now, I think it was the right thing to do. We had the moments, we had our chances, we didn’t take them. I guess he’ll [Orlando coach Óscar Pareja] be saying the same thing in his press conference, because Joe [Willis] made a couple of very good saves.
“All-in-all, maybe a point was the right result for the teams. But the frustration for us will be a set piece again.”
How has Daniel Ríos earned his way back into the squad?
“We have a number of forwards, a real complement of players and riches, if you like, up front now. And I felt that the opportunity was there for Daniel and for [Ake Loba] to be putting more pressure on the guys that had been playing. CJ’s our standout forward. The guys I’ve just spoken about have shown tremendous attitudes, they looked sharp. It’s really a decision from my end to try and keep that front line inspired, on their toes – I don’t want anyone resting on their laurels – and my hope is that for the guys that have not been included, it’s not because I don’t think they have enough quality, but what certainly happens to any individual is form dips and peaks, and I want to keep that competition in the group.
“So I felt he deserved his opportunity. Ake’s stilll working his way through some fitness – he looks terrific, he looks great in training, but in terms of a physical focal point, Daniel’s a very, very different player to Ake or Abu, and we’ve been at our best when we’ve had CJ, Jhonder, through the middle, and guys working off of that individual. So Daniel’s got his chance. I mean look: I’m not sticking my neck out here: Daniel’s our top scorer last year. the fact that he had a disappointing preseason – was out for a long period of time – has meant that he’s had to wait his chance, because we’ve got a lot of players, a lot of forwards, a lot of creators. But he’s a good pro, and he deserves this opportunity. And I have to be honest: in the brief moments that he’s come on the field, I’ve been very, very happy with what he’s given us.”
What did you see out of Walker in his return to 90-minute form after Gold Cup and injury?
“There was a worry in my mind that maybe I might have pushed him – or was going to push him – too far. Again, he’s a terrific professional, he looks after his body, he works hard, his rehab’s been very, very good. But it is a big jump from 30 minutes, of course, to 90 minutes. I do think sometimes in that position as a centerback – and he reads the game so well that – he can negate some of those serious recovery runs that might otherwise cause him a problem with a hamstring issue he did have.
“I thought he was terrific, absolutely terrific. He oozes confidence, presence, I’m not sure he lost a header. He was a threat at the other end, you know two or three scrambles – and you know, on other days, you know. we’ve been able to poke those in. And we’ll keep going about our business: some days, it’s your day, and some days it’s not. I won’t be too frustrated other than the set piece. I knew it was going to be a tough game, I knew it was a tough turnaround. We’ve come out of this unscathed – no injuries from what I know. He’s in good shape, Walker. You forget about Aníbal, who’s been out for a good while with a hamstring injury as well, gets through 90 minutes. Alistair [Johnston]’s had an ankle problem, gets through 90 minutes.
“So there’s a lot of good to come out of this. And we’re in a good position: there’s still a lot of work to be done, but this conference, by the wya, is one of the most competitive that I can remember. It’s amazing: when you look around at the results, and then the only team that you can almost rubber-stamp for a victory keep plowing on, in New England. Anyone else, you know, there’s a fine line between the teams.”
Did you suspect that 1-0 would be good enough to win this one, and have that impression shaken?
“The reason I said I felt we needed to extend our lead is because we were in the ascendancy. When you’re on top and you’re creating chances and moments are coming thick-and-fast, I honestly felt that they were in a difficult place early on. They diodn’t get to grips with the system, away from home there can be some difficulties getting their match legs of course with travel – we’ve had it ourselves – and you really need to force that positivity home.
“What I also knew was that they’re a very, very talented group, and if they could get into a rhythm – and the chance just before the end of the first half, the header that Joe makes an incredibly good save, will have given them some real confidence to come out in the second half and know that the game is still alive. And when you’re playing good teams, you’ve got to put them away. And we’ve seen games here where we’ve scored two, three, four goals: there’s no coming back from that. And that was certainly possible, but wasn’t achieved tonight.
Is there anything that Aké Loba still needs to pick up tactically?
“Listen, this lad’s got a tremendous amount of talent. He was in his offseason in Mexico, he’s come in, he’s worked very, very hard, he’s still trying to find his match legs and some sharpness and some fitness. But to your point about systems, listen, this lad’s capable of playing in just about any system. What I do think he will benefit from are the likes of CJ, Jhonder [Cádiz], Daniel – somebody who’s a more comfortable individual in their back to goal. Because Aké has all the ability to link and to beat people, to use his sharpness and his technique, and of course he’s trying to find some continuity and some understanding with the guys around him. Look: he certainly wouldn’t be the first person who’s come from abroad that takes a little bit of time – especially mid-season – to find his feet. But he is a terrific lad, and he certainly won’t be lacking any determination to get himself on the starting group in the coming weeks. I’m sure of that.”
Defender Alistair Johnston
What caused the dichotomy between the halves, and how do you avoid the set piece weakness going forward.
“We’re going to look back on it when I go over the game again. Honestly the first half I think we had our chances for sure, created some better chances – as I look over the expected goals here. There’s no doubt about it that, that last kind-of 20 minutes of that first half we definitely created some stuff then we’ve kind of fallen into bad habits again, throughout the season just conceding set pieces – which is really uncharacteristic to us. But at the same time if it keeps happening, it becomes a character trait of you guys. So it’s something that we really need to fix.
