Dave Romney photo from file. Also very funny, to me.
Two members of the NSC contingent met with the media Thursday to preview this afternoon’s match at Columbus Crew. Watch or read full comments here.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Well, it’s always nice to have these blank weekends and a little bit of extra time to plan and build into the next game. I think everyone’s looking forward to the Columbus fixture now. You can end up having a little bit too long on the training field. So we’re fully ready. The guys are enthused and they’ve mentally and physically, I think, recovered from the opening four games, and are ready to go again.”
How healthy is the team?
“Well you know full-well that Dax is unavailable due to suspension. We have – we picked up an injury with Teal Bunbury in the Salt Lake game, which will keep him out for a couple of weeks, so Teal will be unavailable. But outside of that, we’re very good. Guys that have played in the international break are in full health, no issues there, so that’s great. Always a little bit of a concern when they go away, whether they’re going to come back in one piece, so delighted that both of those guys [Walker Zimmerman and Aníbal Godoy] have got plenty of work, but they’re in good shape.”
What have you seen from Columbus so far this year?
“Honestly, I think last year was a little bit of an anomaly. If you look around their groups, and some of the recruitment for their team, it’s been very, very good. They’re an experienced group, they’re very comfortable in their style of play that has been a foundation of that group for three or four years now or more. They’re extremely capable, and they have multiple dimensions to that team that can be creative, difficult to deal with.
“Their form in the early stages of this season has been very very good, and therefore I would suspect that they’re in a confident mood. And barring some set-piece woes that they have had – and most sort of notably, the San Jose game – we could’ve been running into a group that started off slightly better than they currently have.
“Really, really tough place to go. Wonderful stadium; we enjoyed it there last year. Terrifically tough encounter that I would suspect will be extremely difficult and similar to the times you’ve run into them before. There’s been little to choose between the teams, and I think our experience, having played them, will help in some aspects, but with two or three new additions to that group, there’ll be a couple of players that the guys need to work out quickly to get the best out of it.”
Does the tactical flexibility that Dax McCarty has afforded you have to get reined in or changed when he’s suspended for the next two games?
“We’ve shown a couple of different shapes that have included three midfield players, what I would class as ‘genuine’ midfield players. We of course played up in Salt Lake with a back three. A lot of that was due to the fact that Salt Lake themselves play that way, and I just felt on the day, having played that system a number of times last year, that the guys would be comfortable with it, and it proved that way.
“Columbus present a very different challenge to a Salt Lake, for numerous different reasons: the personnel in their group, and as I’ve already said some of the dimensions. I’m not going to divulge how we’re going to play or what we’re after. But needless to say, we have to find a way from the outset of asking them some questions. It’s the usual story, really. I think something that we’ve been able to do in pretty much all of the games other than Dallas thus far, is we’ve been able to threaten the opposing side away from home in some difficult environments, and create some nice oportunities. And that itself has given the group an inspired look, a confident feel.
“And of course our world’s different this year. We’re not an unknown anymore. We’re a side that people are fully aware are going to be ultra-competitive. We showed last year that we’re more than capable of creating, and we showed a different dynamic to ourselves, I felt. And this year is about continuing that development and evolution. And ini the eight away games that we have, that’s not going to be easy. But I think up to this point, we’ve done a very good job of keeping our performances at a good level. We’ve not always got the results we necessarily deserved, but I think over the course of a season, if you can stay consistent, then you get your just desserts.
“But just to finish that off, we’ve also got to prove, yet again, that besides dead-ball situations, we’ve been very, very difficult to create chances against. And we need to continue that against a confident and effective Columbus team.”
With a week off to reflect on the first half of the road trip, what have your big-picture takeaways been? Have you gotten better at packing for the road?
“You want to know what I’m traveling with, Drake? You want me to tell you my toiletries? I take two pairs of pants, one pair of socks… [laughs]
“Look, it’s actually a really interesting question, because I thought about this a lot before we went into the eight game. I hope it’s something that I don’t see again, although the experience of it, of course, is very unique – it doesn’t happen that often. And with any experience, you want to try and take something from it, and maybe utilize it down the line somewhere. I think the only comparison we can make was the run we had last year where we had – I think it was – four away from home, one at home, three away from home: so you know, seven out of eight away, and there’s some enormous challenges in that.
“Time zones in this case, travel, the first three games we played completely different surfaces due to the conditions. In the early part of the season – which is very, very different to the latter stages – you’re playing against teams who genuinely believe they can win MLS Cup or the Shield. When you get towards the end of the season, a lot of those teams have gotten into a groove of form. They’re either in a good position, or they’re well out of that good position and maybe that challenge becomes a little bit easier. But everyone is on their mettle this time of year, and they’re desperately looking to take three points off of a team that are in a difficult place: it’s not easy.
