By Justin Melo and Ben Wright.
2020 hasn’t been the year Dax McCarty expected. The 14-year MLS veteran joined Nashville SC ahead of their expansion season to provide veteran leadership to a squad that truly believed it could punch above its weight and surprise a league where first-year teams struggle to stay competitive, let alone win games. McCarty is a perfect fit for Nashville, quickly understanding head coach Gary Smith’s vision for the team, embracing the local culture, and seamlessly sliding into a leadership role with his teammates. While the season has been full of ups and downs, McCarty has been a constant calming presence in the locker room, and in many ways, he’s been the face of the new franchise.
Justin Melo and Ben Wright of Broadway Sports got together with Nashville SC midfielder and captain Dax McCarty for this exclusive interview.
JM: How have you been able to stay in shape and keep up with your training throughout the pandemic?
DM: You have to get creative. That’s certainly the easiest way to think about it. Our coaching staff and our strength and conditioning staff have done a great job trying to keep us fit and healthy. When the pandemic originally started, the club made a deal with a local gym to provide us with stationary bikes in our homes. That allowed us to keep up with our cardio training.
We were provided with medicine balls, dumbbells, strength ropes and several stretching devices. We had to get extremely creative while also being safe. I thought the club did a great job of getting us ready for this.
It also comes down to your own desire. You have to want to stay fit. The coaching staff can’t monitor your every move when you’re not in the facility. I think it’s about accountability. You have to hold yourself accountable.
We have to be ready to go for the resumption of games. We’re not going to have a pre-season. We’ve had numerous training sessions and inter-squad scrimmages. We’re trying to prepare for what comes next.
Our next game will be our first game back. We won’t have a pre-season to prepare. We just have to hold ourselves accountable. I’ve tried to do that throughout this time.
BW: The season has obviously been interrupted. How do you feel about the two games that you played, and how the partnerships on the field were coming together before the season was suspended?
DM: I felt that we were building some positive momentum even though we lost both games. Our identity and style of play was really starting to come together in terms of how we played in-between the lines. I thought we showed a really solid foundation defensively.
The three goals that we conceded were world class goals. We made some correctable mistakes in the build-up of those goals but they were three fantastic finishes. In two cases, the [Diego] Valeri goal and the Emerson Hyndman goal, you could call both of those goals world class finishes.
They were both volleys into the top corner. Our goalkeeper didn’t have a chance to stop those. The [Ezequiel] Barco goal was also a world class finish at the far post where our goalkeeper didn’t have a chance to stop it.
Other than those three chances that were converted into goals, I felt very confident and comfortable with how our team was defending. From the run of play and from set pieces, I felt like the foundation was very strong for us.
On the flip-side of that, we had flashes of great attacking play. I saw glimpses of the potential we have to create chances and score goals in this league.
We need to get more reps. Repetition is the key to attacking success. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten the reps because the season has been interrupted. We haven’t had many opportunities together to see what things looks like from an attacking standpoint during a live game.
The foundation is there, but we ultimately need to get on the field. We need to start building that repetition to see how things will look going forward.
JM: That’s a terrific answer. You’re obviously an experienced player, but this is the first time that you’ve played for an expansion team in the MLS. How does this experience differ from your past experiences?
DM: It’s extremely unique. That’s part of the challenge. It’s one of the reasons that I was drawn to this opportunity at this stage of my career. I’m very thankful for this opportunity.
The circumstances that we’re dealing with obviously isn’t the ideal manner to kick off an expansion season, but I’m trying to find the positives and silver linings in everything that we’re doing here.
The fact that we were able to play a home game before the season was interrupted was excellent. We got to play in front of 60,000 Nashville SC fans at Nissan Stadium. The atmosphere was nothing short of electric. I felt extremely proud of that.
I’m proud of the foundation that we’re building from the ground up at this club. I wanted to be a part of this. I wanted to help cultivate a winning culture in this locker room. That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a little bit of time. That’s one of the things I learned from my successful stints at other clubs. I’ve tried to take those experiences with me into this locker room.
It’s been a very unique experience. It’s been a spotty start in terms of us getting a chance to show what we’re all about on the field. Everything that the club has been able to control off the field, the support has been top notch.
