Nashville SC’s head coach and the goal-scorer in a 1-1 draw against New York Red Bulls met with the media after the game. Watch or read their full comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Well, the opening minute, of course, will be the key to how we move forward. Conceding an early goal against what we can effectively class as one of our postseason challengers now – they’ve obviously made that happen today with our draw – it leaves you in an extremely difficult place against good teams to try and recover. And whilst I felt as though we took a grip of the game a little bit more as the game unfolded in the first period – and of course, going in from Hany [Mukhtar]’s exquisite free kick gave everyone a massive lift – but we’ll always keep coming back to the fact that conceding first in this league, as in a lot of leagues around the world, always puts you in a very difficult place. our statistics – again, like a lot of teams – are very, very good when we score first. And I think that’s a world that we need to be getting back to as quickly as we possibly can.
“New York are a tough team, they’ve been on a terrific run, they’ve made life incredibly difficult for a lot of teams, they’ve had some wonderful results in the last six or eight weeks, and today was always going to be one of those extremely tough encounters. And I thought we did a very, very good job of competing, we did a fairly decent job of managing the game with the ball – there were some nice moments – however, chances were at a premium, and when they’re at a premium, you’ve just got to be a little more clinical, and we weren’t clinical enough to win the game.”
Is there a way to ensure that you don’t start from behind in the playoff opener against Orlando?
“Honestly, when you look at the teams that were in the playoff picture now, there’s no easy game. If you look at the fact that, for a long period of time, very few points have covered multiple teams. It was never going to be an easy fixture here, but the most important thing is there is a fixture here. And at home, we’re unbeaten in our regular campaign, which is a very proud statistic that we’ll all take with us, and will not leave the history books now, which is wonderful: for the fans, for the players, for the organization.
“To your point, of course there are some things that we can feel good about, but what we know is that the game will be extremely tight. There’s not been an awful lot between the teams when we’ve met in the past. I do think that there’s going to be a slightly different emotional challenge across the course of this international break. I think both teams will be looking at players that they’re missing to international duty, and holding their breath. We’ll also have more time – either to prepare, or to lose any momentum or any feel-good factor that there might be – and we truly go into what you might normally suggest is a one-off that you’re either through or you’re out, and move on. It couldn’t be any more cut-and-dried than that. It is a very different season-within-the-season now, and you may find yourself, of course, staying in that for a long period, or you could be very quickly, after longer than a two-week period out, you could find yourself on your holidays very sharp-ish.
Lots and lots for us to look at and to prepare for, but to begin with, the guys will get a little bit of a break, and then we’ll get back to it.”
What’s the emotion as you see Hany Mukhtar standing over even a tight-angle free kick? Do you just expect him to hit those at this point?
“He’s such a talented individual – and I know I’ve said this before – he works tirelessly at those dead-ball situations. That’s not an easy finish from that angle: he’s a hell of a lot to do. It’s those inspirational moments that have really given us some terrific opportunities this year.
“My hope, of course – and I’m sure his, when he scored – was that would galvanize the group into a victorious position. But it wasn’t to be today. I certainly don’t think we should dismiss the fact that we’ve had a wonderful season: it can always be a little bit of dejection when you, of course, want to win a home game and finish on that ultra-positive note. But it’s been a wonderful season, the guys have been incredibly consistent, and the simple analogy as you look at this league table will be, ‘how do we turn some of those draws into victories?’ New England have done it to a wonderful degree. What are the slight differences and changes that we can make to turn a record-breaking season for us into something that can be even better.”
How do you balance getting some rest with losing some momentum into the playoffs? How do you take advantage of the home field in the playoffs to earn wins?
“There’ll be probably the finest of details and moments and opportunities within the game that will certainly be the difference, I’m sure. Both teams have game-changers. I’ve said it before: there’s a lot of respect for what Orlando are about, and how they play, and the talent that they have. I’m sure that Óscar [Pareja] will be thinking exactly the same thing s me: that whoever goes away [on international duty] will come back safe, come back healthy, and be ready for us. I’m sure there’ll be guys that are part of the big picture for them. Certainly the guys we’re losing to international duty are our main line players.
“First of all, you want your best group on the field. With your best group on the field, for us, I think a good, hard, look at the early stages of the fame again. Really, really uncomfortable with the way that things went in the opening exchanges today, for obvious reasons. How do we get out of the blocks and into our stride as quickly as we possibly can with what I’m sure will be a wonderful crowd again for that postseason game, and that home playoff game here.
