Gary Smith photo from file
Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith sat down with the media after his team’s 1-1 draw against Columbus Crew. Watch or read his full comments here.
“Well I think – to be expected this time of year – games are going to be hard-fought, tight, tense affairs, especially when you’ve got teams that are fighting for the playoffs, are in the playoff hunt and fighting for position, which we can safely say is the vast majority of the Eastern Conference at this point. Coming into this one, I always suspected that the current champions – and they are champions for the year, of course – were more-than capable. In the right mindset and playing in the right fashion after a good result on the weekend, [they] were more than capable of causing a lot of problems.
“I thought we started brightly: we got on the front foot, which was great to see, the vast majority of the opening period – opening 20 minutes. The game then went into a little bit of a lull. They got back into it, and the biggest – I think – frustration and disappointment when we saw how the game ended up, after getting back into the game and creating a couple of opportunities was that, you know, we’ll reflect on the fact that we didn’t really show enough sparkle and maybe connection and belief in the final third. There were a number of moments where, I think in games gone by, we may well have found ourselves in a much better shooting opportunity, goal-scoring opportunity. But it wasn’t to be tonight. You know, we just weren’t clean or clinical enough in that final third, and it created a very, very competitive game, which I’m pleased we got a point out of in the end.”
How do you feel about your team’s slow start, and then coming back after Columbus scored?
“Listen, I thought the first half, as I’ve said, we started brightly, and we were the best team for 15-20 minutes. They started to get back into the game, and started to show some of the qualities and credentials that they have – and looked a little bit more threatening. Let’s not forget: there’s some real talent in that team: some quality players. So I thought they were better for maybe the final 15-20 minutes of that half.
“We started the second half much brighter. We looked like there was some more purpose in our play. But yet again, without finding any real end product – and by that I mean serious threat on goal or even to score and to break the deadlock – the game started to drift away from us again; they started to take a little bit more control. They shifted the momentum their way again, and there were some strange choices and some below-par quaity when we really needed somebody to step up and make a difference, and then it wasn’t to be.
“And then they get their goal, and that’s what very good teams do; that’s what champions do: they stay in the game, and then they find a way to, with few moments, now they’re in front.
“I’ve got to say the response was terrific. The attitude of the team was terrific, at this point in time it would have been easy given our lack of cutting edge for the group to have maybe felt a bit despondent, and the game to have petered out and got beat one-nil. And we didn’t. Did we deserve to win it? No, not at all. [Columbus goalkeeper Eloy] Room made a terrific save off of [Daniel] Ríos, but in all fairness, there were too many moments that we didn’t make enough of. And at home, whilst we’ve looked bright in certain spells, we’ve got to understand and appreciate that, against the top teams – and as we go towards the postseason, having seen it once before with the group, so there will be some experience in our locker room – that when chances come along, and they may be few and far-between, we’ve got to take advantage of them.”
How excited were you that your MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar, and two substitutes Ake Loba and Daniel Ríos, were able to link up to score your team’s goal?
“Well, first and foremost, I think there was a real lack of connection – not just in the way that we built out or into that middle third, but there was a lack of connection from back-to-front, getting in-behind, and stretching the game out. I don’t think there was enough sacrifice, if you like, from players to stretch the game out and create those pockets to play into. And that was a big part of the conversation at halftime. So it was great to see Randall [Leal] get in twice – once offside – Walker [Zimmerman]’s distribution was immaculate.
“And the goal came from that: it was a terrific searching ball in-behind their backline. Ake does a great job connecting with Ríos – which as you’ve said, lovely to see from the two substitutes; they brought a different dynamic to the game. That’s no slight on CJ [Sapong] or anyone else, but there are sometimes those games that just need a new perspective, they brought it. There was a different life and different energy about the front line. Daniel’s connection with Hany was very, very good inside the box. But he’s still got a lot to do.
“Honestly? I’ve seen him play a lot better than that. I think we all have. There were times where it just wasn’t working for him. But he stuck with it, and he’s got himself a very important goal. On a night where it may not have gone our way at all, it’s been a big moment. I thought it galvanized us for a short period. Ríos’s opportunity wasn’t along after that. The referee’s decision to send Luke [Haakenson] off probably stuck a little bit of a pin in the whole event, and we lost some momentum.
“But I’m not complaining about the result. We didn’t do enough, and it’s a lesson learned. But we certainly have seen some qualities out of the group tonight that we’ve seen before. But just not in an elongated period; not for along enough.”
What did you make of Ake Loba’s full performance?
“First and foremost, I thought he was very bright when he came on. And it’s in keeping with some of the things I’ve said in training: it just looks like he’s got a bit more energy and positivity about him. He had been working very hard up until the international break. He had some time off, and sometimes you need to go away and allow that core physical work to settle in. To go away and to evaluate where you’re at, and some of the things that have been really difficult in a new group.
