Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith and Hany Mukhtar after a 1-1 draw in Orlando

Hany Mukhtar photo from file/Courtesy Nashville SC

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and midfielder Hany Mukhtar met with the media after their team’s 1-1 draw against Orlando City SC. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Well, the first 15 minutes, for sure, were Orlando’s. They started off brighter, put us into a difficult position, a more-defensive position, when we wanted to certainly express ourselves a bit more – and so we have to give them credit for that. Any game we’ve played against them has been incredibly tight and incredible tough. It looked like we grew into the game in that first half. Not quite the connections that we would’ve liked in the final third, but we were certainly gaining some traction, and finding a little bit more of a creative edge and a better possessional edge to our play.

“And that followed on into the second period: the game opened up a bit more – wasn’t to say they didn’t have their moments, but we certainly were far more effective going forward. There was an edge and a belief in some of our play right up until the final moments. We can huff and puff and blow, and say whatever we want, but the final goal was a foul. And, you know, I’ve been told categorically that Hany’s challenge inside the box was a penalty. So I don’t caer what anyone wants to say. They want to take a foul in goal, and we’ll take the penalty.

“So it’s a draw, it’s a point, and it’s a very, very hard-earned point. It keeps them at arm’s-length from us, it takes us one step closer to the top four.”

The foul you’re discussing is Daryl Dike’s collision with Alistair Johnston at the goal line?

“Yep. He doesn’t play the ball, he plays Alistair. Alistair tries to clear it, he doesn’t clear it well enough because of the contact: it’s a foul, no matter how you want to look at it.”

Is there excitement about coming back? Or worry that the team has a tendency to concede first?

“No. Not at all, Drake. Just have a look at the schedule, man. I think we’ve played nine out of the last 12 games away from home – there’s always going to be an issue there – we’ve managed to compete with just about every single team away from home, and even the most recent defeat against Philadelphia was very, very tight and we lose on a bit of a freak penalty.

“This side is built to compete. We have an edge to us. We’ve three or four players – like most teams do – and when we’re on top form, those connections are there to be seen. What I will say is: right to the final whistle, the guys are playing with tremendous energy. Don’t forget this is our fifth game in 15 days, and four of those away from home. It’s not easy. The schedule for us has not been easy, certainly at the final stages, it’s so lopsided it makes life incredibly difficult to try and work out for the group. But what we knew was that this final stage of the season was going to have to be a real hardworking, blue-collar type performances, and where the moments came, we would express ourselves.

“I think for an hour here today, we’ve shown a really decent and professional side to our play. We had a good dimension where there was some terrific possession, we took advantage of our wingbacks. You know, those areas are vitally important. We’re missing one of our first-choice players there, which would make a difference. I’m delighted with the performance and the attitude.”

What is Taylor Washington’s status, and in his absence (and the suspension of Dan Lovitz), how did you feel Eric Miller performed out-of-position?

“Taylor’s status is that he’s under health and safety protocols. We’ll play that day-by-day when we get back. Daniel Lovitz’s suspension is done, so therefore Daniel’s back and available for us towards next weekend.

“Eric, yet again, showed what a valuable individual he is. I think he’s played just about everywhere along that backline now. And whilst there may be one or two areas that I felt he might lack going forward – not being a natural left-footed player – he certainly didn’t let anyone down with his defending. His knowledge and understanding of the position that wingback position, served him well and the group. And he even showed us a couple of opportunities where he got himself in on goal, and maybe on another day he could’ve made more of it.

“But he certainly gave us enough out there, for sure, to ask some questions, and to prevent any issues developing down that right-hand side – which for this Orlando group, is normally a really productive area. I know the goal came from there, [OCSC winger Chris] Mueller gets down the side of our centerbacks; I haven’t seen the goal again, so I need to see what happened. But Ruan and Mueller are, for as long as I can remember in the league, have been a terrific combination, and I thought we kept them pretty quiet.”

Did you feel that, despite Orlando’s strength, there were opportunities for your team to come away with all three points?

“I did. The second half for us was much, much better. Difficult to go behind – to Drake’s point, it’s never where you want to be, clawing a result back – but again, the character and the spirit in the group is unquenchable. The second period saw us show some more confidence, and more believe in our play. There are some very good footballers in this group, and when you’re away from home, the home team jumped on us in the first 15 minutes, and they had some joy from that. It’s not the first time it’s happened to a team, and it certainly won’t be the last.

“But we found a way to stay in it, to navigate some difficult moments, and then to get ourselves back into a better position and ask some questions of Orlando. And they are fully aware of some of the areas and angles that we can be productive, and we found those areas. Hany’s got himself on the sheet again. I truly – I’ve not seen the penalty shout again, but I’m told that it was categorically a penalty – and to your point Claudio, there’s a moment in a very tight game against a very good team where you nudge yourselves in front from being a goal down. And you need that little bit of luck. Maybe the luck came our way from the final free kick – but it’s a foul. They’re both fouls. So really and truly, we should have had a penalty and the goal disallowed.”

