NASHVILLE, TN - Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith spoke with members of the media via phone after Pittsburgh Riverhounds' 1-0 win against Birmingham Legion determined that Nashville would finish second in the USL Championship Eastern Conference. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Gary Smith's overall thoughts Nashville's 2nd place finish: "Well, first and foremost, congratulations to Pittsburgh. The run in for them and the scheduling aways from home was always going to be a tough one, and they performed very well. So I'd like to congratulate them on a terrific season. I'm frustrated that there were nuances around the scheduling today which meant that there were seven changes and a new goalkeeper in goal for Birmingham, which may well have aided their victory. But look, it's 34 games. I think it's something to look at in the future for USL. In all honesty you finish on the same day, and we'd get the opportunity to work out whether we're winners or losers. As far as we're concerned, it's been a terrific season. There have been a lot of things that we've improved on. I'm delighted at where the group is at as we move towards the postseason. And I'm looking forward to watching the games on Wednesday and working out who we'll be playing on Saturday!"
How does Pittsburgh's result change the mindset of your team?
Smith: I don't think it changes at all, to be honest. We spoke after the game yesterday - we had a focus of our own. We needed to win the last three games and put Pittsburgh under pressure. We did that. We've performed very well, and I feel we're in a good place. The difficulty yesterday was that I felt like we were all in a bit of a void. Nobody knew whether we were winners, whether we were going to be second, who we might be looking at to possibly bring to First Tennessee Park next Saturday. I think that's just disappointing and frustrating. When I certainly look back at it, we had opportunities down in Pittsburgh at 2-0 up and ended up drawing 2-2. And of course the game at home where we played against 10 men for 50 minutes. And that will be a coaches angle of saying that was where maybe the season could have changed slightly to be number one. But the reality is this: we've had a great season. I'm very, very pleased with the group. I'm pleased where they're at. They're in great form. So are Pittsburgh, by the way, and it should be a very exciting postseason.
Do you feel at all that Nashville got in the easier side of the bracket with Indy Eleven and New York by finishing in second, as opposed to getting on the side with Louisville and Tampa Bay by finishing in first?
Smith: I feel when you look at the sides, and how the Eastern Conference has really settled out, it's been an incredibly tough fight for every team. I know that there's maybe three or four points between certain teams right now. but the reality is for 30 or more games, we've all been in touching distance of each other. The last couple of games we've seen some separation, maybe as teams get towards the realization of what might happen. And there was of course a very big matchup between Tampa [Bay] and Indy that really sort of divided the top couple of spots. But this is a competitive and really difficult league, and as I said at the start, Pittsburgh have done a great job. They've managed to top it. What it does mean is they may have found a couple of better teams away from home. But the reality is in the playoffs, it's a very different stage in everyone's season. The regular season champions are the guys who have shown the most consistency. Now you go into a world where you need to win or you're out. It's a different mindset. I think we're going to see some incredibly exciting games with some very, very good teams. Outside of the Top 6 you have four teams who are going to play off on Wednesday who have all got plenty of quality and positive play about their team.
Does not knowing who you'll play until after Wednesday affect how you will prepare?
Smith: Not really. I think every team is going to be pretty aware and appreciative of what the challenge is in front of them. We're going to be ready for whoever we get. We've played them twice. There's not going to be an awful lot of change to personnel or style, I suspect, from what we've seen throughout the year ourselves. We're in a good run of form. We feel confident. We're at home. The team we're playing will have gone through a very difficult evening on Wednesday. I think when you get to this point, any percentages you can pick up in your favor are always going to be good in trying to take the next step. If we win, we know we've got a second home game, and we will look forward tremendously to Saturday. We'll be ready, whoever it is. I think you've seen the group in the last four, five, six weeks... we're in a good grove.
You finish the 2019 season with 18 points more than you did in 2018? What's the mentality in the group like with that level of improvement, as well as the knowledge that you'll be playing at home?
Smith: There's two things there. First one is, the form going into the postseason has been very, very good. Our record has improved in many, many brackets. From our goal difference to points to goals conceded to position... That improvement always brings confidence. The fact that we're at home is an added incentive. It's something we didn't have last year. When you look at the fine lines with what happened in Cincinnati, you'd like to think that a home game would have tipped it our way, given our performance. You're looking at a team in a better place. Mentally, we're all where we need to be. We've planned well for this. We could have easily had some sort of post-game drink and watched Pittsburgh. The reality of all this is the game that was played today [Sunday], the only game that was played today, honestly, deep down, I think it's belittled what Pittsburgh have achieved. Because in most countries, this would have been played on the same day. Birmingham have changed seven players because they have a midweek game, and I understand that completely. So there's a bitter taste that I think is left in everyone's mouth, but the playoffs, the championship, that's everything we're going to aim for, so we're looking forward to it.
As an Englishman, is the concept of the regular season championship being valued less than the playoff championship something that you don't care for, or do you enjoy the playoffs as an opportunity for a trophy?
Smith: I want to win everything I'm involved in. You put a cup on the side of the field in a staff game and I'll fight hard for it. I'm disappointed we haven't finished in the top spot, I'm not going to deny it. I'm disappointed the way the league have ended this season on a Sunday. But the reality is Pittsburgh have been the best team, a point in front of us. That's the world we live in. We move on. I've won a championship in MLS through the playoffs. An incredibly exciting period of time. I'm looking forward to it with this group. And honestly I think it will galvanize us more so, having lost out in the way we have on top spot. So listen, yes, in England, the regular season always counts for more. But I've not been there for a long time, if you look at my record. I've been here. I understand this country, I understand soccer in the US and the playoffs and what that means to the players and to the fans. And I've likewise immersed myself in that. So it's not uncommon for me. I look forward to it. And like I've said numerous times, we are more than ready for it, there's no two ways about it. We're built for this. Our form is ready for it, and the players are in the right mindset.