Nashville SC travel to Florida on Monday morning to begin their 2024 preseason training camp. Head coach Gary Smith met with the media on Sunday to give an update on preseason plans, the new additions to the squad, and how the club plans to handle playing in multiple competitions.
*The below transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Gary Smith: I managed to speak to a couple of the new guys and pretty much welcome individually the rest of the group yesterday. It was the first time that the players had been in to the facility as a whole group. These first couple of days are all about testing and seeing where the guys are at, making sure that the offseason has not been too good for them and they’ve left themselves in a difficult place.
But yeah, great to see everyone again. It’s the usual story. Offseason seems to fly around and you’re back into the action again pretty quickly. But I think for most guys talking to them, they had a good offseason, they recovered well.
Of course, a bit of time for reflection for me and to look at certainly how the season ended, some of the things that we might be able to improve on. And I think more importantly, we’ve seen over the course of the last couple of years, evolution in the group is vital. So there’s some things in preseason I’d love to try and have a look at and see if the group can warm to it.
Cristina Maíllo Belda (Nashville SC Communications): How do you proceed with the next few weeks? How are you preparing those few weeks?
Gary Smith: Yeah, I mean the first thing obviously at this point in preseason – and I mentioned it sort of tongue in cheek there about the weather – but I think we’re getting out of town at the right time. It seems like there’s a really cold snap coming in next week and I would expect and hope that West Palm is in a slightly better place and is going to give us a better opportunity to get through some work.
But look, the usual applies; the basis of the physical nature of preseason is always there. The guys have got to get fit, they’ve got to get ready, they’ve got to be in a robust enough condition to deal not only with preseason games, but obviously the rigors of a tough season. And it changes as I look back at some of the early scheduling of the MLS group.
This season again is something unique; I think we have eight games in the space of three weeks, some highly challenging competition, some exciting adventures of course into Concacaf Champions Cup. But the players have got to be ready for that. So therefore the early part of preseason predominantly will be about getting those guys back into good physical shape, the foundations and structure of the team and then we I think we hit our first game fairly early in preseason against St. Louis (Editor’s Note: scheduled for January 26).
That will be a 90 minute game, so we’ll do our utmost to split that game for the guys that we’ve got and then as we progress into Kansas and into Toronto the hope is that we can have an extended period in those games so that we can start to up those minutes for the majority of the group. So by the time we leave Florida I’m hoping that the group and the players will be in a pretty good shape.
Valair Shabilla (Broadway Sports Media): Gary, this is your seventh year in Nashville. I know USL was different than MLS, but I think there’s a lot of fans here in Nashville who haven’t really experienced soccer without you being the manager. How does that make you feel? It’s your longest tenure in any club you’ve ever been in.
Gary Smith: Excited in some ways! There always seems to be a new challenge and I think that’s a key part of of the development of a team. I think there are multiple facets of a coach and what they’re being asked of. The remit most importantly when you go into a club will always be the key to what the coach has to achieve, but you’ll see on multiple occasions – especially in Europe – where coaches are going into a new team like the job of Tony Mowbray at Birmingham City, for example. What will his remit be? What will his job be?
His job will be to make sure that team don’t go down at the Championship. That that’s going to be the key to the early part of his job, but I’m almost certain that Tony will have in the back of his mind how do we not only can I galvanize this group but how do we get to a point where we’re challenging and being you know a silverware contending team on a regular basis.
We got ourselves into our first final last year, which I think everyone was extremely pleased about. It stretches the group. It gives you a taste of what you’re after. The challenge for me is a) to make sure that the guys are still inspired by my voice what I’m asking they’re still locked in to what we’re trying to achieve. But secondly, to make sure that maybe any improvements in the group are taking us in that direction the team has to evolve.
You know we’ve lost some players in the off season that have been incredibly good for us. In Dax [McCarty]’s case we don’t know the team without him. So there are going to be some changes in the team that I’m hoping are going to take us in a positive direction and the preseason will give us a good idea as to whether or not that’s going to be the case.
