Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and goal-scorer Alex Muyl met with the media after knocking off the Columbus Crew. Watch or read their full comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Yeah, wonderful victory here: tough environment, tough, tough team, very very talented Columbus group. They’ve made some good additions in the offseason to reinforce this group. We had our own problems coming into the game. The guys that stepped up were immense, and think all-in-all, we were the better team first half, they were the better team second half. The one Alex Muyl goal that separates us is a great feeling, because I think we’ve been in some good positions, we’ve been denied victories for different reasons, and tonight we’ve been able to get it across the line. The guys deserved that.”
You rotated the lineup heavily, what was behind that and how did the guys who stepped in perform?
“Well there were different reasons and different thoughts, of course, behind each of the inclusions tonight, that – two or three of them – we’ve seen for the first time this year. What we know is that they’re more than capable: they’ve shown that on numerous occasions before. In Taylor [Washington]’s case, Daniel Lovitz picked up a knock in training this week and to be honest, he was very, very keen to be a part of it, but it was my decision to say that this was probably the time not to put him at risk. I always felt that Walker [Zimmerman] and Aníbal [Godoy] would have an inclusion in the game; we were going to allow the game and the performance, the situations, to dictate that for us. And it would seem that the last 20 minutes now was a good time to give the group a lift with some fresh legs and a bit of experience.
“In their absence, Jack Maher was arguably man of the match. There were three or four candidates for that from my standpoint. Brian Anunga was… it almost feels like he hadn’t skipped a beat. You know, he’s not played in the group or started in the group this year. But what we know of Brian is that he’s immensely competitive, very, very capable, and it’s a tough task to come in when you’ve been sitting on the bench, you’ve been getting next to no minutes and now you’re asked to be the main man. And he was absolutely terrific tonight. Then for Alex to score the winner, it’s just the icing on the cake. There were some wonderful flashes of what he might offer us out on that side against Salt Lake. I thought him and Randall [Leal] combined ever-so-well two weeks ago, which gave me food for thought about continuing some of that relationship-building. And for him to score was wonderful.”
It seemed like Alex had a little more freedom to get forward from that right wingback spot, was that how you envisioned his role? And what did you see on the goal-scoring play?
“Look, Alex is at his best when he has the field opened up to him. You know, he really doesn’t want to be kept in a small box and having to think about where he’s going and what he’s doing all the time. We have to offer him the ability to show his energy and his competitive nature, and he had a little bit more license to get up the field, to get some pressure on, and be that hybrid defender-midfield player on the right-hand side.
“The first half, it worked a hell of a lot better than it did in the second half. But you know, when called upon to defend, when called upon to offer us some balance as a fullback rather than a midfield player or an attacker, he certainly deatl with that admirably.
“The difficulty for us – and I think him – in the second half was trying to find those moments to just get a little bit higher up the field, be a little bit more disruptive. I think the natural course of events is obviously to protect at that point, and the guy, I think, had found a bit of a comfort zone in absorbing pressure, counter-attacking – which we haven’t seen an awful lot of that in the first four games. I thought some of the defending was really, really good, but then again, you know, Columbus did a very good job of finding some space, certainly in the wide areas and some really searching crosses that they were unable to get on the end of. So in the end, I think we showed all of the qualities that was necessary away from home. And as I’ve said before, I’m delighted that we’ve been able to turn this one our way.”
Were you white-knuckling when your team was under pressure in the second half? And how big a luxury is it to be able to bring on the Panama captain and USMNT captain to see out the game in that situation?
“The second half reminded me an awful lot of the game here last year. Dax played as more-or-less as a centerback, popping into that front screen, and we drew here nil-nil and the final exchanges, they were in total control of, and had some moments that kept us on the edge of our seat.
