NSC training notes and press conference: Gary Smith and Michael Reed on opening day 2019

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and midfielder Michael Reed met with For Club and Country after the team’s first 2019 practice today. Watch and read what that had to say here.

Training notes

  • The team was slightly shorthanded: new striker signings Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster were participating in their MLS physicals (they are signed to Nashville’s MLS side and will be loaned to the USL team), and won’t join training until tomorrow. International players Ropapa Mensah and Ramone Howell are expected to arrive this week.
  • Other new signings, including forward/winger Kharlton Belmar, midfielder Malcolm Stewart, defenders Ken Tribbett and Darnell King, and goalkeepers Connor Sparrow and Danny Vitiello were present.
  • Midfielder Lebo Moloto, who missed the end of last season with injury, fully participated in the session.
  • Multiple trialists went through training with the team. Former Lipscomb University standout Logan Paynter and NAC Breda (Netherlands) product Vinnie Vermeer were among those trying to impress to earn a role with the club.

Gary Smith

Are you expecting better chemistry with a returning core of players instead of starting fresh like last year?

“For sure, I would suspect that those players that have been in and around the club for a year now, they’ll feel so much more comfortable. We had a welcome meal on Sunday, and I remarked to some of the staff how the atmosphere just felt kind of different. Not necessarily better, but the players looked more relaxed. Of course we have some new faces, but there’s no doubt everybody will be more comfortable and understanding of players and staff.”

How have the new faces looked?

“It’s great. Everyone will be feeling their same on their first day back to work. Offseason’s a long period. We’re all at a point where we’re ready to be back out on the field and working. It’s lovely to see the new guys in town, and interacting and working with the other players. Just generally, it’s just great to be back working, and the players getting some of that energy out of their system. Within two or three days, they’ll be probably wanting a day off [laughs]. At the moment, there’s a lot of exuberance.”

Are there positions at which you still see a need to add depth to the roster?

“I don’t think anyone would ever say, ‘I certainly couldn’t.. there might not be some help needed at some point.’ But when I look at the group, it may well be because of ill health, issues surrounding injuries. I’m more than comfortable with the group that we’ve got. There might be the odd player added, but I wouldn’t think many now. We’ll keep a rather smaller group. There’s more experience in this group from top to bottom anyway, and I certainly wanted the players that are here to be fighting for that, if not the 11, being in the 18, and I want everyone to see a breakthrough to that.”

Is the plan to remain tactically consistent and count on added talent to improve the goal-scoring?

“I think there’s a couple of things that may help us towards that. Every team wants to improve year-on-year if they can, and we’re no different. You’ve already alluded to the fact that we’ve got players who will have a year under their belt. I suspect those players will be in a much better place for us to see a little bit more out of them. There were lots of things I felt we did very well last year: defensively, in possession, creatively. Of course you can always improve, and the one area that we fell short was actually hitting the back of the net. That played uppermost in my mind and Mike’s mind when we were talking about additions. I think a lot of teams try to add a way of adding goals.

“If you look at Cameron’s track record, it’s very good. Daniel, a tad more difficult to maybe judge, but he’s a very very talented young player, and had a wonderful season last year at our level. I’m sure he’s only going to get better. Kharlton also, it’s easy to see his track record. Therefore, you’d like to think that come what may, we’ve added some goals to the group. If we can maintain the sort of development that we saw last year in the rest of our play, we should be in a good shot.”

What are the team’s realistic goals for the year?

“Everyone wants to be in the postseason. We certainly should be holding ourselves accountable for improvement. There will be other teams around the league looking at us, and setting a bar that has nothing to do with us. There are comparisons that will be drawn – just purely for the fact that we’re going into MLS – with Cincinnati, but I think it’s crazy to be comparing yourself to any other team. We’re a second year team. We’ve, I think, done a very good job in our first year, but without a shadow of a doubt we’ll want to improve on that. What that improvement is will depend on a lot of factors. As I’ve already mentioned, can we keep players healthy in a small group,. can we improve year-on-year with the players that have stayed, and probably as importantly as anything, are the players that are coming in, are they going to fulfill the role that we maybe lacked a little bit of last year. There’s so much that can affect where you finish, but for sure we want to improve, and we certainly want to be competing with any other team in our league for any silverware that’s on offer. Anyone that’s saying they don’t want to be top, they don’t want to win the championship, at this stage of the season, there’s no point in even starting, is there? Everyone’s in the same spot.

What do you try to take away from the first day of training?

