Gary Smith on Aké Loba: “The final hurdle is consistency”

After eight months in Nashville, it’s fair to say that Aké Loba hasn’t lived up to initial expectations. Signed for a club-record $6.8 million from Liga MX giants Monterrey, Loba was touted as the goal-scoring striker Nashville needed.

“Aké is an exciting attacking prospect that offers the qualities that our team looks for in a striker, he is a constant goal threat and has the ability to create and finish in a number of different ways,” said Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs after the signing. “We are excited to be able to add him to this group, and about what he represents for our club.”

Since then, Loba has made just two starts for Nashville and played just 557 minutes in 28 games. He didn’t see the field for Nashville in the playoffs last season.

“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,” Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith told media on Thursday. “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.”

“Ake is still a very young man. He’s achieved an awful lot in Mexico. 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 player can do, and what the players around him see and how he fits in. And slowly but surely, I think we’re seeing all of those things in training and in some of  the minutes that he sees on the field.”

For his first eight months in Nashville, this has been Loba’s role. The Ivorian attacker has been brought off the bench 22 times for Nashville, often after other attackers have been subbed into matches ahead of him.

“As far as Aké is concerned, the usual applies,” said Smith. “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.”

Loba’s lack of involvement has been a hot button issue for the last several months. Players often take time to adjust to the unique challenges of MLS, but the lack of apparent progress has concerned fans and raised questions among media. It’s one thing for a club-record signing to need time to adapt. It’s another for him to still be scrapping for 10 or 15 minutes off the bench, often in matches where Nashville need a goal.

“I certainly think that there are a couple of hurdles that players have to jump,” acknowledged Smith. “The first one is, you have to impress the coach, certainly the coach, to be getting your opportunity in the team. That may come off the bench. That may come in limited minutes. But you are constantly trying to gain confidence so that you get your first start somewhere.”

“And the final hurdle you’ve got to jump is consistency. And I think therein lies the key.”

Nashville’s eight match road trip to start the season hasn’t helped Loba’s bid for minutes, with Smith favoring the frontline of Hany Mukhtar, CJ Sapong and Randall Leal that he used almost exclusively last season.

“The challenge I have is in some of these very difficult away games, when you look at the frontline that we have three very good forwards,” said Smith. “We’ve been playing well. We’ve picked up good results. We know what that front three are capable of.”

Even as Nashville’s frontline have struggled to score goals (only Sapong has scored, with Leal and Mukhtar providing one and two assists, respectively), Loba has found himself behind Teal Bunbury in the pecking order, with Smith appearing to prefer an experienced striker late in games on the road, albeit a very different type of striker from CJ Sapong.

After a knee injury that will keep Bunbury out of action for a few weeks, there’s a chance for Loba to jump ahead of an attacker who has until now limited his minutes. “He is, I would believe, going to get a very decent opportunity given the way that circumstances are unfolding,” said Smith.

But what will it take for Loba to turn his handful of minutes off the bench into more?

“When the opportunity comes along I think all that anyone’s after is to apply yourself and show what you can do,” said Smith. “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.”

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