“I think what we’ve shown here tonight is that, No. 1, we’re more than capable. This is the fourth game out of five, I would say, that we’ve not only shown a bit of a cutting edge – first half, we could’ve been more than one up. We had some good chances, I’ve seen a picture of the goal that wasn’t given, and I guess they have a better angle and a better feel than me, but it looks like a goal, so we certainly pushed the boundaries. And the second half we had to show all the resilience that’s necessary when you’re in the midst of an eight-game away stint. So it’s not easy, it certainly isn’t, and the guys have shown immense character tonight. These are a good side, a really really good side. I like a lot of the lot of the players that Caleb [Porter] has, they go about their business well, they’ve got great dimensions to the group, they’ve got good power in certain areas, and certainly magnificent quality and athleticism in others.
“In reference to bringing the two guys on, I mean, the timing of that was going to be important. You can imagine for many different reasons that the emotional and physical toil on both of those guys has been heavy for them to bear – for different reasons of course, in the last couple of days. I have to say, the character of the pair of them is: truly they’re two of the most genuine guys I’ve ever met. A discussion with them on Thursday – they landed late, both of them, they came in at mid-day, we had a chat. Both ultra-keen to be part of the group, to help support the group. I felt myself that the discussion wasn’t necessarily to put them in – or felt as though it was to put them in – to the starting group, but I, and I’m sure everyone else that got on the field tonight were absolutely delighted to see them come on for the last 20 minutes. They truly are captains in their own right, and it was probably what we needed at that point to see us across the line.”
Do you have the chance to use this game to change the momentum as you look to wrap up the road trip?
“Look, there’s an awful lot of ways that people can look at having such a stint on the road, but having no experience in such a long away spell, and hoping that it doesn’t ever happen again, the picture for all of us that I felt was the best one to create, was clearly to compartmentalize everything that went on, and keep it as clean and concise and surgical as we could. Because there are so many aspects of being away from home that are difficult: travel, fatigue, mental emotion at playing in front of away fans all the time, different surfaces, home teams that are inspired – a confident team tonight that are unbeaten – every team that you play against thinks that they can win the championship. There are so many that make life incredibly difficult, and it’s easy to look at the game before, get despondent, and let that emotion roll over into what happens next. And we’ve had some things that we’ve spoken about that we want to try and achieve outside of points. This isn’t just about playing games: we want to put ourselves in a position not only in the league, but I think mentally, where players feel confident, there’s still plenty of belief in the team in the way that we’re playing and what we’re trying to achieve.
“So tonight is a big lift, it was a lift that was needed after a couple of defeats that, quite frankly, the second one, I felt as though we were a tad hard-done by. But it is what it is, you know. You’ve got to get on with it, and tonight was always going to be an immensely tough game, and we’ve overcome that. So that will be a huge shot in the arm for the group. But the challenge next weekend will be a completely different one against a team that are starting to turn their season in the right direction, and a team that are always in the playoffs. So if anyone expects it to be easy, it’s not going to be. But this will certainly give us an opportunity to regroup, feel good, and go again.”
Midfielder Alex Muyl
How did your goal develop?
“So Taylor [Washington] kind of was breaking down the left side, and we’ve seen it some many times what he does: he drags them down the line and kind of puts in a good ball. For me as the opposite-side wingback, I have to get in the box if I want to be dangerous, be a threat. Santos kind of slipped, which was unlucky for him, but the quality of the ball, I think I would’ve gotten a chance anyway. But for me, it was just about hitting the target. Those balls sometimes can be tough, because it doesn’t come with so much pace, so you have to kind of just guide it. Luckily for me it had some spin on it and made its way in to the far post.”
What did it take to lock down in the second half as Columbus attacked?
“Yeah, obviously when you go ahead early away from home, it can really invite a lot of pressure. I’ve seen so many times in my career – whether we’re at home and we trail early, or if we’re away and we score early – it can be difficult, because the home team has the onus to really come at you guys a lot. The natural response kind of is to take on a lot of pressure.
“i think this team is uniquely set up to be able to take that pressure, and then create other chances based off of it, so it’s not the worst thing for us. But I do think another step in our progression will be to – as we go away from home, especially in this run of games – if we score early, to somehow continue to go forward and get chances. Now obviously we did do that and we created some chances, and I think that on another day maybe we’re two or three goals up at halftime. While we did have to take a lot of pressure and kind of survive in some moments, we were able to do that, and I think that this was a really prototypical away performance for us.”
