Taylor Washington photo from file.
When will Aké Loba get more playing time? What makes Children’s Mercy park a tough place to play? Does Alex Muyl make a surprise cameo? Watch or read Nashville SC’s pre-SKC press conference to find out.
Head coach Gary Smith
“Well, a win does something for people’s emotions and well-being that nothing else can do. The guys are in a terrific place this week after a very good victory in Columbus. Some good performances, as we well know: two or three lads that had not seen the field this year – but have shown their worth in the past – have stepped up again. And it just adds a real good feel, a real spirit to the group. Training’s been great, weather likewise. We’ve been able to get some good work done, and everyone’s got a smile on their face. So it’s been a good week.”
How is Teal Bunbury’s recovery coming along? And does his absence create a path for Aké Loba to get more playing time?
“As far as Teal’s concerned, he came out of that Salt Lake game having battled on with a knee issue. As you may well imagine, the fact that he could get through the amount of time that he did in Salt Lake would suggest that the issue was not something majorly detrimental – and he’s a tough character. It might be slightly longer than we’d all hoped for and liked, but he’s in a very decent place. He’s healing well. He wont’ be available again this weekend, but it’s one that we’ll have to just keep monitoring, and I think we’ll get to a point in the next week or so where it’ll be something that he looks at or feels that he can move forward with and put up with. But I just want to make sure that, in this early stage of the season, we’re also not doing any serious damage that’s going to keep someone out for a prolonged period of time, so I think there’s a bit of caution in this, as well.
“As far as Aké’s concerned: yeah, you’re right. Came on at the weekend. The usual applies: everyone that comes into the game is asked to try and lift the group to the best of their ability, and to basically be a bit of a shot in the arm as a sub coming on the field. Now, they are minimal minutes for whoever that individual is to try and make a bit of an impression, but nevertheless they are minutes, and we want to see that guys are not only fighting for the group, but they’re very much up for the challenge – and in Saturday’s case, up for seeing out a victory. Aké’s a talented guy. Have we seen the best of him yet? Certainly not, but he is – I would believe – going to get a very decent opportunity given the way that circumstances are unfolding.”
What did you see out of Brian Anunga and Jack Maher in their first starts of the year against Columbus?
“You’ve got it in a nutshell there: there is tremendous competition for spots. Eric [Miller] beat out Jack in the preseason games I felt to start the season. Due to circumstances, Jack was given the opportunity again to really cement what he’s already shown us: we’re not giving somebody their debut; he’s played a number of games, and he’s performed very, very well for the group. But there can be some anxiety when you haven’t started a season. You’re coming into a group that are already in their groove, and a tough away game.
“I would go as far to say that the growth that we saw in Jack – just purely in terms of his presence. He played like a man, we were lacking a man in Walker [Zimmerman], and a big man, and there were big shoes to fill, and he did it admirably. I couldn’t give him enough credit after the game.
“Likewise Bran Anunga. We’ve seen Brian perform to a very, very high standard in the previous season. With the competition that we have in that midfield, it’s been tough for Brian. What I would say – along with Taylor, who of course had his first start of the year – those guys prepare themselves daily. They work hard, their mentality and their focus throughout the week every week is exceptionally professional. And when the chance comes along, all you can ever ask is that they’re ready, they’re focused, and they take that opportunity. And those three guys did.
“Now, the big difficulty for me – and it’s a place that all coaches want to be – is where you have choice. Now we’ve got a group of players, two international guys coming back, some wonderful performance, a victory, and they’ve put me in a tough position. I’ve got to choose a team that are gonna go out and hopefully pick up points again at the weekend, and I’ve now got plenty more players to choose from. So it’s good in one sense, and difficult in another.”
When you look at strong performances from irregular starters, what do those guys have to do to carve out an even bigger role in the squad?
“Well look: I certainly think that there are a couple of hurdles that players have to jump. The first one is you have to impress the coach to be getting your opportunity in the team. That may come off the bench, it may come in limited minutes, but you are constantly trying to gain confidence so that you get your first start somewhere – everyone’s got to start somewhere. When you get your first start, you reinforce that confidence that the coach feels. That ‘ok, he’s had a terrific performance, maybe we try him again.’ And the final hurdle that you’ve got to jump is consistency, and I think therein lies the key. When players are able to perform consistently at this top level in the US, then there’s a much better chance, obviously, that you’re going to be not only a mainline player, but you’re going to be playing most weeks.
“And I think that’s everyone’s challenge. And if you look at the top guys: let’s take Walker and Hany [Mukhtar], and guys like Dax [McCarty] and Aníbal [Godoy]. They’ve proven over seasons that they’re going to play 30-40 games to a very high level, and you can rely on those guys week-in and week-out. I’m not saying that can’t happen with the players that we’re talking about, but in Jack’s case, I think he’s 23 now, he’s obviously got time to mature as a centerback. Brian’s a little bit older, I think he’s 25 now, so Brian’s really got to be looking at that and saying, ‘ok, how do I get myself in this team for 20, 25 games this year?’ That’s a really big challenge in the midfield that we have, but certainly achievable.