Claudio Villalobos (Futbol en la Piel): After seven years you’re still jumping into new waters, like the Concacaf tournament. Now in most cases, preseason starts the same way;all the physical, the scrimmages, all that stuff. But usually the team has a time to adjust to it. In this case, Nashville has to go to a competitive two-game series against Moca FC to start the season. How different is that for you and the team to approach?
Gary Smith: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I think it’s a unique situation, obviously. The length of preseason for us has been squeezed as well, because of where that first game is pitched and our travel for that game. So it’s down to me to make sure we get through what I believe to be the necessities, whether that’s being ready for that game.
The early stages of preseason will be all about the build into a new season, what that looks like for the whole team, the roles, and prioritizing certain areas of the group. Getting two or three new players up to speed with our group, making sure that those guys are ready for a challenging season full stop.
But I think that part of it is going to be the most difficult. If I look back at how we’ve started the seasons previously in the league (of course, not in Champions League) then I think fundamentally we’ve always started very well. At worst, we’ve been very competitive. So if I consider what that looks like as a format for the team, it won’t be a million miles away, Claudio, from what we’ve seen before.
I will have to make sure that I tread the line between making sure the players are ready for a very challenging game out of the blocks before our regular season will have started. But also, try not to push too hard and losing some of those players or putting them in a position where they’re not quite ready physically. I’m talking about ailments or problems that leave us light or without a strong group.
So it’s a fine line. We haven’t got a long time. We’ve got to get our mind on what that first game is going to look like. And I would think as the first two or three weeks unfold, we’ll have a much clearer picture of where we’re at and the sort of ground we’re covered.
Lucas Panzica (104.5 The Zone): What about the quality of the new signings sticks out to you and what’s the number one objective for them with this time you’re about spending Florida?
Gary Smith: If I take Tyler [Boyd] for the first example, he’s had a terrific season back in MLS with Galaxy. He’s had a good career to this point, great experience in Europe. I think a lot of his qualities, both of those guys, if you look at the fundamental qualities that those guys possess, they really encapsulate what we’re about as well as a team. They’re both very team-orientated players. If you look at what Tyler’s assets and qualities are, they’re going to be far more positive and creative than you would expect Dru’s to be.
But in Dru [Yearwood], I think we see an individual who has all of the athletic qualities that we probably needed to add to the group at this point. A young player still developing, still growing out of a Red Bull group that’s ultra competitive. But I do think we have an opportunity at this point in his career to try and just mould that type of personality into something that is going to suit us a little bit better.
Valair Shabilla: How do you expect Tyler Boyd to fit in with Hany Mukhtar and Sam Surridge?
Gary Smith: Looking at the qualities that Tyler has, he’s not just a dynamic wide player who’s capable of scoring and creating goals. – which by the way, on its own, a nice quality to add. But he is a good footballer. He’s got a good appreciation of the game. We bring him in to our group in a period in his life and career, I think we get him at his best. You know, 28, 29 year old, prime of his career.
I think we’re finding a player here that possesses all of the qualities that we need and needed to add to compliment our group, to again, find maybe a slightly different angle and look to a team at the end of last year that for sure, faulted, didn’t score enough goals. Plenty of reasons in the back of my mind as to why the facts speak for themselves though. So there were certainly things that needed to be addressed in the off season, whether that’s new additions or in my mind, as to what we look like and how we approach the preseason.
But in Tyler, I do think we have an individual who certainly possesses all of the abilities and qualities that not only compliments Hany, but I’d like to think compliments Sam and Randall [Leal] and some of those guys that have got real bright footballing brains. And that’s not taking away maybe some of the thoughts and feelings of how the group looks with the likes of Jacob [Shaffelburg] and McKinze [Gaines] in the group who, I would say are some of the most dynamic players that we’re gonna see in MLS. How do we get the best out of them again this year?
Valair Shabilla: You seem to have a pretty good number of players in the squad right now heading into Florida. The main question I think every fan is asking is with CCC and all the other competitions you’re in, what other additions do you need and are you getting those additions in time?
