Nashville SC

Press conference: Gary Smith and Hany Mukhtar preview 2022 season, Seattle Sounders

Hany Mukhtar photo courtesy Nashville SC

Head coach Gary Smith

“I think first and foremost, everyone’s had a little bit of luck not coming in today and being around the training field: the weather is absolutely brutal, and I think everyone’s found it a little tough today. But all in all, we’ve managed to get some decent work done. It’s been a very nice week leading into the opening fixture – something that we’ll see an awful lot throughout any campaign, unlike the long days of preseason that we’ve had in the last five weeks.l I think we’re in a good spot, everyone’s enthused about the weekend as you’d imagine, and looking forward to a really, really tough game.”

What’s the impact of playing against a Seattle team that’s already had a couple competitive games in Concacaf Champions League, rather than starting from the same point in the season you are?

“I think there’s some fors and against for running into a group that have started their campaign earlier. The positive is that we get to see them a couple of times. I truly don’t know what Brian [Schmetzer, head coach] will do in terms of Sunday’s game after a game tonight and only sort of three days, four days max to turn around. But we certainly get the opportunity to see them run out. The downside of course is that they get a couple of games to find their feet, maybe to feel a little bit more human about their structure and performances, rather than some of the wrinkles that need to be ironed out in the first two or three games.

“Never, ever going to be easy going up to Seattle. I remember it being one of the toughest places that I’ve been to some years ago, and it’s certainly gotten tougher since I’ve been there. Great crowd, expect a wonderful atmosphere, always a difficult surface, and an exceptionally talented front line to try and deal with. So it’s going to be a difficult challenge, come what may.”

Have you watched Seattle play in Champions League?

“I think tonight’s game, I would expect to see a slightly different dynamic and an edge to the team at home. Other than a very talented front line, I think there was a little bit more caution in their game – for obvious reasons – away from home. But as per usual, what you see are some wonderfully gifted, technical individuals on the field. Are they going to play a back-four again? I think the challenge that maybe Brian has run into – or maybe it’s not a challenge – but he’s got a multitude of riches up front, and he’s wondering now how he gets them all on the field and what’s the best shape for that. It would make an awful lot of sense to be in the shape that he’s in, which is a back four and a 4-2-3-1.

“The real difficulty for us is to work out who. Tonight’s shape may give us a little bit of a lead into Sunday again. But most importantly, what the dynamic of that frontline and those creative players looks like. Because they’ve got four out-and-out match-winners in the guys that you saw out last week.

“I think there was some rust and some cobwebs on some of the performances as you’d expect, and I think as we look at the league get into the first round of fixtures Saturday and Sunday, you’re going to see some similar performances as most groups come out of preseason are still trying to find their feet.”

What is the health of the squad at this stage?

“We are at full fitness. Yep: everyone’s available, everyone’s healthy. Truly, I can go back as far as the first day and say right now that the physical well-being of the players as they came into camp has kept us moving along very briskly. The players look fit, they look strong, and full credit to them for the way they came into camp, because it’s served us very, very well.”

What have you seen from Albert Rusnak, especially since he’s one of the few players on this team that you played last year (with Real Salt Lake), and what does he add to this team?

“We ran into Salt Lake once last year. Honestly, when you get a talented individual such as Rusnak, you’re really only trying to work out as a coach what the dynamic and connections look like with others. As I watched him in his first appearance for Seattle away from home: he’s such an intelligent and technical player, I’m sure the other – not just the attackers – the other teammates he has around him are absolutely delighted to have a player of his caliber in the group. It won’t take long for those guys to connect and start to understand one another’s movements and tendencies. It’s just another very, very talented and game-changing players they have in the group.

“The one thing I will say is that I think the addition this year – after injury – of Jordan Morris out wide or as a really dynamic attacking player, is something that I’m sure they missed last year. And watching him again in some national play, and also last week in the Concacaf [Champions League], I think just reminded everyone again of just what a serious threat he can be with his pace and power.”

With the type of attacking talent Seattle has – but also their interest in making sure they don’t get too open and give up points at home – do you expect a midfield slog or a different style of game?