“The things that strike me most when players come back is, have they kept themselves in a reasonable shape. Some of the testing will give us an idea of what they’ve been doing in the offseason. They all go away with programs. The new guys that’ve signed are given programs. If we can, I like to be in front of the game – and when I say that, I want to be in a better spot than just using preseason to get fit. We, I felt, did a very good job in preseason last year – or the players did – of coming in in good shape, and therefore we can push on a little bit more. There’s work that we can do with the group, less time needed to recover because their bodies are in a better place. And when I look around the group today, admittedly we’re missing still a couple players like a lot of teams will be, everyone looks like they’re in very good shape, and that should bode well for the preseason.”

Michael Reed

How has it been to reconnect with the teammate?

“Seeing the guys, whether they have a belly or not off the break – No [laughs]. First days are always great because everyone’s enthusiastic, passionate in everything that has to do with want you want out of soccer. It’s a great game, and it’s nice to see everyone fresh. We’re all happy, it’s all nice, and it’s a lot of fun on the first day, that’s for sure. We’re all good, guys are professional off the field which is great to see, and it makes life easier as we go through preseason.”

What is the chemistry of the team?

“I think you build a culture in the locker room that everyone can kind of agree on. I think we have that, and it makes life a lot easier whenever you have a stable culture, a stable environment, and we’re all on the same page, so we know what to expect of each other. It’s just a smooth engine: everyone’s running on the right cylinders, and we’re driving along nice right now. It makes life easier for the new guys, as well. They come in, they see everyone doing it. It’s not like they follow like sheep, but ‘OK, this is what we want to be a part of, how can we build on it,’ and go from there.”

Does that established culture shine through on day one?

“It’s an identity for the first day. Now that this is round two, it’s just exciting. We just keep picking up from last year, and keep moving forward. I think that’s the goal, and we progress into a more successful year, and I think that’s what everyone’s on the same page about.”

How have the new signings looked through just one training session?

“It’s funny, because the touch there. It is there, but guys are a little rusty, including myself. It’s just knocking the dust off, so everyone’s passionate right now. It’s fun; it’s a good environment, and that’s what we get to look forward to throughout the preseason.”

What do you aim for on the first day?

“It’s getting guys together: off the field is one thing, on the field’s another. It’s this thing with business, and what we’re trying to create. It’s just nice to kick the ball around with the guys, and play some footy, and enjoy the soccer while you can. I think that’s what we’re doing right now.”

What are the realistic goals for the season?

“Just like anyone else, you look at the previous year and you’re gonna want to do better. I think the goal is to be better than we were yesterday, and to keep moving forward.”

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Lebo Moloto giving back to his hometown

As soccer fans around the United States engage in arguments about what’s wrong with youth soccer in our country (with plenty of focus on how the pay-to-play system manages to shut talented players out of the US Soccer system), it’s easy to forget that not everyone even comes from a place where the opportunity for that argument even exists. Players in developing or recently developed countries like South Africa may need the game to simply survive.

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Aspiring young footballers in Moloto’s hometown. Courtesy Lebo Moloto

Nashville SC midfielder Lebo Moloto, a native of Chebeng, South Africa (a village outside the city of Polokwane), is one such player. He managed to parlay his soccer skill into a college degree and a professional career in America, and wants to give other young people from his hometown that opportunity. He was lucky enough to grow up with parents who believed in his talent and – yes – sent him to a pay-to-play academy. He eventually turned that shot into a scholarship and degree from Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky.

“For me, what happened was I was playing grassroots on the dirt, and somebody saw me,” he explained. “I went to an academy that my parents had to pay, but they were able to do that because it was something that I wanted to do – I think it was like $30 a month. I had better coaching, I had better facilities, there was grass, and that’s where I got my first soccer shoes. [Before that], it was barefoot, or there would be like shoes my mom bought that I’m supposed to dress up in and I’d mess them up playing. Or sometimes, it’s not uncommon to borrow people’s shoes. So we’d like rotate shoes.

“What happened was the fact that somebody saw me play there, and they gave me an opportunity. They said, ‘let’s go to Johannesburg for a tryout.’ We had a tryout and I got selected, and that’s how I got out of that situation. We had a tournament in Cape Town and there was an American coach that offered me a scholarship. I was like, ‘you know what? That’s a good opportunity.’ I took it and I don’t regret it.”