“So I think that’s the biggest challenge. With regards to preparing, I’m making sure that the guys are in the right place. I would like to say – looking at the data as well, that we have constantly coming in – the guys are in a good physical place, so recovery and preparation has been good. I think in terms of the tactical and matchplay element of it, we’re preparing well. The fact that we have a game every weekend, of course, is a help – without interjecting a game somewhere midweek, which would complicate issues at this point. But the challenge for us is difficult enough at this point, and I do think the guys have given a really good account of themselves. I’d love a point or two more at this stage, but really for us, it’s to be in a position when we come back home on May the 1st where we’re in a competitive spot, we’re hopefully in a position to mount a challenge for the postseason, and we don’t give ourselves too much work to do. So anything that we can get at this point is going to make that task that much easier.”
What’s a points benchmark for the next four games?
“Look, I think you’re right: if we can come out of this period of eight games with eight points, I think we would’ve looked at it and said, ‘you know what, if we’d have had a balanced schedule and there’d have been some home games interjected in between those long away spells, that we might have had some victories, you’re looking at a really good start to the season.’ So I think a minimum of eight points for us.
“I’d like to think that the group’s got more than that in them, but as you look at the challenges that we face: we’re going to a Columbus group that we’ve already spoken about that are in good form, started well. We go to Kansas: constantly in the playoffs, one of the most-successful teams making the postseason in modern history of MLS. And then we’ve got two West Coast games that, you know, by any stretch is always going to be tough because of the travel, because of the time change, and we run into two teams that we’ve not met before. So you could look at that in a positive sense – that they don’t know a lot about us – but we’re certainly not going to know an awful lot about them.
“But anything over eight points in this stretch of games, and I’ll be doing a jig.”
What do you think Nashville can bring to the table to achieve a different result than previous trips to Columbus (two losses, one draw)?
“First of all, I think with regards to Columbus: going to a place that we’ve been before – it was a brand-new venue when we went there last year, certainly for us. Electric atmosphere, very modern in the way that I think the build of these stadiums now are bringing supporters closer to the field again, and creating that vibrant feel about games.
“The Columbus team that we play this year, I think are iin a better place – if only that they’ve started the season well. I’ve already said that I felt as though their season last year was a bit of an anomaly. They were unable to meet the sort of standards that they did the year before. But by the way, they set a very high bar when they won the championship the year before that. So you know, it’s a tough one to be saying that they’ve underachieved in the last couple of years, because they certainly haven’t done that.
“What we know is: we’ve got to be at our best. And if we’re at our best, then we’ll get something out of the game: I’ve no doubt about that. If we fall short of that, then they’ll take advantage of us, because they have enough players to do that.”
What do you expect out of the World Cup draw?
“I think every four years, you get the opportunity to get excited. As an England fan, you do a couple of things: you believe that you can win it from the outset, and then you end up deflated most times. When we don’t reach the standards we necessarily would like to. And the press are always absolutely brutal with the players, and of course the manager. What I will say is, Gareth Southgate’s done an incredibly good job, and we’re in a terrific place, I think, as a country in the UK.
“For the US, it’s wonderful for them to be back in the World Cup after a difficult qualification last time around. I’ll be delighted to speak to Walker when he comes back and to congratulate him. But all-in-all, I think it sets the scene tomorrow for an exciting run.”
What do you say to your guys coming back from international duty – you mentioned the excitement for Walker, but there’s also the disappointment for Aníbal – plus their head-to-head confrontation Sunday?
“Yeah, I was actually – at particular moments in the game – putting my head in my hands, especially when Aníbal clattered into Walker, of all people. Those two guys know each other ever-so-well.
“Look, it’s a difficult situation for Aníbal at this point, because the the two penalties that are conceded, I’m sure deep down he’ll feel dreadful about. But listen, it shouldn’t detract from what he’s been able to do for his country: captain, the way he leads that group. I think the result last night [1-0 win over Canada] shows you exactly the sort of pride those guys have in playing for their country to turn around after a really tough defeat, to be eliminated, and then to go win in the last of the qualification games, tells you an awful lot about the character of that group, that Panama group. But that won’t stop him being very, very disappointed, of course.
“For Walker, it’ll be the other end of the scale: he captains the team last night, although they get beat, I think the qualification into the World Cup and what that means for all of those guys, the stage they can play on, the opportunity that they have in front of them is life-changing. It’s a memory and an opportunity that few people get to experience.