Gary Smith: Yeah, I mean, I know I’ve said this on numerous occasions, but this time of year probably highlights it more than any. We’re always looking and discussing the big questions. What do we need? Can we find it? And will it come at a cost? Or what does that mean to the group ultimately?
I think the simple answer to the question is we continue to look as a group. And when I say “group”, obviously, I mean myself and Mike [Jacobs] and the senior staff, the technical staff upstairs, as to what we could add to the group and how we could add that to the group.
But I think as we look at what’s going on with the team right now, that would probably mean losing someone as well at this point. So you’ve got to consider what consequences there are to add in. And is that piece of vital importance to the team? And how does it affect everyone? So yes, we are. It’s a simple answer, but it’s never simple, is it?
Claudio Villalobos: How do you feel in terms of what the people that have gone and the guys that come in in terms of your new team?
Gary Smith: I think the easy thing to say, first of all, Claudio, is I always find it difficult when, if you look at the players that we’ve lost, they’ve been around for a good while.
I know Fafà [Picault] was only here for one season, but he was a particular personality and had a great impact on the group.
For Dax [McCarty], I don’t know. Our first captain. I would class him as a close individual, close player that I worked with, and he gave so much to me and to the team. Always tough to lose.
The likes of [Luke] Haakenson, here since the start, and you can go on. Those individuals are always difficult to lose. There’s no doubt about it.
I think the environment we’ve created here makes it that way. There is no isolation. There’s no separation from the coaching staff and the players. It’s a real terrific spirit around the group and always has been. So it’s not easy, first of all.
The players we’ve added, I do believe, were necessary and will give us a slightly different look and dynamic to the team. That’s the big hope. Preseason is always a nice time to see that, either transition or movement, because the guys coming in get an opportunity to find their way in the city, find where they’re staying, their acclimation, wherever they’re coming from, gives them a bit of time to settle in, to get to know the players. And of course in preseason, for me and for them to find their way in the group, to form those relationships and be ready for a very competitive season.
So I do think that the guys that we’ve added will be a real positive for the team. That hope will be seen over the course of coming weeks and months in the season, but the players we’ve added have got good calibre, good qualities. On the basis of what we know of these players, they have all of the abilities, personalities, character that are going to be a big hit at the club.
Lucas Panzica: You mentioned every offseason taking a look at how the team needs to evolve going into the next year. Could you expand on that a little bit more on what that might mean for 2024 and what your objectives are in that regard?
Gary Smith: Well, without going into too much detail, I think some of the numbers, some of the data, were not very complimentary for the group. And if you compare them to the front end of the season, where we saw some excellent football, and we saw some success in the team, when you start to layer those data points for the group, the things that we were doing, well, we didn’t really nail down in the second half of the season.
The important factors are to look at are what did we do well in that early part of the season that gave us that success. So there might be one or two slight shifts in how we get that done, but the reality was, we were aggressive at home in those early stages of the season. The personnel and the dynamics of the group complemented one another. There was a nice balance to the team. There was confidence, of course, that is always nice to reinforce, and to that momentum that it gains is something I’ve said before that no coach can give, it comes from winning.
So yeah, there are a number of things that I know internally, that I’ve got to get more out of. The team will understand as we go into preseason a little more. And I don’t want to base it all on data because it’s not just about that. The data gives us a good start point. I will have a footballing view and feel about what went on because some of the numbers don’t take into consideration where and what some of the players were dealing with.
So trying to bring that information together and having had the time I have in the offseason, I think there are some things that you’ll start to see in preseason. I’m hoping you see in preseason, I shouldn’t even have to tell you. You should be able to walk into this two or three games in and go,” I can see exactly the differences”. So let’s leave it there. That would be nice. That would mean that I’m doing my job properly.
