Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and goalkeeper Joe Willis sat down with the media to discuss Friday evening’s contest against New York City FC. Watch or read their full comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Nevertheless, a good week. We’ve had to i=endure some difficult weather that we’ve navigated very well with the facilities at our disposal. So we’ve been able to prepare in a fairly normal fashion, and get ready for what could possibly be classed as one of the games of the season, of course. New York City team coming into Titans [Nissan Stadium] in good form, in a good position in the league, and of course very capable – maybe with one of the most efficient front lines in the league. So: tough encounter, but hopefully we’re ready for it.”
What is this team’s defensive identity with Walker Zimmerman’s absence?
“I think you’ve seen already that there’ve been numerous players when we’ve had omissions – and it’s not just Walker, of course, with Alistair Johnston away, who would be classed as one of maybe our starting players – there’ve been numerous individuals who’ve come in and fulfilled a very, very efficient role for the team. And in fact, when I look back at the Gold Cup and the fixtures that we had across that period of time: the point total for us with those players away – including, of course, [Aníbal] Godoy – it couldn’t have been more competitive.
“So in terms of a dynamic of the team, what does the group look like? I mean, I don’t feel we skip a beat. Of course, we miss Walker’s aerial dominance and personality – every team would. There’s not too many Walkers out there. So you know, it’s difficult to replace that type of personality. But I have every confidence in the guys that we have in our group: we have a strong roster, we have players that’re experienced, they’ve seen these situations before, and in some cases, of course, have played against the teams that we’re running into.
“So there’ll be all sorts of different reasons why some of our squad players that will feature in this game will look forward to it. And as I’ve said, I have every confidence in what we’re capable of achieving here.”
You mentioned practicing off your grass fields, does having a day on turf alter the way you can prepare?
“Well the movement onto the turf field was because of the way that the weather has gone this week. But it’s only the introductory work to save the surface up on the grass field. We’re getting the majority of our work done on that field anyway, and we have done. I think we had one day this week where we missed out on the grass – which was very early in the week.
“So I’ve got no issues with that, nor have the guys. I think we want to do our very utmost to try and keep that surface as decent as possible so that when we do go into our prep work and large-scale stuff, we are feeling and looking at something that is going to replicate and have the same dynamics as it will tomorrow night.
“We’ve got no problems, I’ve got no issues – nor have the players. Just a matter of trying to utilize the facilities to the best possible Nth.”
What’s the overall health of the team, aside from the four guys out on international duty?
“We are at full health other than the guys that are away for international duty. Everyone else is available; everyone else is ready for selection, and in a position to take part in the game to whatever degree I deem necessary. We’ve had some good work, as I’ve said, this week. We’ve looked at a couple of different things towards a very, very bright and confident front line, and we’re very respectful of that. But I think we’d all agree that our home form has served us well, and hopefully the team I put out there will continue that vein.”
Are you seeing positional versatility in the way you can use Aké Loba?
“Every day that goes by is another good day for Aké. You know, he’s warm into the group – I know I’ve said this before – he’s building relationships, and most importantly, he’s gaining fitness and confidence in his own physical ability. And that, for me, is the key component at this point.
“When I’ve looked at him – whether it’s on the field and the moments that he’s come into games, or in training, of course a little bit closer quarters – it becomes more and more apparent that he is very versatile, very capable, and his understanding and appreciation of what he’s being asked is at a very high level. So as we move along the line here, I would expect to see more and more of Aké, more and more minutes, and my hope is – of course – by the time we enter into this final quarter of the season, we’re starting to see an individual that can play a much bigger role and a much bigger part in what we’re able to achieve this year.”
What does NYCFC do that has made them such a formidable opponent this season?
“Well, when you look at the best teams in any league, Tim, you’re talking about a group of players that are capable in so many different areas. Yes, they’ve got an extremely capable front line, a center forward who’s in wonderful form – if not the best form in the league at the moment – in [Taty] Castellanos. He has terrific talent and technical ability, creative ability around him. They have multiple bodies that can fulfill those roles, they have strength coming off the bench.
“But alongside that – and maybe the foundational pieces of that – in guys like [Keaton] Parks and [James] Sands – I know Sands will be missing – but when you look at some of the players they have around as a structural group to help not only support that front line, but offer a different physical dimension, they’ve got everything you need. You know, they are one of the best teams in this division. I think they themselves would question whether they’re quite at the level of New England at the moment, and I thin konly points on the board would separate him. Of course, that’s everything, but on any given day, I think we could safely say that New York and New England are fighting it out for the two very best groups in this Eastern Conference.
“It’s our opportunity to challenge that. Our home form’s been decent, players are in a confident place. We’ve got some changes, of course, but as I’ve said, I’m confident in our group, and this is a wonderful challenge for us: we want to pit ourselves against the very best in the league. We’ve shown we’re capable of performing against those top teams, and this is just another one of those challenges.
Goalkeeper Joe Willis
How difficult is it to keep a clean sheet against a team like NYCFC? And how is it different to keep goal behind a defense with or without Walker Zimmerman?
“Yeah, I mean first of all: New York City is a really good attacking team – a good team in general. They’ve proven this year that they can score goals: they have one of the league’s top goal-scorers in their team. So it’ll be a tough test for sure, but something that we’ve done well all year and last year even is keep clean sheets and defend well.
“Not having Walker here, obviously it’s a big loss: he’s not only an excellent soccer player, but he’s got those leadership qualities that are invaluable to a team. But that being said, we’ve dealt with missing players at times this year on several occasions, and the next guy stands up. I don’t think that we’ll have a problem filling his void because we have a lot of good players on the team who are more than capable of doing the job.”
When you only have a few home games left, how do you savor the remaining games and make them count?
“I mean, we just need to take full advantage of it. We know that we don’t have a lot of home games left. We’ve been really good at home. Probably dropped more points than we would have liked, but because of that, we need to take full advantage. We understand that we have a road-heavy remainder of the schedule, so we need to take advantage of it while we can. We need to win these games. It’s three points or nothing for us at this point, as far as home games go, because – especially against a team like New York City, where they’re really close to us in the standings – this is a huge game. It’s a six-pointer as people like to say. So we know what we’ve done in the past at home, so we just need to continue to keep doing the same things.”
Do you have to change your preparation routine when you know you’re going up against a talented scorer like Taty Castellanos?
“I mean, not a lot changes, to be honest. We’ve faced a lot of good strikers in the league, so Castellanos is an all-around player. He can finish really well, he’s got some speed, he’s good with his feet. He brings a lot to the table for sure. But like I said, we’ve faced a lot of good strikers in this league, so as far as preparation goes, no, it’s pretty much just business as usual.”
You’re not necessarily known as a distributor, so how cool was it to get an assist in last weekend’s game?
“Yeah, I mean I’m happy to get the assist. It was kind of, you know, end of the game, dead time, really. It’s a cool little thing to have on my stat sheet I guess, but the most important aspect was winning in Atlanta. I’m more happy about keeping a clean sheet there and getting three points in a difficult environment than anything.”