Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith and Walker Zimmerman in preseason

Walker Zimmerman photo from file. Tim Sullivan/Club and Country

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman sat down with the media today. Watch or read their full comments here.

Head coach Gary Smith

A good day at the ground all-around for everyone. I thought we turned out very well against a brand-new Charlotte group: looked bright, looked physically in a good place, and ultimately, I felt for the most part were the stronger group – which is always nice to see in preseason. Everyone came through it in good health, and the majority of players got a very good 45 minutes in.

“Goals for CJ [Sapong] and for Teal [Bunbury], two assists for Aké [Loba]. Some very bright moments and a lot of encouragement.”

How were you aligning your front three? Was it the same as last year?

“No, slightly different today. I think the difference this year to maybe the last couple is that we do have some foundations to work with now, and a lot of good pieces of the puzzle. Always room for improvement, but the group from an attacking standpoint today was CJ through the middle, with Hany [Mukhtar] and Aké as more withdrawn strikers. And it did create a slightly different look. Whilst it gives us a more aggressive feel and some very bright moments for sure, there are some things that we have to work through if that’s going to be a more – a future shape, and bodies that are going to be used more often. Which, looking out there today, shouldn’t be too difficult to correct. However, when you become stronger in one area, there’s a chance that you become a little bit weaker in another, and it’s those areas that we’ve just got to be mindful of.

“On today’s performance, as I’ve said, lots of encouragement. We’re working through this with the bodies – that’s not to say that the likes of Randall [Leal] who played in the second group, and Dax [McCarty] who played in the second group, and Teal and Alex [Muyl]. What we’ve got is a much stronger group: we’ve got guys that have done a wonderful job for this team, and guys that have come in and made this group stronger. So there’s a lot of choice, and I think it’s created far more competition, and today we saw a very sharp 45 minutes from that opening group, and to a large degree, were very dominant.”

What have you seen from Aké Loba from a fitness and technique standpoint that will allow him to have a bigger role this season?

“I think first and foremost, the fitness side of things gives any player a much stronger foundation to feel confident, and go on and try to replicate runs beyond, moves behind, connections, recoveries. When you’re not in that place, you start to select: ‘well I will go now and I won’t go then.’ And you don’t always make the right choices. So initially, and first and foremost we’ve now got a player who, I think in the offseason, has worked very, very hard: he’s come back in in great shape, and you can see that in the games.

“As far as the connections, his assists, it wasn’t just the assists: he actually worked two or three other fantastic opportunities. Could’ve had a goal himself and was very unselfish and tried to square it. I don’t think it would be wrong of me to say it’s probably his brightest 45 minutes that I’ve seen – and I think if we look back as far as Cincinnati when he scored and made a wonderful impact in the game – this was more like the Aké that we all expected, and now it’s time for some consistency, to keep working at that, to keep layering that information and connection into, hopefully, what he’s going to be able to do for the group.

“There’s no doubt about it, in today’s performance, there was a serious goal threat and creative threat, and I think we’d have all loved to see that more often. Still a work in progress within the group and the position he’s playing in, but still, some very, very encouraging and exciting times today.”

Since we were unable to see, what did each of your three goals look like?

“Right. Goal No. 1: worked down the left-hand side. I think it was – we’d built some reasonable pressure and a good control. Hany actually made a nice little movement into the pocket and played a ball in to Aké’s feet in and around the edge of the box. Now, from this point, only Ake could tell you what happened next, because it looked to me like he tried to turn, a touch between his legs, and swivel and get a shot on it if he could’ve done. But his touch was heavy, and CJ was very tight to him, coming behind him and he smashed it into the roof of the net from about 16-17 yards out, maybe on the edge of the box. I’m sure Aké will say ‘no, I knew he was there and it was a deft touch into his stride,’ and for me that’d be good enough, I’d say that connection’s gowing.

“No. 2, Aké broke down the left-hand side, it was played in between – I think it was – fullback or wingback and centerback. He did ever-so-well, faced up with the defender, some really nice deception, looked like he got by him with ease and whipped a very nice ball towards the edge of the six-yard box. I’ve seen it in slow motion, and the defender does a good job to block out the near post. And I think CJ feels the pressure, and he actually, instead of making really heavy contact, he just side-foots it on a slight angle towards the far post. It’s almost just a deft touch, really nice finish.

“The third goal was after a period of pressure that Charlotte had in the second half. They actually started better than us and got themselves back into the game with a nice free kick. And the third goal was – there was a little bit of a connection down the right-hand side. Luke [Haakenson] actually looked to take on the defender, it actually ricocheted back behind him into Alex Muyl’s path, who then tried to work a cross in, and it caught the defender’s foot, and just short of spiraled up in the air towards the between six-yard and 18-yard box. And again in slow-motion, Teal does so well, he just pushes his hips into the center back, and the spin on the ball takes it inside, and he pivots, swivels, and hits it full power into the near post, and no chance for the goalkeeper from about 12 yards out. A very nice strike, very well-controlled, and showed a lot of experience in just leaning into the defender.