This December 23, Moloto will host the Chebeng Cup, an opportunity for young boys in his hometown (he’s hoping to add a girls’ division in future years) to realize that there are opportunities outside the village they live in. An area that has a high incidence of truancy and drug use among the youth could use a little inspiration to stay on the straight and narrow.

Moloto’s path is obviously one that has seen him succeed. It was the birth of his son Josiah this Spring that further inspired Moloto to take a long look at life, and changed his perspective. He’s always had hopes of being a positive influence on his hometown, but having a child of his own was what gave him that push to get the Chebeng Cup off the ground.

“At the age 12, 13, 14 you either go left or right,” Moloto said. “I think if before they go left or right we say, ‘hey, there’s opportunities; you’re not alone and there’s hope. There’s opportunities out there, but guys you have to meet me halfway.’ What I’m going to do next year is for you to be able to participate in this, we’re going to team up with schools and see if they can give us registration books. I’ll say, ‘if you miss more than five school days without a reason, you don’t play. If you fail, you don’t play.’ Eventually, hopefully we’ll grow and we’ll grow and we can be able to provide free tutoring once a week.

“Every time I’ve been home, there’s been situations where I’ve seen kids that – young kids – they’re sitting on a corner, doing drugs. I look back and I’m like, ‘when I was that age, we had a soccer team.’ We didn’t have a lot, but we had a few balls that we could train with. Now you look at it and you say, ‘what can I do to make a difference?’ I think also just having a baby changes your perspective on life. I think that might be the main push, because I’ve always wanted to do it. It was just a matter of the right time, and I think this was the right time.”

Those who know Moloto aren’t surprised that the 28-year old would want to give back to the community that he grew up in. Indeed, the entire Nashville SC organization tends to have a philanthropic bent, and Moloto’s love for – and desire to help – his hometown fits right in with his personality. A charitable initiative doesn’t surprise NSC head coach Gary Smith one bit.

“Honestly, I think we have a fabulous group of human beings here, and that’s really what it boils down to,” said the gaffer. “You’ve got players in this group that have in some cases come from difficult surroundings, and they want to give back. It’s down to the person: Lebo’s one of those guys. We have numerous individuals that want to try and immerse themselves not only in our community, but maybe from the backgrounds that they’ve come from or others that are not quite as fortunate.”

Those who wish to contribute to the cause can donate material goods or with financial support at the event’s official GoFundMe page here.

Certainly, any assistance, monetary or otherwise, is appreciated in the effort to provide as much help to Moloto’s community as possible. In a village that only recently added running water – Moloto previously paid for his family to bore a well – the opportunity won’t be taken for granted.

“I think to be honest, it’s to try to give them hope,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are playing professional soccer football in South Africa that I’ve invited. I sat down and I looked at it and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s enough. I don’t think bringing these guys here is going to have an impact on them. We’ll see if we can take them out of where I grew up, and give them an opportunity to go and play a team like Kaiser Chiefs in Johannesburg.’ I think that’s bigger than just inviting professional soccer players.”

Certainly, there’s one professional soccer player who has their futures in mind. Donate to his cause to help Lebo Moloto make a difference.

Please donate to Lebo’s cause. The link is above or can also be found here.

Press conference transcript: Gary Smith, Matt LaGrassa, and Michael Reed pre-Cincinnati

Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith and two of his midfielders met with For Club and Country today to discuss their upcoming rematch against FC Cincinnati and how the club can get back on the winning side. Read what they had to say here:

Gary Smith

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Let’s get back to this sort of form, K?

“I think we’ve made the very most of this week. Difficult result, a lot of reflection. I’ve just said to the guys, ‘I just don’t feel the second half to the season has started for us, and certainly not in the way we’d have liked it.’ But I think this is an opportunity against a top side, a side that are six months removed from MLS, and already making the bright sort of strides to improve their group. For us to get ourselves back into that mindset of, ‘we’re challengers, we’re a playoff team.’ I think at some point – and I’m not saying this game will be the determining factor – but it’s definitely an opportunity for everyone to really express themselves and attack the game. We won’t be going there with a timid attitude. We’ll want to try and get as much as we can out of ourselves. We’re looking at this as more of a breakout game than one against a top team – top of the table. As far as planning, working, getting back to that really gritty attitude, all of the qualities that I think this team has shown in the 12-game unbeaten run, I think we’ve been able to touch on a lot of those, and air some views and think about what the second half of the season really should entail for us.”

How has the short-handedness lately affected the team?