“One thing on top of all of that: we don’t like to lose away from home, either. Our record was pretty decent away from home. Look: the scenario in Seattle, on turf, in their home stadium can be likened very much to an Atlanta environment, give or take the odd bit of covering that encloses the stadium in Atlanta. Tough environments. Vociferous crowd. A very attack-minded team, very positive and purposeful in their approach, which makes any away fixture against teams like that incredibly tough.

“But for every step that these guys take in a positive fashion, there’s always an achilles heel. There is always an area of any team that’s a little bit softer, or got that little bit of a weaker underbelly. Their positive nature can sometimes be their undoing. Look: we have to start the game well, we have to get into our stride, and we have to threaten this Seattle group, otherwise they end up being so aggressive and so purposeful that it can be incredibly tough to hang in there.

“So we’ve still got to be on the front foot, but I think some of the experiences over the last two seasons will stand us in extremely good stead. We’ve got a group now that have overcome some real difficulties. Our form last year was absolutely wonderful in the domestic season, in the regular season. If we can start off anywhere close to some of those away performances, I think we’ll be OK.”

What did you learn about the attacking players in preseason, and is there a role for guys like Daniel Ríos still with Teal Bunbury and Ethan Zubak coming in, Aké Loba healthy, etc?

“I can only answer it by saying – to your first part – the guys that you’ve mentioned, including Daniel, are very much starting players [sad face]. These guys, during preseason, having in one way shape or form: for Teal, it’s his first season with us. For Ake, there certainly needed to be a more thoughtful and helpful approach to getting him into what we would class as match play and team orientation if you like, and he’s had a really good preseason. Teal likewise, Daniel Ríos has been bright [another sad face], he’s stayed healthy, because that’s also been a little bit of an issue for him, but he’s stayed healthy and he’s looked really good.

“It’s no different to looking at what might happen in midfield. I’ve got four starting midfield players, and three of them are as experienced as anyone in the league, in Sean Davis, Dax [McCarty] and Aníbal [Godoy] of course, so there’s some tough choices for me. There’s a lot of competition for the team. What I have to hope is that they keep squeezing as much as they can out of each other to be part of that starting lineup, and I get the combination of players right in whatever weekend we’re playing. And ultimately, if we’re putting points on the board, then we’ll all be moving in the right direction?

How do you manage the balance between attacking and defending in a place like Seattle, with a bit of a reputation for being a little more defensive in road games?

“Don’t say that, Tim. don’t say it. You’ll start everyone else off on it.”

[Cowers defensively, backs down]

“Balance is always the key: I’ve said it from day one. Have we always got it right? Not always. What I can tell you is we always go into a game wanting to be as positive as possible. But I think the undertone to anything that we’re going to undertake away from home is: we must point points on the board. How do we do that?

“At the weekend, if we don’t show enough edge going forward, we’ll leave ourselves in a really difficult place. I wouldn’t want to be defending our final third for large portions of the game with the guys that they have at their disposal. They’re as good as anyone at home in an attacking sense. So, we’ve got to somehow, some way get on that front foot – maybe be a tad more aggressive without the ball. I know I’ve said that before, but I truly believe that. I’m hoping that the combination of players that we have, the experience that we have now together for two years gives everyone a little bit more belief that we can certainly get higher up the field, and we can cause teams more problems away from home.

“But in the end, I think the very best teams find a way to get through really difficult encounters. We’ll have a plan, we’ll try and stick to that plan, but guess what: that plan may well go out of the window in the opening exchanges because something that we really haven’t contemplated happens, and we’ve got to be ready for that. I think we’ve got the tools to be ready for that, we’ve certainly got the players in reserve to come into the game – the strength of our bench is looking better and better, and I think that in turn gives everyone a feel-good factor that there’s points to be had out of this game.”

How do you manage the expectations of guys who are close to the starting lineup but may not see the field in the opener?

