Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith and Dax McCarty discuss preseason

This is from last week’s media availability – I didn’t realize until getting started on this week’s that I had one sitting unpublished. Apologies for the delay. Smith and Teal Bunbury from this afternoon will be published in the morning. Donn’t forget you can always have access to the videos right away by subscribing to the site on Youtube.

Head coach Gary Smith

“Not a huge amount of updates, if I’m perfectly honest, other than that the weather’s not quite as nice as I would have liked it to have been down here in Bradenton. Work’s been very decent, the players are in a very good place, everyone’s in good spirits, and we can – at this point, certainly – say that the preseason’s been very worthwhile.”

Do you have an update on when your preseason matches will be played? Will Friday’s be?

“Unfortunately not. The scheduled game for us, unfortunately is a non-event now, and we’ll make sure that that day is utilized within the group: we’ll try and make best use of it – as much use, obviously – as we can, and finish the two weeks off on a decent note. The game that we had penciled in won’t happen now.”

How do you balance between fitness work and tactical work at the early stages of preseason?

“Yeah look, the first couple of weeks – I think for most people – is evaluating the group. It’s not just how fit they are, it’s really getting back into the swing of things with the group: their bodies, readjusting again to the sort of workload that is going to be expected of them. And predominantly, we can control that. If we don’t have any games against other teams, it doesn’t stop us competing against one another in intrasquad games, but it’s just very difficult to keep a lid on what the guys will and won’t and can’t do – or shouldn’t do – if they play against other teams. And the risk of injury, then, is obviously that much greater.

“We certainly want to make sure that when we come back down for the second part of our preseason in Florida that we’re just at that point where players are comfortable, their bodies are comfortable, we’re putting them at less risk physically, and we can also concentrate more on what are our preparations, team shape, and general look of the group towards the start of the season: what is that going to be like as we start to unfold and play what will be four games in that second period.”

How much easier is it to not have to adjust the schedule on the fly compared to last year? Did you make some of these timing decisions with that in mind?

“We’re in a totally different place, I would say at this point Drake. Last year, I think is branded in most people’s brains as to what happened, and the difficulties that we endured. To this point, I’m – as I said at the opening stages of this interview – I’m really pleased with where the guys are at. They came in in good shape, we’ve progressed from that point, and had some competitive 11v11 work yesterday for the very first time over a slightly prolonged period. Delighted in what I saw and how the players came through it, so that’s a nice hurdle to jump.

“But generally, the hope is that we can have a much more fulfilling preseason than we did last year. When I look back at what we were able to competitively achieve in preseason, it was very, very little. And even into that final weekend where, at Titans’ stadium, there was a difficulty even in that final preseason game*. We can only hope that ourselves and other teams that we’re playing against don’t have any problems. Unfortunately, the first game we had penciled in, there were, and we’ll just keep our fingers crossed and hold our breath that the rest of the preseason will run smoothly.”

* Birmingham Legion had travel issues and Nashville SC had to use their dress rehearsal in the stadium as an intrasquad scrimmage rather than a competitive friendly.

When you have the opportunity to train 11v11 at this stage, are you trying to build relationships between guys who’ll likely be together on the field, mixing lineups to be competitively balanced, or something else?

“In early stages, Tim, it is more about trying to work through those relationships. You know, we’ve got some new bodies that have come into the group – some senior and experienced, others that are obviously just out of college. The game yesterday was a mixed bag, and the teams were likewise. There wasn’t any set theme to what went on, other than the type of shape that we might want to look at, and some of the fundamentals within that.

“As I’ve said, it is very, very early. As long as the players are moving in a positive direction physically, keeping them healthy, making sure every day there’s something to take out of it, we get that much closer, a step nearer to what we’re all preparing for, which is the opening fixture.”

How much are the players with their national teams – Aníbal Godoy, Randall Leal, and Walker Zimmerman – impacted by the timing of this international window, in terms of missing out on some preseason preparation?

“Well, they’re are actually some positives in this. The positives are that these guys went into camp quite a bit earlier than the group we currently have here. That means, obviously, that their workload has been increased to a point where they can compete at an international level this weekend. So there’s no worries about where they’re at from a purely physical standpoint. The fact that they’re working with other international players, we should all expect that it’s a very high standard, and that those guys are more-than ready for their return when it happens, which will be at the end of next week.

“The downside is an obvious one, that there’s always that worry there might be an [injury] issue with the players, so every game that they’re involved in, my heart normally skips a beat – like most other coaches, I’m sure – that they come back safely and in good health. Aside that, the actual preparations and the three guys we’re talking about have been around the group from Day One of our inaugural season. Two of them are extremely experienced players, and in Randall’s case, he’s been almost an ever-present in the team since the team started.