“And then of course, in some really, really tight games that we’ve had against them, what are going to be the slighter differences that we can effect to a greater degree that we haven’t done in the past? We conceded first at their place, had a much, much better second half – we warmed into the game, we showed a far brighter and more creative side to us in the second period of the game in Orlando. And I’m sure they’ll be aggrieved that they didn’t win the game. I’ve seen loads of press about it: that they didn’t win the game, but I think a lot of people there were only talking about the final moments, and forgot all about the penalty that happened just after the break, and that’s easily forgotten of course by the home team – i’ve done it myself. But tight games: in tight games, you’re looking for difference-makers. You’re looking for your MVPs, your Hanys your Randall [Leal]s, the individuals, the creators that can find those moments and make a big difference. Those players normally take you to a cup.”
What is Dave Romney’s status after missing his first Nashville SC match?
“Yeah, of course: really, really disappointed [about breaking his minutes streak]. Dave’s just had a sore, grumbling achilles that he’s been managing, and it just looked yesterday in training tat he was just a tad more uncomfortable than he has been, and I just didn’t want to take any risks. You know, we were assured of a home playoff game: I want Dave back healthy and ready. Always a difficult decision to make, because he’s been such a stalwart for the group. But no serious damage, no issues, really, for Dave, from what we can see yesterday. So we’ve got a nice period of time now to get him right, get him ready and back in the action.”
What led to the game opening up with a number of chances for both teams later in the second half?
“If you look at the changes that were made for us, Daniel Lovitz gave us a terrific 70 minutes, Daniel himself is coming back after, obviously, that game suspension from a period of time out. I wanted to be, again, sensible with Daniel; he’s made some terrific progress and today’s 70 minutes will put him in an even better position for the game against Orlando. It gave me the opportunity to go to a back four. Getting Dax [McCarty] into that holding midfield role or deeper midfield role to give us a little bit more… maybe continuity and rhythm in the midfield. And I honestly felt that the three changes made a nice impact. There was a big energy boost for a short period there.
And ultimately a couple of the guys combined for one of our best chances which was a wonderful header back across goal from Dax’s really searching diagonal ball onto Jhonder [Cádiz]’s forehead. I’d have loved to have seen Aké really dive into that and ask some questions of the goalkeeper, but he obviously felt it wasn’t to be.
“But we had a multitude of attacking players on the field: we were trying to win the game. I think they were happy with a point, they knew that a point was going to take them into the postseason. What ultimately happened, though, was – as you’ve said – the game opened out, there were some gaps through that midfield area. With no free centerbacks – or lacking that extra centerback – there was a couple of opportunities for them. And that can sometimes be the case, as we know, when you’re trying to win the game. But I really wanted to finish on a positive note. I knew the score in Philadelphia – in New York, with the two teams. And I would’ve loved to have won the last game for the fans and for the group. So I felt that getting as much talent on the field as we could without losing it, I think it didn’t quite work out.”
Was starting the game with three CBs an indication that you wanted to ensure the draw from the start, then?
“Not really, no. I was uncertain what they were going to do. But most importantly, I thought the group that went out in Orlando last week slowly-but-surely showed some really encouraging signs. Instead of playing two genuine midfield players, with Alex [Muyl] and Randall – who have given us some terrific moments throughout the season in wider area – I thought that they’d join the attack and be part of something more positive, as they had done in Orlando last week.
“The fact that they [Red Bulls] played a back three wasn’t what I expected. They were dominant in the midweek against an Atlanta group, so there were some differences within the way that they had set up. I would take that as some respect shown for us at home: trying to match us up. And if you look at the game, barring the – what I would call – a very flat and disappointing opening minute, there wasn’t an awful lot to choose between the teams in the space of 35 or 40 minutes. And it was only really Hany’s free kick that was anything out of the ordinary for us.
“I want to win every game, Steve. I don’t go into any game thinking that I want a point, especially here. I’ve gone into games away from home thinking, ‘I want to win this, but I definitely don’t want to get beat’, and there’s been plenty of those games against teams that have been chasing us down: DC, Orlando, we’ve had multiple away games. But I’d like to think that at no point have even the substitutions that I’ve made given anyone the impression that I’m looking to just batten down the hatches – other than, you know, there were moments in the last 10 minutes or so where you think, ‘OK, we’ve done our work, I’m not sure there’s too much more to get out of this game; let’s make sure that we get something for our efforts.’
“But I think as I’ve said earlier on in this interview, our challenge – and I’m looking beyond the playoffs now, for next year looking at the regular campaign – is how do we maintain the sort of consistency that we’ve shown, but convert three or four of those games into victories? Which I think if we sat here now and look back at some of those games, we would all be able to pull games out and say, ‘you know what? We should’ve won that, really. We should’ve got a victory there.’ That’s part of our evolution and development.Last year, I think we were sitting here saying, ‘how are we going to score more goals, how are we going to be more creative, but how are we going to maintain that competitive edge and improve on our league position?’ We’ve been able to tick some of those boxes. We’ll give our very best in the playoffs. But I’ll certainly be thinking about turning some of those draws into victories for next year.