“It’s nothing short of really, really tough. It’s a good world to be in, but to your point, trying to keep everyone in a bright and positive mindset will have to come over a period of time. In the first fixture, the first game of the season, there’re going to be some disappointments; there’s no getting away from it. The fact that everyone’s come in in great shape tells me that they understand the challenge in front of them, and they wanted to hit the ground running – which they’ve all done, which has really helped our preseason along quite nicely.”

“I’ve got to make sure that I don’t get too blinkered with regards to certain players, shapes, or even performances. I’ve got to take into consideration travel, fatigue, time changes. All of these things are not going to be as straightforward as they were last year. Our opponents, for the most part, are going to be teams that we’ve run into for the first time, so there’s going to be some unknowns and some uncertainties.

“And for everything I’ve just said, I’ve got to make sure that I’m really thoughtful about the way that we go into games, and what we need out of games. These first eight fixtures are going to be probably as tough as anything that I’ve run into before. I know we had the pandemic, but it was a different type of challenge where you’re not playing and you’ve got to stay in the right place, and you’ve got to keep developing as a first-year group. This is going to be eight away games on the spin against good sides who are running into us, yes for the first time, but in many cases don’t have any respect [to clarify: he’s going with a British usage here that essentially means “experience,” he’s not going for the “nobody respected us” Bama thing] for what we’ve done: we’ve not been in their conference. That won’t be easy.

“I hope after a period of time, I can keep everyone engaged, and the team fresh and in the right place.”

How does the team’s readiness to compete compare to the opener in past seasons ?How do you manage the travel for a super-long trip?

“We’re definitely in a better place. A better mental, physical, and tactical place than we were last preseason leading into the Cincinnati game. I’ve no doubt the guys are ready for the weekend. Whilst there’ll be specific challenges up there, I think we’ve done everything we can to try and be ready for that. The rigors of any opening fixture will have to be overcome.

“As far as travel, dealing with the sort of logistics that you’ve mentioned, we’ve got a plan in place for the type of journeys we’re going to undertake. They won’t all be two-day prior to the game, depending on where we’re going, of course. We certainly want to give the players the best chance to acclimate to the West Coast, and the two-hour time change.

In the end, as I’ve said in the last comments, I’ve got to try and be mindful of the sorts of stresses and strains that all the players are going to be under. And whilst we’re going from weekend-to-weekend in the first batch of games, there’s an awful lot to contend with for each player, and we’ll have to look at their data as they come out of these games and the way that they’re recovering.

“But I do want to make this clear: yes it’ll be difficult, yes it’s unprecedented, yes we’ll be traveling I think more than any other team has this year in the history of MLS. If we want it to be an excuse, it can be, and we can say, ‘well OK, we’ve got plenty of reasons why we won’t and can’t, and haven’t been able to achieve what we want.’ I don’t honestly believe that anyone on the playing or coaching side of the staff are going to take that sort of stance. My expectations are that we come out of this eight games away from home in a good spot. In a spot that we can challenge for those playoff positions again, and be excited about coming to our home stadium and making the most of that. It won’t be, ‘OK, let’s just stumble through this, and I hope we can get enough points in our home games.’ There’s some real challenges coming up, and we’ll meet them head-on, and we’ll get the very best out of each and every game that we can, bu we will take them one game at a time, that is for sure.”

A lot is made of Seattle’s attack, but their defense is elite as well. What challenges do that present there?

“All of the above, Tim. All of the above. They keep the ball well, therefore it’s harder to create and score. They attack well, they create plenty of opportunities and they’ve shown in the past that their record speaks for itself. They’ve got a very good balance themselves: athletic, strong, determined defenders. Good technicians, good creators.

“They sound like a good team to me. That sounds like the perfect blend.

Therefore it won’t be easy: it certainly won’t. And in a game of that sort of caliber, you’ve got to make sure you make few mistakes. You can get to the pace of the game quickly on an astroturf field that’s not easy, and when the chances come along, you’ve got to take advantage of them, because you’re not gonna see too many. Therein lies, really, the answer to winning or to getting points on the board against very, very good teams away from home. That’s why not many people do it: because it ain’t easy. I think we’ve got all of the qualities needed. I think we’ve proven before we can do it, and we’re certainly looking forward to the new challenge of being in the Western Conference, and running into some teams that we’ve not seen before. So we’re hoping we can take a few of these teams by surprise, and I’m sure they’ll be feeling exactly the same way.”