Would I like them to be here and prepare for the season? Of course. I think that’s an ideal world. Are we going to lack or miss anything with them not being here? I don’t think whatever we miss, it’s going to be huge. And we will still have three weeks with those guys to prepare for the Seattle game. So at this point, I’m just hopeful that the games go well for them, the guys are successful in their own games and how they play, and they come back healthy.”

What sort of data sharing do you get from the national teams? Is the sports bra fitness data available from their respective federations?

“The national teams that you’re talking about are very, very accommodating. The information comes out, in most cases, really quickly. So we have a good idea – or in fact a very clear idea – of not just their match data, but of course the period of time that they’ve been there: what sort of rest they’ve had, and what sort of workload they’ve been through in the time that they’ve been away.

“At this point in the season, as I’ve just said, the likelihood is those guys are in great shape. They’re getting ready for two-three games that they’re playing across this next few days. So I think that the actual mindset when they come back in is not so much do they need more work, and are they behind the group. It’s normally that – especially at this time of the year – how long have they been away? Looking at what their calendar looked like over Christmas, into the New Year, how long have they been away from their family, how much work have they done? And the reality for them is, is there an opportunity for me to give them an extra day or two around their family, because they will have been away for a long time, and they’re going to come away with us again for two weeks. So it’s just managing that, really. But the international groups are very, very good with the information that they send out to us.”

What have you seen so far from Ahmed Longmire in training?

“You know what, not dissimilar to an awful lot of other college guys as they make that transition and step from college soccer to the pro ranks. From a personality standpoint, always lovely to meet these individuals: Ahmed in particular. Great lad, lovely personality, intelligent boy who looks very keen and hungry to learn. That’s obviously a real positive point.

“He’s been able to deal with the workload physically. In fact, that area of his world, I think, is one of the assets in his game. But I think he’ll be the first to admit that the pace of training, the pace of the games, the physical individual matchups are very, very different to what he’s had to deal with in college football. And to that degree, there’s an awful lot that he can improve on.

“So, really really happy to have him as part of the group, and delighted to see what he can do and the potential that he has.”

Midfielder Dax McCarty

What is the opening phase of preseason like, and how does your leadership come into play early in camp?

“Yeah, it’s always the same: I don’t think that part of it ever changes. You want to integrate the new guys, you want to make sure that they’re comfortable, you want to make sure that they feel good in this environment. And ultimately, you want to keep it light, but make sure that it’s serious.

“I think that, as a club two years in now, we’ve experienced a little bit of success, we’ve gotten a taste of it, what we’re all about as a group: we’re kind of forming our identity. We want the new guys that come in to feel comfortable, but also to add to that, to contribute to that. So wherever they’re coming from, whether that be homegrowns or college or different clubs around MLS or different clubs around the world, we want to make sure that the transition is pretty seamless for them. I know for a fact going into a new team, it can be daunting at times. So just making sure that all the guys are comfortable so that they can hit the ground running with what Gary’s asking of them. I think that’s the most important thing, and I think our group does a really good job of it.”

How does your fitness hold up at this age? What’s it like training with Sean Davis?

“As the grizzled vet of the group, you always recognize that the players – you get a year older, and the players coming into the locker room continue getting younger and younger. So when you look across the table and there’s guys half your age there, it kind of hits you in the face a little bit; you wonder where all the time went. But luckily, the fitness part of it is still pretty good. I don’t think it’s as good as it used to be, but it’s still pretty good. It’s up there. I’m pleased with actually our whole team is very fit. Coming into this preseason, I think this is one of the fittest groups that I’ve ever been a part of right now. You know, you could ask the fitness coach or Gary that, and they’ll probably echo those comments, so it’s very impressive.

“As far as reuniting with Sean, yeah, it’s pretty seamless. Sean’s a great player, he’s proven that throughout his time in MLS. Even when we played together at Red Bull, he made me a better player by consistently bringing his quality and his attitude in training at Red Bull. He wasn’t playing much on the field. We had a pretty durable midfield back in those days when Sean was coming up: it was pretty regularly me, Sacha Kljestan, and Felipe playing in the middle there. But his attitude was infectious: He’s a perfect case study for all young players coming into a good team of how to make the guys in front of you better, and how to push the guys in front of you to make sure that they’re playing at their best. So it’s just been, it’s been great for me to watch his career blossom. Even after I left Red Bull, I was rooting for him to continue to be successful.