What was your feeling between the time your defender falls down and the time that you headed the ball – did it feel like forever, and was there too much time to think about where to aim the ball or even play it back across to CJ Sapong?
“Yeah, I think it was one of those where like, you know, the ball didn’t have too much pace on it. It was a great ball but it was one of those things – yeah it can almost make it harder sometimes because you have so much time to think and weigh your options. I’m thinking: ‘should I chest this? If he slipped, should I be chesting this? Should I be trying to send it across for CJ?’
“Ultimately, though, I think when I get into those positions sometimes I have to take the responsibility yourself, and that was my thought. I’m just going to try and get a good contact, and aim for that far post and see what happens. And luckily it went in. There’s been a lot of times in my career where it has gone just outside of the post, or the goalie gets a save. It’s just one of those things: you have to try and do the right thing and live with the consequences.”
Columbus has played so well in the early stages of the year. How were you able to take them out of their game?
“Well I think you see in the run of play that we’re actually really good defensively, and our achilles heel has been set pieces. I think it doesn’t take a genius to see that. Today, I think we were unbelievable on set pieces. We didn’t give up as many – we still give up a few, but when we did give them up there was a real energy in the group and a real spirit to try and make sure that we didn’t concede in that kind of manner.
“I think that Walker is a big presence, and we went about 60 minutes, 70 minutes without him in there, and we were still able to survive. That’s a lot of credit to the coaching staff: we’ve really obviously been working on that this week and before that. But also to the players: it’s a mentality thing. It’s not really about performance and individuals, it’s about a group mentality and a group mindset when you go into that situation.
“Obviously when you start to concede a lot of goals on set pieces, it can become a vicious cycle where because you’re so nervous, you let in more goals. Today, I think that we all attacked each ball and just made the most out of each situation, and obviously didn’t give up as many set pieces as we have in the past.”
Does the win over Columbus sort of change the narrative, or is it just another win? And how did Jack Maher and Brian Anunga step up and how did they earn that in training?
“Yeah, for the first part, obviously we have history with Columbus: they knocked us out of the playoffs in our first year, and that always hurt. I think we have a lot of respect for them as a team, and beyond that, there’s no animosity or anything. So for us, it’s just good to get an away win.
“For the second part: yeah, Brian comes in and does an absolute job. Jack, I think, maybe deserved man of the match. He had three unbelievable blocks that Iu think could have easily been goals, so Jack deserves a lot of credit. He’s a young player, coming in trying to break through a back line that is very established, and we have a lot of veteran and kind of stalwarts there So it’s been difficult, I think, for Jack, but performances like this are going to do a lot for his spirit and do a lot for our team in general. Sometimes, we’re going to have to have other guys play, and for Jack, today was a really big statement I think.
“Walker comes in halfway through and he adds another thing. So the more good players we have playing well, and the more good performances we can put together, it’s obviously going to be good for the entire group. We’re going to raise the entire level. And obviously I didn’t mention him, but Taylor. Taylor is such an important player to this team both on and off the field. He’s a talented guy and I don’t think he gets enough credit for the things he does. So it was great to see him come in and do well. He played here last year as well – he came in here and played an unbelievable game away at Columbus last year. A lot of love for all three of those guys.”
you mentioned limiting the number of set pieces, but Columbus did have a key moment in the second half with Lucas Zelarayán standing over the ball at the edge of your box in the second half. What goes through your mind in that moment?
“Yeah, that was a really scary moment. That’s probably one of the only guys in the league that you really back to score almost any time he’s taking free kicks. I think we have one of those too [Hany Mukhtar], so that’s nice to have.
“For me, I was just talking, I was like, ‘please miss, please miss, please miss’ and luckily we were able to survive that moment. That was definitely something we were trying to limit, but when you’re taking as much pressure as we were, especially at the top of the box, that’s going to happen eventually, and you kind of just have to live with what happens. Joe didn’t have to make a save, but if he did, I think he would’ve been ready.”