Midfielder Hany Mukhtar
When you have a free kick from the angle you had, is the thought always “go for goal?”
“I mean, Lovitz asked me, ‘what do you want?’ For me, it was clear: to hit the target and to try to score. I know it was a tight angle, but I practice a lot in training free kicks, and I think when we get the chance – unfortunately this year, we didn’t get too many free kicks – so when I have a good possibility to score on a free kick, then I will take the chance definitely.”
How important was it to find a free kick goal against a team like Red Bulls that make run-of-play chances difficult to find?
“I think it was definitely not the start we wanted with the early goal from Red Bull, but we bounced back, and that’s a very important asset we have in our team. I think we are very strong, and we came back from a lot of falls behind. But of course, we need to talk in the next 10 days about this start. We started the last games not good, and that’s very important. I mean, if we go up 1-0, maybe it will be easier or a better game for us.”
What allowed the team to get comfortable and play through the Red Bull press as the game wore on?
“Yeah, I mean we know that they want to press, but in the end, if we just kick the ball long, then that’s exactly what they want, and where they’re pretty strong. Because in the second phase, they’re better than us: that’s their game. And you need to also see that, and find solutions. And our solution needs to be that we are calm on the ball, and that we find the open player, because when you press, there’s always an open player, because they try to overload the center, always have pressure on the ball – and maybe with two players. So there is always an open player, and that was what we did better after 20 minutes, 30 minutes.
“I mean, we had good chances. Of course, they had chances too, but if I had my chance second half, the ball from Alex Muyl and I turned: it was a bad shot. It could also go our way.”
How important is it for you to be in the MVP conversation? How does it compare to team success?
“Definitely it’s an honor, and yeah of course I take it. I know that I have to keep going and work harder – I’m 26, I’m not like 36: I still have a lot of good years in front of me, hopefully, and that’s why I try to work hard every day. And I get rewarded for that. That’s how I see the conversation about the MVP: it’s an honor, and that’s it. And the second thing is this season went well for me. Obviously I had a good season, but in the end, you want to win something: that’s why we are all soccer players. That’s why we trained the whole youth, our whole life we’ve just trained and trained and trained when other guys went out and had fun. So now is the opportunity to win something, and we need to look forward, we need to prepare ourself for Orlando. It will be a tough game, we know about their strengths: they have [Daryl] Dike, they have Nani, they have great players. But we need to be confident and have a better start, and then I’m very optimistic to have a successful game.”
How has your style changed, and how important is it to you in key moments?
“I’m very happy that I can score and give assists: two important goals for our team. That’s also part of my job, that’s why I’m here, that’s why they brought me here. The coach said in the beginning last year, I remember, because I was a more connecting player, I was more a link player, that’s how I was before I came here. My strength was more to overload the midfield, to have more passes. At our old club, we had a lot of ball possession, and I was more a midfielder. But he said to me, ‘hey Hany, you are here to make decisive things and to decide the games.’
“I was, in the beginning, not quite sure like what he is meaning. But then I saw over time, like, ‘hey, you need to do something. You’re here to make the difference and also to show your ability and your quality.’ That’s what I learned also from him: that I’m here to score goals and to give assists. That’s my part, and I take it, and that’s a great honor and a responsibility. I feel great, and I like that about to make the decisive moment or decisive decisions on the pitch.”
Against Orlando, how important is it to not get behind?
“We just played them 10 days ago or seven days ago? And we saw – we were behind and it was such a tough game to come back. They are good with the ball: we know that. We know their strengths, we’ve played them I think this year three times, right? And we know them perfectly, so we need to prepare ourselves, get focused, and the first 10-15 minutes, just dig in, and try to not make mistakes and maybe we lead, and then it’s a totally different game, and they have to push, and we are very, very dangerous in transition, and that will all play in our cards.”
Did you guys on the field know that a win would have moved you to second in the East, and what was it like pushing for that late?
“Yeah, I mean aside from that, we always want to win at home, that’s our goal when we go into a game. But yeah: a tie’s not a bad result. They’re difficult to play, they had a great run the last games. They fought back, and now they’re in the second place, they deserved it. I know the coach [Gerhard Struber] very well from my time in Salzburg, and I talked with him and I congratulated him to a great finish of the season.
“But yeah: we just need to focus on us, and now it’s win or die, and I really like that about the US. You always have the playoffs: it’s so interesting, it’s just about a game here in football – or soccer – and it would be nice for us to just focus and try to win game-by-game.”