“Now, reuniting six, seven years later – however many years it has been – it’s funny how the game comes full circle. So I’m very happy that he chose to come to Nashville. I’m very happy that he chose to make our team better – because ultimately that’s what he does. It’s going to be a very fun year playing with him.”

Does your offseason routine get affected by the changing timelines for the start of the season?

“I would say it doesn’t change much. Honestly, as professionals, part of your job is to make sure that you’re ready to go whenever the season starts. So I always like to take two or three weeks off, totally recharge the batteries, completely unplug from the game and spend a lot of time with family. Make sure you go to the beach a little bit and relax and enjoy your offseason, because we all know that it’s a very long seaosn. Once that’s over with, it’s time to get going again. It’s time to continue to stay fit. I’ve been pretty lucky throughout my whole life that, even if I don’t do much for a few weeks, I don’t lose much fitness. I’m still able to run pretty easily. So I thank my parents for that; I think I have good genes.

“For the most part, like I said before, guys came in fit, guys came in ready to go, and I think that makes the coaching staff’s job a lot easier: preparing training sessions, knowing that you have a fit team, and you don’t have to necessarily work on just improve guys’ fitness constantly. I know in the first three years of our existence, I think that’s kind of been a small frustration, bringing players in at different times, and coming from different leagues and different countries, guys’ fitness levels were different; they weren’t always on the same page. Now, in this preseason, like I said, it’s some of the fittest I’ve ever seen a whole team be.

“Nothing changes too much from that standpoint, but regardless of when the first game of the season is, our team will be ready to go.”

What’s the feeling from an experienced player when you know your team is going to open a new stadium? Do you want to join the media side?

“When I first was thinking about where my career was going to go after Ii left the Chicago Fire, one of the main, I think appealing aspects of coming to Nashville was knowing that I would hopefully be able to be part of opening a brand-new stadium. That’s something I’ve never experienced in my career, and that’s something that was very appealing to me. Now that 2022 is upon us and we have an opening date for a brand-new stadium – the biggest soccer-specific stadium in North American, I believe, apologies if I’m butchering that, but I do believe that’s true – it’ gives me butter3flies. It gives me goosebumps actually thinking about it. So the one thing that I have to say going along with that is that my wife is pregnant, and her due date is April 29th, so we’re gonna see if we can’t manipulate that kid to come either a little bit earlier or a little bit later so I can still be a part of it – because that’s something you don’t want to miss is the birth of a child. It’s something that obviously I’ve thought about. I thin kit gives me chills just thinking about 30,000 Nashville SC fans singing and supporting us against the Philadelphia Union on May 1. It’s something that I know I’m going to take a lot of pride in – and I know our club and our entire city should take a lot of pride in.

“To answer the second question – I’ve answered this question a few times – the media side of things definitely appeals to me. I haven’t made a final decision yet on exactly where I want to be when my career is over, but I want to stay involved in the game of soccer. So whether that is media, whether that is coaching, whether that’s a more technical role in a front office, I want to try to experience all of that. Right now, if I can get experience in media while I’m still playing, I feel like there’s no greater practice than doing that. And I think it’s unique for the fans: they get a perspective of a guy who is still in the locker room, is still on the field every day. I don’t think that’s something that happens too often in professional sports. So I feel like it’s beneficial for both sides of the coin.”

How disappointing was the end of the season? And what does that feeling say about the expectations going forward in terms of competing for trophies with the club?

“Yeah, it was extremely disappointing. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that any time you end a season without lifting a trophy, every team is going to be disappointed. I think unless you win a Supporter’s Shield or an Open Cup, or ultimately MLS Cup, you can’t be satisfied, you can’t be happy without how the season ended. And then just, there’s a lot of things you look back on – losing in penalties is cruel, it’s harsh, it’s a very difficult way to go out. Because ultimately, it is a crapshoot.

“When you’re playing against a team in their home stadium they have momentum and they have a fantastic goalkeeper who’s very good at penalties, it’s frustrating and it’s difficult, and along that way is something that I don’t think ay player will ever get used to. It’s always extra painful. So it stings: it still hurts to think about, but ultimately we should be proud of what we’ve accomplished in our first two years. We know we can win playoff games. I think the next step for us is making sure that, when we are ending a season, or when we are jockeying for position in the playoffs, I think homefield is extremely important, right? I think the game against the Philadelphia Union, I think it looks a lot different if that game is in Nashville. That’s just my opinion, obviously we don’t know exactly how things would’ve played out: you still have to play the games, but that means that the games at the end of the regular season are extremely important, and dropped points – even i the middle or beginning of the season – it’s extremely important, because you want to make sure that you’re giving yourself the best chance to win. To give yourself the best chance to win – especially in our case with how strong we are at home – you want to be playing at home in the playoffs when the games matter the most.