“He’s come back, and he’s got a little glint in his eye. You know, he looks like an individual who’s saying ‘I’m going to make a difference here. I’m gonna find that moment. I’m gonna be effective.’ And I’m not sure that was the case before. There wasn’t anything wrong, but I think there was so much going on in his world: physically he was trying to catch up, mentally-emotionally he was connecting with the other players.
“Loved to see him out there for a little bit longer, some really nice touches and connections with other people. Great to see. It’s not that I don’t think – of course – that he can’t be effective. It’s just that those moments continue to offer him the opportunity to build off those moments.”
How do you adjust with Mukhtar and Haakenson on accumulation suspensions against Philadelphia?
“Yeah, you know, look, I’ve touched on the results tonight: I think we can look across the board and there will be some of those results, again, we’ll go, ‘Wow, you know, New England just won’t stop, they’re a machine.’ That’s an incredible result there at D.C., we’ve just come away from there. You know, there were other, maybe, fixtures that I felt ‘they’re gonna edge that’ and they didn’t quite, and I bet there were some people thinking, ‘you know, maybe Nashville will take the result tonight against a Columbus side who are lower in the standings.’ But it just doesn’t work that way this time of year. There’s a lot of stress, a lot of anxious individuals for different reasons.
“I think the big difference at the weekend will be: Philly have found their place, their groove, their position in MLS. And they’re an elite group, a strong group: confident in what they do, confident in how they go about their business. The result [against Minnensota], I’m sure, will disappoint them, but they’ll know they’re coming home in a game where they’re three points behind us, and they’ve got a chance to close the gap. I don’t see the game any differently to any of the top teams we’ve played in New York City, in D.C. just recently, going away to Atlanta in a cauldron down there at Mercedes-Benz. It’s no different. You know, they’re a tough team, it’s going to be a difficult game.
“With Hany out, yes, I’ve got to tell you – you might think I’m just saying it now – but at some point he’s got to take a break. He’s had two games on the spin. We’ve got games coming up mid-week again. So there might have been a little bit of rotation anyway. I’d have loved him to have been there, of course: that’s not to be the case. One door closes, another one opens. Somebody else gets the chance. We’ve got Aké – come on tonight, who’s done really well – Luke’s… the disappointment for Luke is, he’s just nudged himself in front of one or two of the other guys and now he’s going to have to miss out on the trip. But, guess what? We’ve got one or two players sitting in the background who are hurting over the fact that they’ve not been on the team, and they’ve not been getting minutes, and I would hope that they see this as their opportunity to try and say, ‘you’ve been wrong.’”
Is it the design of your attack that you want to pull the ball back from the endline as happened on the goal? And what allowed Ake Loba to be more effective in getting inside the box?
“I think to your point, every team wants a dimension to the game. If we play in front of Columbus or any other team constantly, you become predictable. Making those choices, making sure that the connection and timing, the efficiency and quality of the ball, and the area you’re working into, or the person you’re working with: it’s got to be accurate. It’s got to be well-wighted, it’s got to be thoughtful. Rather than – we see it in our group, you see it in other groups – where it’s just smashed into an area, and there’s no feeling in it. The ball was a terrific ball, it was a lovely connection it was good movement: everything about it was well timed.
“I think you’re 100% right about Ake. Ake is at his very, very best: he’s an instinctive, creative, very bright and comes alive inside that 18-yard box – in and around it, in fact. The more we can get him in and around that area, there’s lots of instinctive things that he does that others wont. That’s why he’s a valuable individual. The job of the group as we move forward for guys like Ake – and of course you can see guys like Hany – they’re able to do things that others can’t in the most important of areas, and find that half a yard, and make a difference with the right type of finish or the right connection.
“Sop I’m delighted that we’re starting to see some of those qualities. Hopefully that can continue.”
What do you expect about Philly on the field when you travel there this weekend?
“I wouldn’t expect anything less than a wholehearted competitive effort from their group. Why wouldn’t I? Secondly, their style of play and the dynamics of their group is something that they work on tirelessly, constantly. They’re exceptionally good at it. The one thing that is hurting a lot of teams right now as you look around the league is omissions from the group. They were no different tonight without two of their top forwards [Cory Burke and Sergio Santos] through injury. And it puts a lot of stress on the guys that are playing and working.
“They’ll be delighted to go back home, I’m sure. But it doesn’t alter the fact that we’re all going into our third game in a week. There’ll be some choices that are made that on players for both teams, i’m sure, that can have a big impact on the game. Lots of rotation and too much can lose some continuity and some core foundational pieces. Not enough rotation and you get those lethargic performances. I would imagine Jim [Curtin] Will be thinking about it just as much as I am. And I have no idea what he’ll do.
“So we toss a coin as to who’ll be out there, we’ll all have an idea as to what the other one might do. But what we know is we’re in a position in the final stages of the season where these games are so exciting, so exciting. I’m looking forward to going there. He’ll be looking forward to going back home. They’ll be looking forward to turn the tables and get a result, and we’ll try to make sure that we come out of there at the very least in the same position.”