Midfielder Hany Mukhtar

Do you remember specifics of Seattle’s pursuit when that was the first club that pursued you in MLS?

“Yes, Seattle was, I think, the first team in MLS which were very interested in me. I mean, it’s a long time ago – probably like five years by now – but yeah, it didn’t really go very far. Because I decided pretty early that I want to stay at my old club.”

How do you balance being hungry for individual versus team goals? How does the hunger add up?

“I mean, that’s definitely – the last season I had was definitely a good one, and I want to try to continue where I stopped. My goal is to stay fit, stay healthy the whole season. I know that if I will be able to play all the games, I will help the team. That’s my job; that’s why I’m here. I will give my best, and in the end, if I personally perform also good, I will help the team a lot. So that’s my goal for sure.”

What’s the difference in preparing for a team you’ve never played before versus teams you’ve experienced?

“Yeah, obviously we haven’t played them before, but we all know how good they are, that they’re very strong at home, and they’re a good side. We have to believe in ourselves. We are looking at them in video sessions, but obviously we have to concentrate on our strengths, and we need to perform the best way we can.”

How do you balance the opportunity of p[laying a top team versus looking at it as a daunting task?

“The first in the season – or first couple of games in the season – are always – noone really knows where you are right now at which level, so it’s kind of always hard to tell. But I think we had a good preseason, we are ready. We will see in the first couple of games how we are doing.”

How do you expect to be used after playing as a No. 10, a winger, and a second-striker last year?

“First of all, I really liked the position I played last year: it gave me a lot of freedom. I think I could impress, I think I could be the best version of myself. But in the end, it’s a team sport; it’s not an individual sport. If I want to play an individual sport, I have to go to tennis or other sports. So in the end, I have to do my job, I have to do the best for the team, and if the coach thinks that another position is the best for the team, then I will play there. There is no doubt in my head.”

What sort of talent level do you evaluate n the Sounders’ roster?

“Yeah of course I’ve never played against Seattle personally. So most of the players I don’t know, really. But obviously last season all of their games are on ESPN, and I like to watch soccer – that’s also my passion so I watched a couple of games of them. So most of the players which are starting I know by names. They have a lot of talent, that’s for sure, and one of my boys is playing there – Jimmy Medranda. He loves Seattle. I’m talking to him sometimes, and he’s saying they’re all good guys, so yeah.”

What sort os improvements have you seen in yourself and your team, and how might they raise expectations?

“Yeah definitely. I mean, the first year I came, we were all new. It was a very difficult time, then Covid hit, we didn’t have good rhythm. Then the last year we started pretty slow, a lot of draws, and then we kind of found our way to win and to be successful.

“I think this year, we have the good foundation already because of the last two years. That’s what should make us stronger: this foundation that we have. We have the identity of the club, we have the philosophy of the coach, we all know what we want to achieve, and I think that will help us the third year to be even more successful. That’s why we’re here: Nashville is the club to want to compete and want to win something in the near future.”

What do you remember from your experiences of playing on turf?

“First of all I hate artificial turf. That’s – we have to take it and play there. I don’t mind it: it’s not the best circumstance or field for my game, but it will be a different game than on grass. But yeah: we trained the last weeks two times now on turf, so we should be ready.”

How does the long travel play on your mind, especially after how difficult the first year was?

“Yeah, I mean that is something which is totally new for me. To travel three, four, five hours to a game, and you have to play the next day or in two days. I will do everything I can, and try to get used to it. It will – I think I need time to adjust for that, definitely. I don’t know why they put us ini the West Conference, it makes no sense form my perspective, but we have to take it. That’s our job, and we are not here to complain. We have to do the best out of it, the first eight games all away. Pretty tough start, but I think if a team can handle that, then it should be us.”

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