Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith and Joe Willis after Nashville SC knocks off CF Montreal

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and goalkeeper Joe Willis met with the media after their team’s 1-0 win over CF Montreal. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Without a doubt, these away results, they mean something very special to the group. I’m sure everyone can appreciate that. The sort of troubles and difficulties and traumas that you’ve got to go through when you’re coming to play away from home, and the attitude of the guys, the way they went about their business, the professionalism of the group sahone through again.

“First half, I felt we were the better team, had the better opportunities and really should have gone in front. And the second period – as probably expected – they turned the screw a little bit, had some periods themselves, and even a good opportunity that both Joe and Walker put their bodies on the line for to preserve the clean sheet.

“But I think all-in-all, everyone would agree that chances created, and opportunities that were presented to us or created by us, we deserved a victory.”

What did Walker Zimmerman provide in his return from international duty, with a major play on each end of the field?

“Yeah, look: his presence alone – I’ve mentioned it on multiple occasions – it lifts others around him. He’s an organizer, he’s a leader, and the example he sets is just such a high one. He looked composed on the ball, he looked a threat in the air and was physically dominant. And both of those occasions, I thought, epitomized really, his performance here today. And let’s keep in mind: he’s, like a lot of guys that have traveled with their country, he’s not had any football, and his preparation time will have been limited. So to come in here today and play 90 minutes at the level he has – and, in fairness, win the game – has been monumental for us. Again, just underlines his importance to the group.”

What did you think of Hany Mukhtar’s performance on the evening?

“As we’ve seen on many occasions, Hany has the capability of not just getting on the ball, but controlling the pace of the game. And there were spells in that first period that the industry of LaGrassa, and Anunga was complemented with Hany’s technical ability. We’re seeing an individual who’s more and more confident.

“I think the only thing he’ll be disappointed about today was he had a couple of opportunities, and he’s not been able to show the same sort of form in front of goal. But his influence on the game with the ball was every bit as important as we’ve seen before. And look: we’ve seen on many occasions, we come away from home, we have to be competitive like all teams have to be, but to get that balance of creation and keeping your goal not only intact, but at arm’s length for the opposing side, is a difficult one. But there were many opportunities tonight, and his inclusion in that is, again, immeasurable.”

What’s the mindset both watching it unfold, and then how you overcome it, when Montreal has your team pinned in for most of the final 20 minutes of the game?

“Yeah, you can imagine there’s some anxious moments. Within that period of time, the guys will be looking back on opportunities that we failed to extend our lead and give ourselves some breathing space. So the room error is minute. It puts more pressure on people’s techniques and ability to connect. There were occasions, again, where we may have done a better job. But credit to Montreal: they pushed, as you would expect as a home team. They changed their shape, they threw bodies forward.

And the one thing I will say is: when these guys – our boys – are asked to roll their sleeves up and to really put their bodies on the line, I feel you start to see the true value of this group. There are other things that we’ve done well, but the core determination of this group came through tonight, and we needed that. There were some pressurized spells, and we saw some very, very good defending.”

Do you feel like you’re hitting top gear at the right time?

“I think we’re too far out at the moment to be suggesting that we’re rounding into playoff form. We still have to mathematically get ourselves in. We’ll continue to say we’re in a good spot, and we’re doing a good job. There are still a number of things I think we’d all like to make sure we cover, or tick the box of on the way towards what we hope’s going to be a playoff berth. Getting away results is important. Yes, we want to finish as high as we possibly can, but we want to be proving to ourselves and everyone else that we have the right answers when we go away from home. We’ve had three wins on the spin, two of those away results. So I think you could safely say there’s a bit more confidence in the group when we come away from Nissan Stadium.

“But as far as the guys and their mentality, I do think we’re still working towards the best shape, the best individuals. There’s still a lot of competition and a lot of fighting going on for many, many areas of the field. But as we move into what’s going to be the final run-in and quarter of the season, I would like to think that everyone feels as though there’s an opportunity here to be part of whatever comes next. I think that’s been a strength of the group.”

What did you think of the performances of CJ Sapong and Daniel Ríos, despite the fact that they didn’t score?

“The pair of them did a fantastic job. Daniel looked a little bit leggy as he’d come out the second half, and I think what we have to remember is whilst he’s had a tremendous impact when he’s played in the last three games, he hasn’t had an awful lot of football. He’s been out a long, long period of time. So you know, there are those transitions to make. You come off at halftime, the legs get a little bit wobbly, and you’re looking for the next gear going into the second period.

“But I think the combination’s been terrific. You look at that trio of attacking players, and you’ve got a pretty formidable group there, and that’s obviously without talking about the guys that are either on the bench [Randall Leal] or unfortunately not with us today [Jhonder Cádiz].

Goalkeeper Joe Willis

What did you see on the 74th-minute play where you made a save and Walker Zimmerman blocked the follow-up?

“Yeah, to be honest, I don’t exactly remember how it got to the middle. But I think it was served in and maybe took a deflection. I had a little bit of a sight at the ball – there was a little traffic in front of me. I gave up a bad rebound and Walker was there to clean it up. So that’s something that Walker does a lot, and a lot of our defenders do. So when I talk about clean sheets being a team effort, it’s really not just because it’s a cliche. Things like that? I mean, there are reasons why I say that, because all of our defenders put their body on the line every single game to make blocks like that, and that’s why we’re in the position that we’re in.”

What did you see in Brian Anunga’s performance?

“yeah, he’s like a pitbull in there, man: he eats everything up. He’s relentless. He’s pretty good on the ball, too. When we need him to slow things down and switch the field, he’s there to do it, and defensively-speaking, it’s hard to get around him. He’s got an engine, he doesn’t stop working. So yeah: Brian definitely brings a lot to us.”

What’s your mindset as the team has difficulty getting out of its own end over the final stretches of the contest?

“You know, we faced it a lot last year, so we have a lot of experience being in that situation and getting results out of it. I have a lot of confidence in the guys in front of me, too. And you have to have kind of a ‘going to war’ mentality. When you have those guys with you, you have a lot of confidence. It’s hard work, and it’s not going to be easy, but at the end of the day, it’s something that we’ve done really well last year and into this year.”

Do you feel like getting the first road win at Atlanta changed the squad’s mentality away from home?

“No, I think it did change something. I think in that Atlanta game, we went into it expecting a lot of energy from both teams, and a tough environment. And to be honest, we were a little bit jittery at the beginning, but once we realized that we could play through them and try and keep the ball, and really keep possession, I think we started to build confidence, and we started to see that we don’t have to just sit and defend and hope for a counter-attack or something.

“I think the three points and two goals out of the game definitely propelled us going forward.”

How important has Walker’s performance been to the team, underscored by two massive plays in his return from international duty?

“Yeah, he’s huge for us. I mean, not just defensively, but obviously, you see him going and scoring. And that’s sometimes what you need in away games: you need to get a goal on a set piece or something like that. So I mean, what he brings on the field as well as his leadership qualities and his experience, it’s irreplaceable.”

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