“I mean look: there were other really nice opportunities. Handwalla [Bwana] managed to work a header into the ground from six yards out that spiraled over the bar. Don’t know how he did that. Aké actually had what looked like a slight angle one-on-one with the goalkeeper who was quite deep, and he tried to square it and the defender just got a foot one it. Alex Muyl had a great header at the back post that the goalkeeper made a really good save at the near post. And I’mm probably missing one or two: there were some real nice opportunities.

“It was a very decent game. You know, a good step forward and some nice foundations put in place.”

What did you see out of Josh Bauer in his start for the game?

“Listen, we’re back to that, ‘if I’m going to try a couple of things, I’ve got to do it now.’ Josh has had a wonderful two weeks since he’s come into the club. He’s made a very nice impression, looks like his year in USL has done him a world of good. I remember looking at him as a college player, and there were some concerns. But he’s cut his teeth in the pro world. He’s fitting into the group nicely: great attitude, bit of an all-rounder. Good defender, decent in the air, his distances when he’s defending one-on-one are good, he’s decent on the ball.

And Ii actually wanted to put him next to Walker [Zimmerman]. I know that a lot of the work that he’s produced has not been under too much pressure. I wanted him out there from the start to see how he would handle it. And I knew that if he was next to Walker, he’s realize that “hold on a minute, this is a little bit different.’

Whilst there were… you could see a few little signs of nerves, it certainly didn’t affect his game. His distribution was good when called upon, he defended well. This is not slight on the other guys – Jack [Maher] and Rob [Castellanos] and Eric [Miller] who played as a wingback today – no slight on them at all. But there will be one or two little changes as I try to work out the best lineup for that opening fixture in Seattle.”

What were the concerns with Josh?

“As far as Josh goes, there were no real concerns, Drake. I wanted to try – and I need to try – and up the ante for the lad. He’s come in and made a great impression, and I’ve got to try and push the boundaries a little bit here. It’s difficult without any fans. The litmus test is obviously in front of 20-, 30-, 40,000 people – can you hold yourself together, can you be as reliable as he’s been under that sort of duress? I knew that Walker would add some pressure. For me, certainly the best centerback in MLS, has been absolutely terrific in the games that he’s played for the US just recently, and I think Josh will have felt that and known that. Like I said: no slight on the other boys, but I just needed to see him under a little bit more pressure. And he dealt with it very well; I was delighted with the outcome.”

After today’s friendly, what concerns do you still have heading into the regular season?

“I think there’s some work to be done with a more attacking-looking front three. I’ve got to decide as we get toward Seattle, is that going to be the right move up there? If they keep playing the way they did today, I won’t have any choice, because they looked bright, we’ve scored three goals, we’ve still looked incredibly sound. I think Charlotte had one shot in the first half – I don’t remember it, but they did have a shot, I was told – that has been a feature of our group, and it’s going to need to be seen more and more in these opening eight games of the season away from home. But there’s no reason why we can’t have the attacking lineup that we had on the field, and still get the same type of job done. We need to be more of an attacking threat, and continue to show that consistency. Ii can say that Aké’s performance – CJ and Hany have got tremendous equity in the group because of their season last year – Aké’s 45 minutes today really is something for him to build on, and certainly for the group a huge boost in confidence. He looked really threatening, and I think for most people, we’re very, very pleased to see the type of display that we saw from him today.”

You had all the fitness data from your guys who were away on international duty, so how did they look getting them back in person? And how did Aníbal Godoy adapt to partnering with new signing Sean Davis?

“Of the guys that’ve come back, only really Randall was a concern given that he had a bit of a gastric problem for four or five days and missed really, the competition games. But he’d been in camp for a good while, you could tell through his testing and the way that he performed today for 45 minutes that he’s in good shape, and he’s not really lost too much ground, which is great. So fr that reason alone, we don’t have any players that are lagging behind physically. Walker and Aníbal didn’t miss a beat.

“It looked a really nice combination in there with Sean. I wanted to quickly see what he looked like. Dax played as more of a front screen in what could be classed as you know, a back four into a back five under pressure – which his experience is terrific to have in those situations. It gives us a completely different look and dimension. As that second half wore on, it looked better and better. Early on, there was a little bit of feeling our way, and I think maybe the conditions did not help the guys sitting on the banch – they looked a little bit sluggish coming into that second period. Slowly but surely, we started to turn the crew a little bit and finished off nice and strong.

“As far as Sean and Aníbal, as you might have imagined with two very experienced players, not a problem. In fact, looked great. Sean’s been a terrific addition, as I’ve said before, on and off the field.”

Defender Walker Zimmerman

What did you think of Josh Bauer’s performance today, and from what you’ve seen in your couple days with him?