The ownership group, the coaching staff, the support of our fans through all this, the overall vibe around the city and from the club has been excellent. The way this city has welcomed my family and I has been nothing short of excellent.
BW: Along those same lines, life hasn’t really been normal since March but did you get a chance to explore the city of Nashville at all? How do you and your family feel about life in Nashville?
DM: We got to explore a little bit of the city. I had been to Nashville before on a few occasions. All of the touristy stuff, going to Broadway and seeing the live music, seeing all of the bars on Broadway packed, I had those experiences in my previous trips to Nashville.
It’s now about exploring the different neighborhoods and trying to find a house and a place to settle at. We were able to do that. We bought a house in Edgehill which is an amazing community and a cool little pocket of Nashville that I’m very excited to be a part of.
Getting a chance to take my son around that neighborhood, we’ve been going on walks so that we could safely interact and greet neighbors. The thing about Nashville that I love is that it reminds me of my childhood.
I grew up just outside of Orlando, Florida in Winter Park. You get that southern charm that you don’t really get in a lot of other cities, and I’ve lived in some amazing cities such as New York, Chicago, Dallas and D.C.
None of those cities have that southern charm that you can only get in the south. I really enjoy safely interacting with the people in my neighborhood. I haven’t been able to explore that much but we actually went to the zoo the other day as a family. That was something that could be safely done outdoors while still wearing a mask. It gave us a sense of normalcy. I want to take my son around the neighborhood a little bit more.
As the virus hopefully gets under control and as restrictions get lifted, I’m looking forward to exploring Nashville even more than I already have.
JM: We love hearing that. Nashville is a fantastic city and we’re glad that you’re enjoying it so far. Coach Gary Smith is an experienced head coach. What’s it like playing for coach Smith?
DM: I’m really happy with how things have gone so far. Gary has handled himself like a pro throughout this situation. My expectations have remained high for what he’s all about as a coach. He’s met and exceeded my expectations personally.
From the outside looking in, every team he’s ever coached has been extremely organized and difficult to break down. They haven’t always been extremely expansive in terms of style of play but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with how he gets his point across. He’s an excellent motivator. He has some great ideas on the attacking side of the ball as well.
He has a clear vision for how he wants our team to be a little bit more dangerous in the attacking third of the field. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with that. I have nothing but the upmost respect for Gary. He’s won at the highest level that you can win in this country, which is an MLS Cup. I know that he has the coaching fortitude and what it takes to lead our team to success.
If anything, I feel a little sorry for him. He’s in a similar position as us players. He’s dealing with all kinds of uncertainty. We don’t know what the future holds. My hat goes off to him and his entire coaching staff for how they’ve continued to keep us players engaged and fit throughout all this. We’re ready for whatever comes next.
BW: You’re obviously one of the more experienced leaders on this team. How does your role as a leader and a captain change with an expansion team?
DM: I think that role changes a little bit on every team that you play for. Every single team that I’ve played on has had unique characters, personalities and responsibilities. It all varies.
For myself, I don’t need the armband in order for me to be myself. I’m always going to try to help and lead in the way that I feel comfortable leading. Something that I’ve taken with me from club to club that I always try to establish in the beginning when I first arrive at a new club, it doesn’t matter if it’s an MLS original like the New York Red Bulls or an expansion team like Nashville SC, I always try to come into training every day looking to prove to my teammates that I’m here to work.
I’m here to give my teammates 100% every single training session. I’m not looking to cut corners. I think that’s how I’ve earned the respect of the guys in the locker room. I’m willing to do the dirty work both on and off the field.
Once that respect is earned in the locker room, you can start to let your voice be heard a little bit more. You can start to hold guys accountable. If it’s a guy that’s a little more sensitive, I can put my arm around him and gently motivate him. There are other guys that you can really lay into and raise your voice with.
It’s all about finding the right approach with each player. There are different ways to hold guys accountable. Some guys need some tough love. Those are the things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten a little bit older and had more experience.
You can’t treat every player the same. That’s very important to me. When you step on the field and get ready to play a game, the guys on your side know that you’re willing to go to battle with them. They can rely on you. That’s all that matters at the end of the day. My teammates trust me to make the right decisions.