What do you make of Hany Mukhtar’s MVP candidacy at this stage of the season?

“Well if I’m not mistaken, you know that the criteria for an MVP, is somebody who not only scores goals, but if you like, it could be maybe encapsulated as the talisman for that group. Somebody who leads that group. And it’s probably always going to be somebody who’s creative and exciting, so let’s just look at what he gives our team.

“15 goals is an incredible return – phenomenal for an attacking midfield player. He adds to that his assists, and his creative qualities are there to see every game. He makes a difference, he gets himself in areas that he’s going to ask questions of defenders constantly. He’s also an individual that really controls the pace of the game to a large degree for our team. He’s somebody that we can give the ball to who can dictate, ‘this is going to be a quick attack,’ or ‘this one’s going to be a more managed moment, a possessional moment, we’ll try and contain this situation and take the sting out of it.’

“So his intelligence – his game intelligence – is very high. And then add into that his ability to play in a more midfield role, and his actual workload. I could show you some statistics, regularly, Hany’s distance covered, high-intensity runs, and just general numbers from a game are off the charts. He covers every blade of grass, he’s involved in almost everything that the group does, and for me, that makes him an incredible candidate – not saying there’s not others out there, because there are, there’s wonderful players in this league – but for me, he’s shown as many qualities or more than anyone this year who’s in form. There’s some guys who’ve not played the whole season but are in very, very good teams.

“But let’s look at what he’s achieved in his second year in the group – and of course the group has achieved as well, because that will be a platform for him.”

What did you see on the play on which Hany scored this afternoon, and what does it say about his resiliency that he was able to get up after the penalty shout and take that chance?

“Well it’s only minutes after that call, so you’ve got to imagine that emotionally, he’s in a difficult place. That’s the first thing you’ve got to consider: he’s had what he would class as a now non-penalty call dismissed. There’ll have been frustration, there would’ve been some negative energy in his body, but minutes later, there’s an opportunity. And I think that’s the class of the individual – that’s the class and quality of the player – that in those defining moments, he’s able to… the focus and the energy that he has then channeled into getting us back on level terms, there’s an awful lot to do.

“He’s played into that pocket just in front of the back line, takes a terrific touch, finds an area – you know his ability on the ball to just unsettle defenders and find that yard – fantastic. Fantastic, I can’t speak highly enough of the lad.”

How is Dax McCarty’s recovery progressing?

“It was just before the Philadelphia game, Drake, so what are we talking? 10 days? It’s not that long for somebody who’s had maybe a little tightness in his hamstring. There’s not much more to it: I’m being cautious with Dax, Dax is being cautious about his rehab.

“I think we’re all looking at the world where, if circumstances were slightly different, I have no doubt that he would’ve rolled his sleeves up and he would’ve been part of this group today, because he wants to be helping this team put themselves in a very favorable spot. But he’s not needed to, so I felt it was the right thing to give him a little bit more time. I don’t think he’ll be too far away from the weekend, honestly, though.

Midfielder Hany Mukhtar

What was your feeling on the potential penalty shout shortly before your goal, and then how did you maintain the focus to turn right back around and score?

“Yeah, it was a great pass from Randall. I took a good touch, and I knew that I have to move the defender. I took a quick touch, and then I knew he would try to block the shot. I went through his legs. It was a good goal, I’m happy to help the team, and we have now a home game against Red Bull, and I’m looking forward.”

Was it vindicating to get a goal so quickly after you felt there may have been a penalty committed against you?

“I mean, I haven’t seen it yet, but it felt like a clear penalty. He clipped my foot and I still have pain on my foot. The answer from the referee was not how it should be, and I was still a little bit angry. But yeah, I need to – we always have to – stay focused and don’t lose our head. Yeah, I’m happy to score the goal.”

How has the chemistry with Aké Loba developed, and what’s allowed him to step into a bigger role with the team?

“He came middle of the season – it’s always tough to come into a team which is very successful – and we play a very special way, I would describe it like that. He has talent. Of course, everyone needs time: I needed time in the beginning, we have to be brave, and we have to try to help him as much as possible, and that he will bring the talent on the field week-for-week.”

Gary was asked about your MVP candidacy, and even though you’re the type of guy who deflects to team goals, do you have a sales pitch for voters?

“I mean, it’s special; I feel honored. It’s a very good league, and if you’re named for the MVPs in the league, that’s an honor. But I know that I can get better on many parts of my game. I will do my best and train hard.

“Who’s voting for me, thank you. And who’s not voting for me, thank you also. I will keeping working harder that you will change your mind.”

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