“It’s been gret getting to know Josh. A short time – obviously only a day or two together, but I got to watch the Memphis game, obviously got to play alongside him today, and I was very impressed. He’s a guy who has a lot of physical tools, a lot of aggression, very good iin the air, very strong, solid on the ball.

“It was nice. It was nice being able to develop some chemistry with him. He did really well as a side centerback driving forward, taking space, and looking to find some passes through the lines. He had a great outing for 45 minutes, and I’m looking forward to watching him develop and hopefullly getting to continue playing with him and getting to know him a little bit more.”

After you didn’t go through the first phase of training camp while away with the US, was there anyone who surprised you with how they looked when you arrived?

“Still pretty early, only having the one training session yesterday and the game today. I thought Luke Haakenson has done a really good job from what I saw in the scrimmage in the second half, and from training yesterday. He’s a guy who looks fit and in-form. Everyone really looks fit. Ii mean, to be honest I’m glad that I did get to miss out on some of the dog days at IMG. I hear it was quite the workload. So in that way, I the team looked really good: really strong physically, everyone looked pretty sharp in terms of their fitness.

“When you check that off the box early, it allows you to now start progressing into the second phase of preseason to developing more tactically, more technically some of the ideas that you want to have this season. Really excited to get going with that part.”

Do you feel like you started with a leg up in fitness since your offseason was shorter, playing with the USMNT?

“100%. For sure. This is probably the third offseason ini a row of less than eight or nine days off for me. It’s kind of just been a continuous journey over the past couple years: not much time off. I keep my fitness at a good level, and then certainly having some competitive games for the guys that were at qualifiers: we certainly should be a leg up on everyone else at this point in the year. Now it’s just about getting readjusted, reacquainted with everyone, reacquainted with their style of play and your teammates on and off the field, and making sure that we’re all a well-oiled machine heading into the end of February.”

What did you find most encouraging from the friendly, and what did you see that needs to be fine-tuned before the season?

“I think our mentality coming out – to be honest, I know you guys didn’t get a stream of the game – but they didn’t really create many chances at all. I thought that we were able to keep the ball. If they had possession, it was in their half, and we picked our moments to step forward aggressively. Any time they played forward, side centerbacks releasing, midfielders getting out wide. Guys did a really good job covering ground and making it very difficult for Charlotte to progress up the field. I that aspect of winning the first ball, and then getting the second ball and immediately transitioning forward, I thought we did a really good job.

“Things to work on, it was just a game that didn’t require us to really build out as much. I’m sure we’ll still continue to work on that as we play in some more games. But really pleased with capitalizing on some of our chances. It’s not like we had a ton of chances, but to score two in the first 45 off some limited chances was a good sign as well.”

How did you feel the new-look front three covered for you guys defensively?

“I don’t know how much they covered on that, actually, at IMG the first go-round. We worked on it some yesterday, trying to figure out how those front three are going to move based on what the opponent is doing. And so certainly there are going to be some adjustments, some analysis, and some further tweaking to kind of get all of that well-understood, well-drilled.

“I thought it was fine, I think it’s just the nature of the game was just they were dropping their six in between their two centerbacks, trying to create a numerical advantage in the back. Sure, they had the ball going across the backline, but I think we did a good job of, when they tried to force it up the field, that’s when we won it. So it was a difficult task for the front three, granted that they were usually outnumbered between having the low fullbacks and having the six drop in between the centerbacks. But I think they did a good job of containing, and then in transition, when we won the ball, they did a great job of being in good spots to go forward.”

How did you feel set piece defense worked in this game, after it was a struggle in 2021?

“We definitely switched how we defended late in the year last year, and it looks like we’re going to be starting in a similar way this year in terms of the depth of the line, our approach to handling those situations, whether it’s corners or wide free kicks. I’m sure again, as the games continue in preseason, maybe we tweak a thing here or there, but I think we know the importance of set pieces, and we have had meetings about how many were conceded relative to our total goals allowed.

“It’s a focal point for sure, because if we can eliminate that, cut that to even a league average, then you’re talking about some historic numbers from a defensive standpoint. High priority for us, and we’ll definitely keep ironing them out in the next couple weeks.

What are your goals for yourself in 2022?

“I think first and foremost, I want to win a trophy here, I want to bring some silverware back to the club. That’s probably goal No. 1. On a personal level, at the club level, it’s always for me I expect to be in the conversation for individual awards. Defender of the Year: I want it again. No question about it, that’s a goal. All-star, that’s a goal for sure. All those awards, I’m going to chase every single year.

“On the national side, it’s obviously qualification and a World Cup. It’s a big year. It’s kind of a year where a lot of those goals that I’ve had from prior to being a pro. It’s the chance to make those dreams come true, make those goals come true, so it’s kind of full-focus ahead. It’s ever since coming to Nashville, I’ve been very locked in on just doing things the right way, and trying to show up every day and get better, and that’s the only way that these goals are going to be achieved. Ready to attack it, ready to have a big year, and certainly have high expectations for myself and this team.”

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