I’m here to push things in the right direction. That aspect doesn’t change with an expansion team. The main thing for me is that with all the chaos that’s happening in the world right now, we’re just focused on the next day.
The future is extremely uncertain, not just for professional sports but for the world in general. Being focused on the next day, the next training session, the next pass and the next goal is where I’m at right now. I try to really hammer that point home.
JM: You’re doing a great job as the leader of this team. How does this formation and overall style of play compliment your skill-set?
DM: I like to think of myself as an adaptable player. If a coach needs me to play a certain role or a certain position, I can do that in any formation. I don’t have any issues with that.
In terms of the formation and style that we play, I think the foundation of every good team is built in the center of the park. I may be a little biased because I’m a central midfielder (laughs). The spine of your team has to be strong and it has to be able to win the battle in the midfield.
For me, I’m always in the middle of the field trying to make sure that I’m wining my battles. I’m always trying to encourage my teammates to push things to another level.
I think in terms of our style of play, we have a very fluid 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 system depending on where our No. 10 ends up. Sometimes our No. 10 has the freedom to roam around the midfield and distribute the ball and combine with myself and Anibal Godoy. At other times, the No. 10 has the ability to push a little bit higher and play closer to the No. 9 almost as a second striker.
Once you get into those little areas and details, I’ve been really impressed with the relationship between myself and Godoy. The two of us have a great relationship with Walker Zimmerman and David Romney. We’ve been able to build a little square in the middle of the field. That’s where we need to have a solid backbone.
I’m really happy with the work that we’ve done in that area during the first two games of the season. Hopefully we can continue to build on that. I would like to see not only myself but our entire team improve in those little connections in the attacking third.
Godoy and I need to do a better job of finding guys like Hany Mukhtar, David Accam and Randall Leal in better positions higher up the field where they can make their impact on the game in an attacking way.
Those guys have the ability to beat defenders, to put good balls in the box and to create chances. Ultimately, we need to give our strikers, guys like Dominique Badji, Abu Danladi and Daniel Rios chances to score.
That’s the area of our game that I’m looking to push our team a little bit more in. All of us can improve in that area.
BW: That leads into my next question really well. That partnership between yourself and Godoy seems like one of the strengths of the team. How do you continue to develop that relationship without the ability to have in-game reps?
DM: You have to do that in training. That’s something that has to happen in training. It can also improve by watching video with the coaching staff. We were able to take a lot of positives from our first two games as we analyzed the relationship between Godoy and I. He’s a very good player. He’s played a number of big games for Panama as an international player. He’s played in the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers.
Whenever you have a guy with that much experience and that has such a unique skill-set, it makes my job a lot easier. I just try to balance off what he does well and what I do well. He’s a guy that can play all over the field. He has tremendous range and a great left foot. He can get into the box to try and finish off plays and score goals.
I just try to provide some balance. A key area for Godoy and I is that once we start circulating the ball in possession and getting into attacking areas, when one of us joins the attack to try to make up the numbers and put defenses under more pressure, one of us needs to always provide that balance in front of our center backs. We need to have a defensive midfielder sitting in front of our center backs clogging up any counter attacking opportunities that may arise.
I think for the most part in the two games that we played, we did a good job of that. There are certainly some aspects that we want to improve in. We have some things to work on.
I was very happy with the work that Godoy and I did in the first two games. We were hoping to continue to improve on that but obviously the only thing we can do now is to try to improve in training because that’s the only place we’re getting reps at currently.
When the games come back around, we know that we’ll able to compliment each other well.
JM: Speaking of, our own Ben Wright has discovered that you’ll be resuming play shortly. In closing, how ready is this team to compete?
DM: It’s still all speculation at this point. Until we hear something firm or official from MLS, I’m not going to comment on who we may or may not be playing.
All I can tell you is that if there’s a game on the schedule and the MLS tells us we’re playing tomorrow, our group will be ready to go. I feel strongly that although we may lack in-game sharpness, we’ve been working hard and we’re itching to get back on the field.
Whenever that first game back occurs for us, we’ll be ready and hungry to get a win.