Nashville SC took the practice field for the fourth day of preseason camp Thursday, and media members were invited to attend the final hour of the morning end of the two-a-day training session.
Here’s what we learned.
Gary Smith may be a reserved soul off the pitch, but when he takes to the turf, he transforms into an upbeat, direct taskmaster. The coach of the USL expansion squad likes what he has seen during these foundational early practices.
“They’re some intelligent lads, they don’t take long to understand what I’m asking of them, and they’ve got the right physical and athletic qualities to get that done as well, which means we’ve recruited reasonably well, which is what I was hoping,” Smith said. “I’m really pleased so far.”
Much of the team’s work in the first week of practice has been to set the stage for how it will play in 2018. Before focusing on specific opponents, the coaches are evaluating their own players and building a system of play.
“A lot of [training work] is gonna be to give the guys a very good overview, not just this week but throughout the preseason, of the different aspects of our style of play,” said coach Gary Smith. “I can dig a little bit deeper and ask more of the players, and try to find out how we’re going to achieve [success] — supporting angles, interaction, relationships…there’s plenty to be looking at, there’s a lot of ground to cover.”
The portion of the practice open to media featured team-wide defensive drills, with particular focus on organizing the back line. Smith employed a five-man back line during the session, and that looks to be his approach moving forward.
“We’re going to play with three center backs,” Smith said, noting that he’s looking for “how wing backs get pressure on the ball so we don’t just become a group that are gonna sit there. I want to be aggressive, but we’ve got to try and find a good foundational level to work from.”Since players were rotating between offense and defense throughout the drill, it was hard to get a read on potential defensive starters; however, Justin Davis and Taylor Washington played the majority of the session, with Washington out wide and Davis a few yards inside his position.
Keepers 1A and 1B
Smith was noncommittal when asked to name a favorite at the keeper spot. He praised veteran Matt Pickens and young talent C.J. Cochran, casting the former as an important mentor.
“I’ve worked with both of the first-choice goalkeepers, and I class them both as first-choice goalkeepers,” Smith said, praising Pickens’ experience and Cochran’s impact during his two years in OKC. “I have no issue whatsoever playing either one of those guys in between those sticks on any given Saturday, and it’ll be down to who’s performing at their best.”
Veterans such as Matt LaGrassa and Kosuke Kimura provided regular instruction to younger players on the team, at times coming across like coaches on the field. Smith says it he’s glad to have a handful of MLS veterans on the squad, as well as players who have competed for him before.
Those who have played for Smith before “have got an understanding and appreciation of what I expect, and some of the philosophy, direction…possession and creative work that we’ll go through,” the coach said. “I think that makes the process a little bit easier rather than having 23 players who have never worked in my environment before.”
Potential starting striker Ropapa Mensah has been unable to enter the country due to the visa process, but the team expects to have him in the States soon.
The squad continues to ramp up for the initial friendly against Atlanta United, but the focus will stay on preparing for the USL season rather than narrowing too tightly on the burgeoning MLS juggernaut.
“The challenge next Saturday is going to be very different, I would imagine, to what we’re gonna face throughout the year,” Smith said. “While I want to make sure the guys are ready for that, it’s part of a buildup and process that should prepare them for the opening game of the season.”