“I’ve got a good group of players, so yes of course when you have senior players injured, it can affect the group. I also think it’s a fabulous opportunity for others to step into that void and make a bit of a name for themselves. After a good performance by CJ on Wednesday, you could point at one moment with the penalty as showing a little lack of game-sharpness. The situation changes in a heartbeat in Toronto. I’m not blaming the result on CJ by any stretch, but what I’m trying to emphasize: when you’re playing a run of games, when you’re as involved as Matt has been, those decisions are clearer, you’re not quite as edgy and as anxious. I don’t want to make excuses about players being out. We had probably the worst travel that I’ve experienced since I’ve been in the US from 2008. Going to Rochester. I’m sure there were some factors in there, but teams have got to overcome that. You’re playing in a 90-minute game. Yes, I’m sure there was an impact, but I thin kwe’ve got good enough players to A) cover the issues of injuries and B) deal with some adversity. We’re back to pretty much full strength: Bradley’s the only body that will be unfit for the weekend. I think we’ve really got to show our mettle now. We’ve given a good idea of what we’re about, we’ve shown in a period of time just recently that there’s bright lights in there, but it’s been inconsistent. We’re better than that, we know we’re better than that, but the only way of really reinforcing that is by playing well, by playing consistently.”

Do you note the drop in the Eastern Conference table to the team?

“I don’t think it’s as strraightforward as that in a brand-new group. If you look at our last five games, we’ve scored one goal. That’s not good enough. Results have been inconsistent. That’s not good enough. A big part of this group is continually growing and developing. All teams have a difficult period – most teams have a difficult period throughout the season – maybe this is ours. What I’m focusing on and what the guys are very much aware of is: how do we return to the form, what are the key components to the group to be more successful, and not only can we get back on track putting points on the board – because we are in a decent spot – but how do we get to that point where we’re improving continually and also getting ready for the playoffs. There’s nobody here that doubts that we’re capable of the playoffs, achieving it is obviously a different matter, but that comes one day at a time, one game at a time, and in very small strides when your form has been a little bit indifferent.”

Has there been a consistent thread in the lack of scoring lately?

“We’ve added players, in Brandon Allen being the prime example, who’ve got a good goal-scoring reacord. But the team’s dried up: it’s not just Brandon, it’s not just Ropapa, it’s not just Alan. We’re not getting goals from enough areas: Taylor Washington is the only player outside of four goal-scorers in the team, and Liam’s scored a free kick. How do we improve that? Dead ball situation has not been productive enough. Lots of teams are finding a route through to getting themserlves in front from set pieces. We have to improve in that area. There’s a collecrtive push to try and get ourselves on the sheet and score more goals. What I will say is: in most of our outings, we’re creating. If we weren’t creating, I’d be very, very disappointed, and I’d be worried. But we’re getting ourselves in good positions, we’re making opportunities. It’s now about really being alittle bit moe ruthless as I said some time ago. We got ourselves in a better position with some confidence probably 5-6 games again, and that seems to have dsiminished. That’s a mental state. For me, that’s not about technique or quality. Alan misses a penalty. That’s the best opportunity in a game to score a goal. At thge moment, in one way, shape, or form, we’re finding the opportunity or a way to not score. That for me, as I said, is a mindset. We started the season with picking up percentages wherever we can: can you win two more headers in a game, can you get two more crosses in a game? Picking up percentages, and at the moment we’re giving those percentages away. So that is also a foundation to being more aggressive. There’s a few areas that we’ve certainly focused on. The players throughout the week, undersatandably at the start were flat, but we’ve now worked to a crescendo and we’re ready for tomorrow’s game.”

Will Fanendo Adi change the way you plan to defend?

“They’ve scored, I thin kthey’re second-highest scorers in the league, they’ve got a wealth of talent and creation going forward, and Adi just adds to that. Yes, he’s a slightly different physical specimen to one or two of the other guys. I can’t calculate whether he’ll play or not. I’m not going to prepare my team based on what they might do., We’ve had plenty to work on, we’ve had plenty to look at. There’s been a rewfocusing of ourenergies, and I’d like to think we’re going to see a team, my team, go out there and attack the game. There might be one or two moments in the game that make for a different approach, but in reality, we have to try and put our best foot forward and make a game of this. I’m not going thtere to be the whipping boy in front of 25,000 people. And OI’ve got a good enough team not to be. Whatever they do, we’ll try and counter, and attack in the best way we can. When you’ve got a good team that you’re playing against, iut’s not just one player. Ledesma’s been terrific, Konig has done a wonderful job, Bone plays, Albadawi, they’ve all scored goals. They’ve got two of the best center-halves in the league. It’s going to be tough whoever plays, it’s not going to be an easy game.

