Gary Smith: “I want to win every game”

Nashville SC drew their 18th match of the season on Sunday afternoon. Fittingly, the 18 results tied the Major League Soccer single season record set by Chicago Fire in 2014. And despite drawing an astounding 45% of Nashville’s matches in MLS, Gary Smith says that’s never part of their plan.

“I want to win every game,” head coach Gary Smith told reporters after Sunday’s 1-1 draw with New York Red Bulls. “I don’t go into any game thinking that I want a point, especially here [at Nissan Stadium]. I’ve gone into games away from home thinking I want to win this, but I definitely don’t want to get beat.”

Smith’s side has been historic at not getting beat. Nashville lost just four times during the 2021 season, matching an MLS record, and became just the seventh team in league history to not lose at home. While more home matches ended in draws (9) than losses (8), being unbeaten at home is a monumental achievement. Their home form has been a consistent facet of Smith’s tenure: his Nashville sides have gone 30W-24D-8L at home since the 2018 USL Championship season, losing just 13% of matches at their home field.

Smith has been criticized at times by the fanbase for being conservative in his approach to matches and his substitutions. He’s certainly opted to prioritize a single point in some instances. He pointed to road draws with DC United and Orlando City as matches where he opted to preserve a draw late in the match instead of risking being punished for a more aggressive approach, and said that going into their 2-2 draw with Orlando “it was absolutely imperative that we did not lose tonight.” But he said that those instances are the exception, rather than the rule.

“I’d like to think that at no point have even the substitutions that I’ve made have given anyone the impression that I’m looking to just batten down the hatches,” he said. “Other than, you know, there are moments in the last 10 minutes or so where you think, ‘OK, we’ve done our work. I’m not sure there’s too much left to get out of this game. Let’s make sure we get something for our efforts.'”

The numbers back Smith up. During the 2021 season, he’s brought on an average of 2.4 attackers each match. 56% of his total substitutions have introduced out-and-out attackers, in addition to two-way players like Alex Muyl and Taylor Washington, who have often been brought into matches in a more aggressive role.

Smith knows Nashville have missed opportunities to get more from games this year.

“I think if we sat here now and looked back at some of those games, we would all be able to pull games out and say, ‘you know what? You should have won there, really. You should have got a victory’,” he said. “Our challenge for next year in the regular campaign is how do we maintain the sort of consistency that we’ve shown, but convert three or four of those games into victories.”

It’s a hypothetical argument, but if Nashville had turned just four of their 18 draws into wins, they would have ended the year with 62 total points, firmly in second place. As Nashville continue to develop consistency in MLS, Smith admits that getting more from close matches is paramount.

“It’s part of our evolution and development,” he pointed out. “Last year I think we were sitting here saying how are we going to score more goals? How are we going to be more creative? But how are we going to maintain that competitive edge and improve on our league position?’”

SeasonGoals ForGoals AgainstPointsGF/gameGA/gamePoints/game
2018*4231491.240.911.44
2019*5926671.740.761.97
20202422321.040.961.39
20215533541.620.971.59
*USL Championship

Nashville did just that in 2021. Building on an impressive debut season, they improved their goal difference per match by 56% and increased their points per game by 20%, maintaining their defensive solidity while mixing in a significantly improved attack. And while his mind is firmly on a playoff match against Orlando City in 14 days, he certainly has ideas for how to improve in 2022.

“We’ll give our very best in the playoffs, but I’ll certainly be thinking about turning those draws into victories for next year.”

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