Gary Smith has been called a “defensive coach” throughout his career. Wherever he’s gone, he’s put teams on the field who are hard to score against, but to him, the label is incorrect.
“I heard some comments on the reporting on the game or the commentary on the game about some defensive play,” Smith told reporters after Nashville’s 2-0 loss to Atlanta. “I think sometimes you can be a little bit misguided on how teams are going about their business or what they are actually about. I think I’ve said this before, but there’s a difference between an organized team and a defense minded team.”
There’s no doubt Nashville is a very good team defensively. In fact, they’re one of the best in the league. It’s on the other end of the field where they’ve had issues. Their two goals scored are the joint-lowest in the league, and they’ve underperformed their expected goals by 3.26.
“An organized team is a team that has a plan, knows their roles within that plan, and execute as well as they can,” said Smith. “That’s what we did at the weekend. We regained possession in their half numerous times, we got them on the back foot numerous times. We created some really nice opportunities and moments, but we were still able to limit them to few opportunities. That’s a plan, that’s an organized team.
“A defensive team is one that really doesn’t come out of their half too much,” he went on. “They’re not all that keen on exposing themselves, don’t have a lot of ambition, are happy to soak up whatever they can. Honestly, that couldn’t be further from the truth with how [we] go about our business.”
An big talking point around Nashville has been missed chances, although there’s an argument to be made that this narrative is too simplistic. Throughout the season, chemistry has been lacking in the final third, with passes misplayed, runs missed, and too much time taken on the ball.
When asked if this was the real issue, Smith agreed.
“I think you’re absolutely right. Players weren’t always on the same page in our attacking third, but as we’ve seen multiple times in many many games, that can happen.
“I think for us, and for any team that’s coming together in a brand-new franchise, it can take somewhat longer to find that format, that formula, that understanding. When all’s said and done, the very best attacking groups and even partnerships up front are players that have got almost a telepathy. They understand each other, they’re on the same page, and they get the very best out of one another. And I think we’re still learning that.”
Nashville has had a difficult start to their expansion season, losing three of their first five matches. Including their trip to Orlando on Wednesday, five of their first six matches will have been played on the road.
“I read somewhere that I think this is the toughest start of any franchise ever in MLS,” Smith claimed. “So we’re going away from some with a brand-new group. We’ve had two clean sheets. I think we sit either in top or second spot for expected goals against. If I tell you at the weekend, expected goals were 0.44 for Atlanta and expected goals for us was 1.65, that’s not the first time that’s happened.”
He’s right. Nashville have lost the expected goals battle just once. Ironically, that match was their lone win, beating FC Dallas 1-0 despite an xG total of just 0.29. Still, Smith was realistic about the ultimate value of expected goals.
“You don’t win games on expected anything. You win games on what actually happens. But what we can do is continually keep those standards as high as possible. Because ultimately, I’m a firm believer that you end up being what you’re actually seeing.”
Ahead of Nashville’s matchup against MLS is Back Tournament runners up, Smith’s outlook is positive.
“I think we’ve got a strong foundation and we’ve got a lot to work with going forward. And it will come good. I believe that.”