Matt LaGrassa

How have you taken to getting more consistent time with Michael Reed injured?

“I think playing regularly is something that we all strive for. It helps you be in a rhythm and find that consistency which we’re all after.”

How have you managed to be versatile positionally?

“I think growing up playing in the center of the field, I’ve always prided myself on kind of knowing everybody’s role and trying to have an understanding of what everyone’s supposed to be doing and where they’re supposed to be at any time. I think that helps me transition to a different position a little more smoothly.”

How do you break the poor run of form

“I think it’s important that we don’t panic, that we get back to some of the things that made us successful earlier in the year. We’ve had a great week of training, and I think we’re ready for the weekend.”

Is it a challenge or a special opportunity that Cincinnati is the team you need to break the poor run of form against?

“I think in some ways it takes a little bit of pressuere off of us to go away from home and play against a team that’s at the top of the table. We can play a little bit more freely, and take chances that maybe we wouldn’t have taken if we’re not playing the team at the top of the table.”

Michael Reed

Is it frustrating seeing the struggle without being on the field?

“I think individually, it can be frustrating, because there’s only so much you have control over. I think at the same time in everyone’s career, it’s a moment of growth. When the team’s struggling or the individuals on the team are struggling, there’s always positives you can take from it. If guys are willing to learn and grow, then that’s the key: furthering their future and careers and maturing. There’s always positives you can take out of it as frustrating as it can be for myself, there’s a lot that came of it.”

How do you adapt as captain to helping when the “lead by example” route isn’t available?

“I think we all have our strengths, captains included. I’ve got to be close with Gary, I’ve got to make sure I’m good with the boys. For myself, I’m real personal with the players: making sure they’re up, if they’re down what can I do to help them out? A lot of it’s off the field. On the field, obviously the frustrations are going to occur. I don’t tell players how to play, that’s for them to decide. I’ll do everything I can to make sure they’re motivated, to make sure they’re enthusiastic and passionate about what they’re doing. Happy person, happy player, better player. My job is multi-functional, and there’s a lot to ask, but I thin kthe guys have proven that they follow, they’re willing to listen and learn, and that’s all I can ask for.”

What’s your style of vocal leadership?

“Soccer’s a very intimate sport. As much as you want to say, it’s not like a regular job where you go to an office and work in a cubicle. Soccer is very intimate with the tackles, with the passion, with the yelling, with the arguing, with the positivity, on the field, off the field. You’re with a guy in the gym after you just finished yelling at him. In doing so, I think communication is huge. That’s really it.”

What have you seen out of Bolu and Matt with their recent playing time in your absence?

“It’s different for each game, isn’t it? Each game presents something different with whatever each team is throwing at us they’re asked to be different things. Both of them are very versatile and utility-like players. I’m happy that they’ve been doing well for the team. As much as people say the results have been poor, like I said it’s the growth experience for everyone. Guys who haven’t been getting in the areas that they want to play positionally, doing very well to get comfortable, and I’m happy for them: that’s how it should be. I uthink they’ve taken full advantage of their opportunity and chances in there, and continually grow as players.”

Frustration to score?

“It’s the hardest thing to do is score. Somew teams make it look easier than others. We’re a very disciplined team: that’s the foundation of our team. As much as guys want to go forward, we all have things that we have to do in the team to make sure we’re successful. I think we get back to the fundamentals, and some things will come in eventually. It’s not an easy task to score. You ask a lot of the guys, whenever you say, ‘you’ve gotta beat two, three, four guys,’ that’s not the case. We’ve gotta get back to the fundamentals and being a team and being the best we can be in total. It can be frustrating and daunting, but that’s the game. That’s part of the whole intimacy with the players is to know what they’re about and the struggles at times, and that’s what life is.”

What did you learn in the first game against Cincinnati that you can apply to this one?

“I’m sure, just like guys on the team, you kind of get to know the other team, you get to know the other players, their system, their styles. Whether or not they’re going to play the same way, you don’t really kmnow until you’re on the field, it’s gameday, and the game’s live. Tendencies of players – that’s if players are willing to watch video, which they are – I think there’s plenty we can take away from the first game, but we can’t look too much into it, because what if they change? It’s an adaptible game, we’re changing all the time, and hopefully we’re ready for it.”