Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith and Daniel Ríos after Nashville SC defeats Atlanta United

Daniel Ríos photo from file

Nashville SC went on the road and took down a rival. Watch or read everything the head coach and game-winning goal-scorer had to say about the performance here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Delighted to get a victory, this is just not an easy place to play, to get any traction against a side that are full of talent and energy – positive energy. The opening exchanges were very, very difficult. Certainly the incident that occurred in and around the penalty area was instrumental in the end, where it occurred. But slowly-but-surely I felt we just warmed into the game. Started to maybe connect a couple of passes and feel a little bit more confident in this arena.

“And the goal before halftime was huge, to come in and to galvanize the group again, something to protect in difficult times and obviously something to try and build on. And I think it also gave us a little bit more belief that there was more management of the game to be had. We controlled the ball a little bit better in the second half. There were some areas, certainly, that we took more advantage of, and of course some wonderful displays in the end. Typified, I think, by Daniel Ríos’s first goal this year, and the final goal that couldn’t have been put on a platter any better from Joe for Randall to finish off what was a wonderful afternoon for us.”

What did you see from Daniel Rios leading up to the game, and what does the goal mean to him upon his return to the starting lineup after injury difficulties?

“If you look back at some of the games that we’ve played away from home, there’ve been some really good signs. There’ve been fragmented because of our heavily-loaded home schedule in the early part of the season. But the thing that I think struck all of us was that we had some nice moments in the game, but lacked that goal threat. And Daniel’s performances coming off the bench have looked bright, purposeful. He was, of course, our top goal-scorer – not to be forgotten – last year. He is a threat in front of goal, and although there were few opportunities for him to make a mark.

“And I have to say he looked rusty at certain points. The field, I’m sure, didn’t help him settle. But what we know is: he is a clinical finisher. And Daniel doesn’t need many opportunities. He’s made the most of very few sights at goal today, and that has certainly given us a huge platform and foundation to work from.

“Ultimately, the front two guys that played did a very, very good job for us, and the balance of scoring goals, finding those creative moments away from home, but still being competitive. Let’s not forget: we limited an incredibly talented Atlanta side who’ve been on a wonderful run of form to not much. I mean, probably their best chance in the game was the final seconds where Josef’s headers skimmed the side of the post, and that in itself, I think should be a big pat on the back for the players.”

What was your thought process in playing Alistair Johnston as a central defender with Dan Lovitz playing off his natural side on the right?

“Daniel’s a very senior player. He’s played on the right-hand side of the field before, so this is not new to him. What tends to happen with players that are obviously one-foot predominant, it can be a little bit unbalancing for them at times. But the real thought process behind it was top try and get Alistair a little higher up the field and keey some pressure on. And I think we saw in the early exchanges that Alistair even got himself in a terrific overlapping position.

“And part of it was to try and overload this left-hand side – our right, their left – with two very energetic and forceful players. It didn’t happen as much as maybe I would’ve like. Of course, the balance of possession can be key to that. But if you see what Daniel Lovitz ended up for the first goal, it really was a consequence of what we had looked at in the lead-up to the game. Daniel came in underneath their backline, Alistair was a little higher up the field, he forces him in, rather like a midfield player. It’s hard for defenders to deal with, and he plays a terrific little ball for Daniel [Ríos] to finish. All-in-all, very very pleased with how that attacking dimension to the group looked.

“And I also felt that – whilst Jack [Maher] has been terrific for us, I have no complaints there – I thought Alistair would get isolated more with what we know are exceptionally good individual players. And they’ve got lots of them. It’s not like one or two: there’s four or five. So therefore, we needed players on the field that could cope with those 1v1 situations, maybe in a slightly better fashion.”

With Randall Leal playing well this season but not always being rewarded for it, what does it mean that a maybe less-impressive strike could be what gets the momentum going for him?

“I think you’re right, you know: I think his stats of hitting the target, asking more questions, getting into aggressive areas have been very, very good. His return on that has not always shown just how impressive he’s been, so he’s certainly moving forward, and he’s developing in that fashion in the final third.

“I thought his awareness for the goal was very, very good. Joe’s ball, as I’ve said already, was one that allowed him to, I think, just get his head up, be aware of what was around him. I don’t think for one minute that Randall ever thought, ‘I’m going to run this in the corner and kill time.’ If there’d have been three defenders in front of him, he’d have tried to take ’em on. So I love that aggressive nature about him, and the fact that he’s just finished the game off on such a bright note for us.

“I think it’ll give him immense confidence as he goes off with his country now, and some of the guys that have put in wonderful shifts today leave us in a great place.”

What does the first road win of the year mean with an uphill climb coming with so many on the road in the second half of the schedule?

“Yeah, I think ‘uphill climb’ may be a little bit heavy duty given our position in the league, but I understand your analogy. The difficulty for any team is to convert that balance of any game from one – as I’ve said – that you’re in it, you’re competing, you’re making life difficult for teams away from home, on a field that they’ll be far more accustomed to. You know, how do we turn the screw a little bit more and turn that into a victory?

“And today will be a monkey off everyone’s back. To your point, it’ll give all of the guys huge confidence to have won here against our local rivals and a top team. Hopefully, as we go back home for Friday’s game against New York City, and then into a long stretch, there’ll be something in the back of their mind that says, ‘OK, we’ve shown some excellent form at home, and we know if things don’t always go our way, that we’re capable of earning all three points entering difficult surrounds,’ because I’ll be honest: I’m not sure they come much more difficult than this.”