“But obviously a key component in that as well will be results. When the team does well and you do well, there’s a much, much better chance of you playing regularly. So look, as I’ve said in the last question: I’m delighted that these guys have come in and played well. It gives me another option. It puts pressure on the guys that were playing, and it creates a wonderful environment and competition every day.”
What sort of challenge does Sporting KC present – at the start of a season that hasn’t been up to the typical standard?
“Honestly, the approach is no different to any other away game. You’ve pointed out that Kansas – I think you said there in the question – Kansas are one of the most consistently-good teams in MLS. Peter [Vermes] has been at the helm there for I think 14 years now. You don’t last that long at any club unless you’re doing a really good job, and that he has done.
“This team, whilst a couple of their away performances have been tough and they’ve lost by the odd goal, are very, very capable. They always find a way. They are missing two very good attacking players in [Alan] Pulido and [Gadi] Kinda, but if you look at the guys coming in, if you look at the group that they have on the field and what they’re capable of, it would be extremely naive of me or any of the players to expect anything other than an incredibly tough game. And I will tell you this: I don’t know – and I’ve only been to their stadium on a couple of occasions – but I don’t know that their fans would allow them to be anything other than competitive there, because that’s what they are. They really do get behind their team, and I’m not sure they’d accept anything less that 100%.
“So it’ll be an incredibly tough outing, whoever’s on the field. That is a given.”
What does Aké Loba need to show to earn more playing time?
“I know we’re always going to have a lot of questions about him because of what he represents as a designated player, but let’s try and take that tag away from what he is. Let’s just look at individuals and the way that they find their minutes, and they progress, and they develop – whether that’s as a young player or otherwise. Aké’s still a very young man. He’s achieved an awful lot in Mexico, we know that. Has he found a stronger foundation here with the group, having been here over eight months now? Absolutely. But the key to seeing more minutes is always going to be that constant build of confidence in what the players can do, and what the players around him see and how he fits in. Slowly but surely, I think we’ve seen all of those things in training, and in some of the minutes that he sees on the field.
“The challenge I have is: in some of these very difficult away games, when you look at the front line that we have – and this isn’t an excuse – but we have three very good forwards. We’re playing week-to-week. It’s the early part of the season; it’s not the end of the season where guys have got 30-odd games under their belt and we’re playing midweek, where rotation is more likely to be seen. We’ve been playing well, we’ve picked up good results, we know what that front three are capable of. The same as we’re talking about Brian Anunga here. It’s not easy to break into the team, so when the opportunity comes along, I think all that anyone’s after is: apply yourself, show what you can do. If you can be impactful in the game and give the guys a lift, that’s all anyone can ask. And then when the opportunity comes along: be ready. That’s all you need to be, be ready.”
What is the challenge of playing at SKC?
“Well as I’ve just said, I think the way that the ground’s set up, it adds a very old-school feel to it. The fans are very tight to the pitch, it’s not a huge stadium but the pack it out, and they really get behind their team. They make it a wonderful atmosphere there, and they really do get their team on the front foot.
“The other side of it of course has to be, reciprocally, the players on the field. The fans don’t get behind the players if they don’t see a group of players that really are giving it their best and their all. And I think – or I have to appreciate – that over the course of the years that they’ve played there, the teams have been able to do that. When the players are not doing particularly well, the fans get them up. And when the fans are feeling a little bit flat, the players get them up. And I think they’ve done a wonderful job of that over the years. But you’re right: it’s an incredibly tough place.
“And I keep looking at each game, each weekend, and really hoping that one of these games I look at and go, ‘you know what, this might not be too bad’ in this eight-stretch. But I ain’t found one yet, so we’ll just keep digging away.”
Defender Taylor Washington
When you get opportunities like you had last weekend, how can you seize them and force your way into more playing time?
“I think the most important thing whenever anybody gets an opportunity is to make the most of it. You saw other guys on the field do that as well. I think the environment that we have here in training – the environment that Gary, [Steve] Guppy, Kosuke [Kimura] and Matt Pickens as well as everyone on the team always embodies – is at any given time, anyone can play. Everyone has to be ready, and the way that we train and the way we’re intense with our training, it allows guys who either haven’t been getting minutes, or need to step up, they can come in and make hopefully a flawless transition in.
“But we also have great leadership as well. Coming into that game, everyone was positive, everyone was uplifting. It’s always a great environment, and I’m blessed that the guys around me did an amazing job, and we were able to get the win.”
Was there extra satisfaction taking down a Columbus team that’s given you troubles in the past?
“A win is a win, and I think after the two results that we’d had [losses to FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake], I think we wanted to get back in that win column. If anything was sweeter, I think Alex Muyl scoring the goal – I know it was on Twitter that my mom is one of his biggest fans – i’m one of his biggest fans. He’s one of the hardest working guys in MLS, one of the best…
[ALEX MUYL ARRIVES!]
“He’s right here! But he honestly is: he’s a fantastic human being, an amazing player, and he’s done amazing with his time coming into the team. To see him score, see Brian Anunga do extremely well, Jack Maher be so great – I think his passing percentage was like 97, which is like, incredible, and it’s something we all know what Jack’s capable of – it was an emphatic win against a great team from the East, and a team that beat us in the playoffs two years ago. That meant a lot, but now we’re on to the next game.”