“That’s stuff we can look back on and try to improve on for this year. I think we’ve proven in our first two years that we are going to be competitive no matter what conference we play in, no matter what stadium we’re playing in, no matter what the opponent is. We’re going to be in the game. We’re going to be right there with a shot to win any game we play in, and that’s all really you can ask. So we will be continuing to fight for championship, I think that that’s something that, as a club, you have to have that. You have to have that goal in the back of your head constantly, because if you don’t you’re going backwards. So as a club we want to continue to move forward, and lifting trophies is something that ultimately every player wants to do.”

What is it about former Red Bull players that makes them good fits in Nashville, even with radically different club philosophies?

“Well, I think discipline is definitely one of the areas that is very important in Gary’s mind. Players that are disciplined, players that know exactly how to fulfill certain types of roles. I think at Red Bull, like you said, it’s a very specific style of play, it’s a very specific system. And it’s predicated mainly on a high-pressing type of scenario. And so, when I would assume Gary is looking at players, having a high workrate and being able to have a high workrate on the defensive side of the ball is something that’s very important. That’s something that Ii think all successful teams have in common, is the ability to keep shutouts in the back. And part of doing that is being able to press high, but it’s also being able to maybe play in a little bit of a lower block – a medium block, a low block – but defend with purpose. I think we’ve seen through our first two years in MLS, we’ve had one of the best defensive records in the league: last year and in 2020. That’s the first thing that you see.

“But I think Red Bull, the success that they’ve had over the last 10 years as far as being able to be competitive and make the playoffs, I think it speaks for itself. Ultimately, I think when you’re building a team, and when you’re a coach, and you look around at other teams, and players in other teams, you wannt to know if they are capable of winninig games, and Red Bull has been able to produce seasons where they win plenty of games consistently. So ultimately, you need to get winners on your team if you want to be a winning team.

“Alex and Sean coming from Red Bull, they’re used to a winning culture, they’re used to a winning mentality, and that’s something that I think is very important when you are trying to add to your team.”

What does it mean for your team to essentially reload with additions like Sean Davis, Teal Bunbury, et al without losing many pieces? And what do you expect to be different stylistically in the Western Conference?

“Yeah, bringing in guys like Sean, it’s not just him. It’s guys like Sean, it’s guys like Teal Bunbury, guys like Ethan Zubak, right? It’s probably pieces that we’re still looking to add. All of these players, they come in and they make a difference, because they add to the depth of your team. I think we saw a very clear upgrade from 2020 to last year in our depth and the amount of players that we were able to rely on to play heavy minutes for us. I think you’re going to see an even bigger improvement in that area of depth from 2021 to now this year.

“The best part about bringing in guys like Teal, guys like Ethan, and guys like Sean, is they’re not satisfied when they’re not playing. They’re going to continue to push players that might be playing ahead of them. They’re going to continue to make players better. I think that they are going to just add to the overall quality of the group, and when you have – look, you guys can ask Gary this, but when Gary has 20-25 first-team players that he can rely on regularly, that all want to be on the field, it makes his job harder. Ultimately any head coach will tell you that they want their job to be hard; they want it to be difficult to pick a starting XI in every game, because that means you’re going to be competing in every competition that you’re in. So I fully expect us to be competing in every competition that we’re in.

“As far as moving to the West Coast, there are subtle differences, I think. Ii think that the West Coast teams, they do have a style about them that is very ball-control oriented, possession style. A lot of teams want to play on the front foot, and use possession. I don’t think it’s that different from how the Eastern Conference plays, but it’ll be an adjustment for sure. I think no more than two or three years ago, this wasn’t really an issue, because you played very team in the league at least one time, but now with more teams that we’ve added, with Covid issues, travel restrictions, you’ve had to go more Eastern Conference based, and Western Conference teams stay and play the Western Conference teams. And so, us as a team in Nashville, we haven’t really had a big taste of what the Western Conference is like, and so there will be adjustments up and down the board: obviously the travel schedule, everyone’s going to have to get used to it, the beginning of the season [eight road games] is going to be a challenge that we’re going to have to get used to. But ultimately, you don’t want to change too much what we’re about as a team. That is being competitive in every game, trying to win every single game, and making adjustments on the fly that are going to give us the best chance to win.

“I think everyone’s looking forward to the challenge. I don’t think anyone’s scare about moving conferences. I just think it’s another challenge in the history of Nashville SC that we will have to attack head-on. And I know everyone’s excited about it.”

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