Is there a big change in how your team approached this Atlanta game after the disappointment you had in drawing ATL UTD at Nissan Stadium a few weeks ago?

“If I remember rightly, the home game I think there was far more expectation on us given some of the omissions that Atlanta had as well. They were going through a particularly difficult time with injuries, and obviously players unavailable to them for one reason or another. And it looked like a prime opportunity to take advantage of an excellent squad. We all fall foul of difficult circumstances, but it was a prime opportunity for us to grab three points. And I think the way the goals were conceded – I know that second goal from a dead ball, from a corner that young [Jackson] Conway scored was a bit of a dagger. But I’ve got to be honest though, I’m not sure I’ve been more frustrated this season – and it wasn’t because of the way we’d played, because we’d scored two goals and there was some very decent football. It was the fact that: in the end, a set piece had been our undoing, and that, in many ways, left a very sour taste in all of our mouths.

“So to be able to come here and to win, as you’ve said, is immensely satisfying, it really is. They’re our rivals, you know, they’ve got the better of us on occasions, I do think that we’re slowly-but-surely developing and creating an environment and a group here that should be sustainable. But none of us are sure what the future brings in terms of injuries, and form, and anything else that can happen within a soccer environment. So to win these games – and we do have an awful lot of respect through the rivalry of what these guys are capable of. They have some immensely talented players, and this, I’m sure, will only but put some fire in their bellies next time we meet.”

What is it about this rivalry that brings the best out of Hany Mukhtar or others?

“I’ve got to say, as Hany has evolved as a player here in Nashville and in MLS, we’re starting to see an individual that is expressing himself more, he’s more understanding of the league, the players he’s playing against, what he can, maybe what he can’t. There’s certainly more confidence in the player. But the one thing I would say more than anything else: Hany is inspired – like a lot of big players – by these sort of environments. When you’ve got 40-, 50-thousand people in the stadium, they’re raucous, it’s a big stage, it’s a good rivalry that we’re bringing together here, and someone like Hany thrives off of that.

“And his performance today was of a top DP in this league. He not only showed us the talents he has, the individual skills and qualities; I thought he managed the game very well. It wasn’t all about, ‘I’ve got to beat someone, I’ve got to create a chance.’ He slowed the game down, he took control of periods of the game that were vital to us. Losing the ball, losing possession against these players, presents them with new opportunities, inspires them. They’re in need of the ball to show what they’re about, and I though he – like a couple of our senior players – grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, in the second half especially.

“When times looked like they might just get away from us, we had some moments where we took the sting out of the game, and it isn’t just about the defensive abilities of the group. It’s not just about the clean sheet and the determination: we have to find a way to control the ball better, and guys like Hany and Aníbal [Godoy], or Walker [Zimmerman]’s strength of character, CJ [Sapong] down the spine of our team is so, so important.”

Striker Daniel Ríos

What did you see on the assist from Dan Lovitz, and how were you able to steer the ball into the net with your first touch?

“Yeah, I know Dan pretty well: he’s a great, great passer. I knew he was going to play the perfect pass, so I made a perfect run. First-foot finish, I didn’t have to look to the goal, I just had it in my mind. And it was a beautiful goal.”

How important was it to get that first away win?

“The coach talked to us all of the week about this game: it was important to start this first game with a win, because we know we’re going to have a lot of away games now. We’re going on the road. It was really really important to achieve the three points. At the end, the result was what we were expecting.”

When you step onto the field for your first start of the season and score, what is the answer for what’s made it so difficult to see the field so far?

“Well, my personal situation was I was injured for a long time. I needed time to start training again, get my fitness. Most of of my teammates had 14 games on when I was trying to get back on training, so it will take time.

“So now I’m happy that this is my third game playing. Having more minutes now – before this game, I didn’t have not even 90 minutes on the year – so I’m so happy that I’m finally able to play, I’m finally able to score my first goal of the year, I’ve been working so hard to get back. Supporting my teammates outside the line. So now that I’m able to help my team and to give joy to the fans is fabulous.”

What does it mean for your confidence to score in your first start of the season, and what is the difference between being a goal-scorer for this team versus last year’s side?

“Well, the situation is totally different. Last year was our first year: none of the other teams knew how we play, our style. This year is completely different: they know the players we have, they know how well we defend. Obviously that I’m starting now, I see my teammates, and the attackers: CJ, Hany, Randall scoring tons of goals. Supporting them all the time.

“For me, it means everything. Like I said, it was really, really hard. I was injured for a long time. I wanted to be back so bad. I worked so hard for this special moment, so it’s everything for me to score my first goal in my first start of the season.”

What did you see on Randall’s goal, and was the reaction of you and the rest of the players who were on the bench?

“It was great. Oh man, one of the most craziest goals I’ve ever seen. Joe Willis played that ball perfectly, and then Randall scored. That ball was going so slow, I didn’t know from the bench if it was going in, and then it scored, it was amazing, amazing: one of the best goals I’ve seen.”

As you work your way back with 90-minute fitness, was that first goal more important or you to feel like you’re back in the flow of things, or is it just about doing what the team needed on the day?

“Yes, it’s really important, because I haven’t played before, and I needed to get confidence to myself, and also to share it with my teammates: they need to be confident with me. They need to remember what I can do and how I can help the team, because I’m always willing to help the team.”

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