Valair Shabilla: Gary, last season you talked a little bit about Hany’s dip in form towards the end. And maybe there were some external effects of that. A couple days ago, he reiterated his point of wanting to play with the ball and being more front facing when it comes to taking on games. How have you evaluated so far from what you’ve seen from him in the last two days? What is the message here to him in terms of what he’s been saying and what’s going on? Obviously he’s a superstar, your team. So what are you saying to him at this point?
Gary Smith: Well, more than anything, welcome. And did you have a good offseason? Did you recover well? Is your body in a good place? Are you looking forward to the changes, the new players? What are you seeing?
I mean, look, the interaction has been minimal and brief at this point. A lot of that will come down in Florida. And I’m not the only one who’s going to be using that time to get closer again to the players. And maybe be offering up one or two things that we’ve not seen out of any before.
I might be asking something slightly different from him. I don’t want to take him away from the areas that are making him most productive and most exciting as well. But, you know, there’s a development and more so a reinforcement of the group that needs to happen. I’m talking about subtle things, I’m not talking about, you know, drastic changes in the group.
If you look at the foundations of what we have achieved at this point, there’s some really good things going on. So I’m not tearing up a page here. If I change wholesale what this team has achieved and where we’ve been and what we’ve done and some of the stats and the qualities of the group, then that would be silly of me.
But there are certainly things that maybe even Hany’s got to take on board. And I’ll be asking him, how does that feel? What does that look like? What do these players around you now? Is there more of a basis of connection, of understanding from the world that you’re seeing at this point? And in some cases, maybe that’s just having an extra attack in body on the field. That might be a simple look. But that’s all based on availability and the bodies you’ve got in the building as well.
So it’s not always that easy, of course, but there’s certainly things that we can dig into as we go down into Florida. And we’re going to be spending a lot of time with each other again. So we’ve got to have something to talk about as well.
Claudio Villalobos: Gary, how feasible this is from your perspective and your experience for the actually to do what you actually did last year? When you come to tournaments like this year, is there one in your heart beating harder than the other in terms of the MLS, Concacaf Cup, how far you want to get in either one? How worried are you by either one?
Gary Smith: Well, I mean, first of all, it’s not every year you get an opportunity to fight for CCC, as it is. We’ve competed last year, put ourselves in a great position. This is a unique opportunity and everyone should feel exceptionally good about the opportunity we have in front of us. So there’s no way I’m going to let that pass us by.
So straight away, you can expect that we want to be in the best shape for that first game and make sure that we do our very utmost to progress in this competition. You’re not going to see it a lot. You may not see it a lot. You fight for it, but that’s the position that every team are looking for every year.
MLS and what we class as the bread and butter schedule of 34 games, of being in the playoffs, is a challenge for every team. It’s the toughest achievement over 34 games for every team. We’ve, I think, shown tremendous fortitude to be there in the last four seasons, four seasons of our history. That is a great achievement for the club and there are many, many other teams that would have loved to have been in last year’s playoff scenario, but for one. So I think that’s always uppermost in my mind and the team’s mind.
But then we found our first final in Leagues Cup and, by the way, what an exciting tournament. Certainly it was for us to have the final at home and for the fans to see a final in Geodis Park was incredibly exciting for the team. So why would I dismiss that tournament alone? Maybe that’s something that we can strive for again this year.
I know there’s been some discussion around Open Cup and what that looks like, but there’ll be numerous teams that look at that opportunity of winning it. Houston this year are in Champions League because of that success. So maybe that’s another route to being where we want to be.
Where in our year do we compartmentalize these and say that this is more important than that? It’s really, really tough. Yes, there’ll be one or two things in our mind early on.
We want to do well in CCC. We want to get off to a good start in MLS play. That’s vital to our achievements towards the playoffs. The other two competitions will take a bit of time to get going, especially Leagues Cup. So we’ll see where we’re at at that point, but to the best of our ability, we want to try and be competitive in everything.
We hope that the squad will stay healthy. I hope that the team are in good shape. And we go into some of these competitions with a nice bit of confidence. And I think that makes all the difference as well when you get there.