“As far as their relationship, I mean they get along great. I’m sure there’ll be some disappointment and maybe a few nasty little jibes at some point but listen: they’re good pros. Whatever it is, they’ll get over it and get on with it. They’ve got a job to do here, and they’re both immersed in what we need done. So I don’t see that being any problem at all.”
Defender Dave Romney
What have you learned about handling the long road trip, as we return from a little break halfway through it?
“I mean, we have kind of gotten into a rhythm of every week’s kind of been the exact same with training days, day off, then leave on Friday or Thursday then play the away game, get the next day off or something. So our travel schedule has been like clockwork every single week. I guess we’ve gotten used to that.
“I would say last year was kind of similar, because our first – I think – 11 of 15 games were home last year, and then the end of last year was very heavily road-dominant, so we kind of got a taste of it last year, being on the road for like 10 of our last 12 games. So basically just flip-flopped last season and this season, so hopefully we can finish strong at home for the rest of this season.”
What do you remember from past games against Columbus, and what do you take from those into the game this weekend?
“Yeah, Columbus is a solid team. I would say they are one of the odd teams where they don’t high-press like crazy, even when they’re at home. I think we’ve played there a couple times where they kind of kept the line of confrontation more at the mid-block, and they just defend really, really well in that mid-block, but they’re not going to just sprint all over the field and all-out press you like a Red Bull would. I would say out of goal kicks maybe they kind of start high, but once you break down that first initial line of defense, they usually just are a very well-organized mid-block time. That’s going to be our challenge, just kind of moving them back-and-forth across the field, and just try to break them down in a mid- or low-block. Nothing we haven’t seen before: we got a shutout there last year, so hopefully we can get another shutout there this year.”
What sort of form do you see out of Walker Zimmerman on the occasions when he returns from international duty?
“I haven’t seen him yet, so I don’t know how excited he’s been, but what his emotions are this time around, but I’m sure he’s stoked. I’m proud of him: he’s been playing really well and deserves every minute he’s gotten with the national team. I think he’s been kind of the stalwart of their defense and been a real leader for them. So I think he’s been playing really well and he deserves it.
“And when he comes back with us, he’s just an extra level of confidence and leadership. Just kind of being more comfortable in his role. It’s just kind of the center-pin of our back three I guess. He’s just been playing well, and I think he deserves the starts he’s been getting for the national team.”
How did you spend the international break, and how do you feel with a week off?
“Feeling good. I actually this weekend got to see my sister and mom in Denver for the first time in a while, so that was kind of nice. My sister was an ER trauma nurse during the pandemic, so I didn’t see her for like two years or so. So it was nice to finally get a little mental rest and go visit her. Yeah, it was definitely really nice. It’s super-tough for the international guys: they, when all of us get a nice little weekend off, they’re playing three games in like six days, seven days. So just for them mentally, just trying to recover as much as possible. Physically, they’re probably in a lot worse spot than us, but I mean they’ve been doing it for the last two years, so I guess they’re getting used to it. For us, it was nice to kind of get a break off and watch some of their games, get into some other things.”
What’s the solution for a set-piece defense that has been poor – and possibly the one downfall of a unit that’s borderline impenetrable in the run of play?
“I mean, we’ve been ending every session with set-pieces. We’re working on it, we’re trying to figure out what it is. But I think at the end of the day, it comes down to ‘how badly do you want it? How much are you attacking the ball? How aggressive are you? How proactive are you being?’ And then also just we have so many different scenarios that we play through our heads, where they tell us what to do: where if they leave a guy at the top of the box, what do we do? If this guy comes in here… it’s just about knowing exactly what your role is and then executing aggressively, attacking the ball, everything.
“Then sometimes you just get unlucky. I mean, every team’s going to get scored on on set pieces. Sometimes, the ball just ends up on a guy’s head, sometimes you didn’t defend well enough. It’s tough to – sometimes you just have to say, ‘alright, that one was unlucky’ – but I feel like for the majority of ours, there’s times where we could say, ‘alright, we could do better here,’ stuff like that. But I mean the set-piece that the US gave away last night, the second one, it was just kind of a broken play. Sometimes when it’s a broken play, it’s literally just like pinball in there. Someone just shoots it on frame, and it just: does it break to some guy luckily standing right there.
“So you kind of have to think some of them are going to be unlucky. You kind of just deal with those, but the majority of them are preventable, and we have to do better, and you just kind of be more accountable, I guess. It’s definitely frustrating, it’s definitely frustrating that we’ve been so good ini the run of play and we’ve been good defensively, and then just to give away soft goals on set pieces, it really takes the sting out of our defense as well. We know we’re a good team, we know we’ll be back, and once we get at home, we’re going to get a good run of games and we’re going to move back up in the table.”