“It’s not something that we haven’t been practicing, we look at it every day, we watch video on it, so it is just kind of a weird thing that we need to figure out. Just mainly a mentality thing, just making sure that we’re locked in. So it’s been a bit frustrating. I just look at these stats here: xG 1.04 to 1.03, so a 1-1 draw is probably pretty fair when you look at it. But still, I think we came out of that a bit hard-done by, just with the opportunities that we had in the end of that first half.”
What has gone wrong in the past year on set pieces after the team was strong last season?
“You know, not to beat a dead horse with the set pieces either, but I do think it’s almost been an evolution of our team. I think as you become a more talented group offensively, it’s one of those things that you tune out a little bit: is that last year we were struggling to score goals, so we really had to make sure it was our forté – and we knew as an expansion team coming in, if we really wanted to make it far in this league, we were really going to have to be just lights out defensively, and that meant every single moment tuned-in.
“And I also think it comes down to our attacking players as well: we weren’t necessarily lighting up the scoresheet to the same degree, so set pieces, ‘okay defensively, you know what: if it’s not going in on one end, I’ve really got to make sure I’m doing my defensive work.’ Not to say they haven’t been, because I think we have been really good all-around, but it’s just been little mental lapses throughout the whole lineup. It starts with us at the backline, not leading as well as we should.
“But I think that’s probably of the evolution, you know, I wouldn’t even say it’s a complacency. But we have been enjoying our football: putting five goals on people, that’s something that the national media still can’t believe that Nashville SC is doing. So I think it’s something like that, just a little bit of mentality, I think Gary’s spot-on with that, it’s just the desire. We’ve lacked that in certain moments, and it’s something we really do need to fix.”
Can you feel the tide turning when Orlando starts to assert a little more control?
“Yeah, you know, again, it’s going to be one of those ones that I’m going to have to look at. But you can definitely feel it on the field, for sure. It just feels like that tilt in the field a little bit. All of a sudden they’re picking up more second balls, those 50/50 challenges, those bounces aren’t going our way, they’re going their way. So that’s one of those ones that – and that’s why we’re so fortunate to be able to bring a guy like Dax off the bench: guys who are experienced and have that kind of workrate and that knowledge in the middle to start, you know, cleaning that mess up. So I think that’s just a testament to the depth of our team, as well.
“But you know, it is kind of a weird one: I felt it out there, too. I think everyone kind of senses it in the stadium when all of a sudden, you know, things are really going our way. You can see it right here with just the expected goals: they really kind of kicked on from that 45th minute on to the 75th. So that’s something we need to look at, whether that’s a little bit of just coming out of the locker room a little flat, which is something we’re not used to doing. I’m not 100% sure either: I’m with you, but definitely you could feel it out there for sure.”
How do you spend a rare weekend off. Do you try to watch as much MLS as possible, or get away from it a bit?
“You know, this is a good question [thanks!]. Definitely gonna be watching al the MLS games. It’s always nice when you can kind of sit back, relax, and just kind of see the other teams duke it out a little bit. The Prem’s back, all the big leagues are back, so it’ll be a big soccer weekend.
“My family’s in town for the first time since pre-Covid, so I’ll get to show them around a little bit. But I’m telling you: on Saturday and Sunday, those are football days, so I’ll be enjoying that.”
You slid in and played right centerback to close the match. How is that different than the role you usually play for Nashville, or the version of RCB you play with Canada?
“I see it as kind of a jack-of-all-trades kind of move for me. I really enjoy playing it with Canada. It’s a role that I’ve grown accustomed to and kind of understand the ins and outs of more and more. It’s something that I can bring – especially if we are looking to push forward. You could say that we normally play three more-traditional centerbacks in that role, but with Canada, how we kind of play, it’s almost a true ball-winning centerback in the middle, and then two guys who are a little more half-and-half fullback or centerbacks – which is what I am. So I love it, because I get in good pockets and I’m a little more central.
“I’d have to say Jack Maher does do a great job there: he’s a great player of the ball, I love when he’s feeding me the ball up the wing. But at the same time it’s, for me maybe, Gary sees me as a little bit more attacking kind of move. If someone does come at me, I can jink inside and have a little more confidence to do that. But obviously I lose some traits too, when we sub out a guy like Jack for me, in terms of aerial presence, stuff like that.
So it goes hand-in-hand, but I think it just shows that’s kind of our mentality at home now: we’re going to try to push for things. We don’t see it as one point’s good enough. It doesn’t matter what team we’re playing: if it’s the Revs, Sounders, whoever it is with these top teams in the league, like Orlando is. At home, we see it as three points or bust. That’s kind of the mentality, and I think that the crowd can get behind us with that. We know the draws have been frustrating, too: trust me, we take a draw – we consider it pretty much a loss.
“So I think that’s kind of what it is: it’s a role that I’m pretty comfortable in, and it’s something that I do want to entertain and try out more with this club, and of course with my country. So I’ve really enjoyed it.”