Now that Gary Smith has watched the replay of the Atlanta United friendly a couple times, he likes his team’s performance even more than he did immediately after the match.
“We actually looked far more accomplished as a shape and as a team working together than I maybe thought with the emotions I had on the touchline,” Smith said after Friday’s practice. “Some really good things from the weekend. No two ways about it, an incredible test for us.”
Smith was particularly high on his team’s level of effort against one of the most dangerous teams in the MLS. He replaced his starting unit with eleven new players to begin the second half but didn’t see a sharp drop-off in performance, even though the team surrendered three goals in the final 45 minutes.
“I thought the first group showed very well, and the only thing that let us down in the second period wasn’t a lack of passion or desire or energy, it was a little lack of experience,” Smith said. “One or two moments…allowed Atlanta to take advantage. Overall, a really really good first outing for the guys.”
Breaking Down the Atlanta Match
Smith discussed each area of the field’s performance against the Five Stripes, singling out strong performers and a couple places where he wishes to see improvement.
The coach directed some modest criticism at the experienced midfield tandem of Matt LaGrassa and Michael Reed, both of whom have loads of experience but did not have their best days, according to Smith.
“Whilst they were certainly very…industrious, I know for sure Matt LaGrassa and Michael Reed are far more capable on the ball,” Smith said. “That might have been conditions, opponent, maybe the moment. There’s certainly more to come out of those guys.”
Smith did label an “unsung hero” from the match. Fullback Ryan James impressed the coach with his pace and positioning. We were surprised to see James earn the start over Taylor Washington, but the staff has seen enough to keep working the former Rochester Rhino into the starting mix.
“He covered a tremendous amount of ground, his techniques were very good and he actually intercepted a couple times in really important moments on the back post,” Smith said. “Slowly but surely, he’s becoming quite a feature and he’s pushing himself into the reckoning.”
The back line stifled Atlanta for much of the first half, using organized play to keep the top-flight side off the scoreboard. Smith credited the central defense for holding the line nicely.
“I thought the three center backs – Bradley [Bourgeois], London [Woodberry] and Justin [Davis] – did a really good job being sure that their distances were good and getting higher up the field when we were in a more advanced position,” Smith said. “It’s easy when you’re a defender and you’ve not worked together before, when the ball goes forward you look, watch, you can get engrossed in the buildup play and forget what your job is, which is to restrict the forwards.”
Smith was also complimentary of his forwards’ first-half play, although he acknowledged they did not see a substantial workload due to Atlanta’s caliber.
“I thought the front fellows had their work cut out to a large degree because of the opponent, but showed some really nice appreciation for pressing higher up the field in the early stages and had their moments,” Smith said, singling out Michael Cox as a player who put himself in some “exciting areas.”
“As you can see out here this morning, there’s an awful lot going on in the attacking third now,” Smith said. “Slowly but surely with any group you’ve got to have a foundation to work from, and we’re now moving in that direction of creation. We’ve got plenty of players that have got very inspirational talents.”
Handicapping the forward battle
Speaking of those forwards, earlier this week we wrote about how intrigued we are by the team’s battle for playing time at the striker spot. Robin Shroot and Michael Cox earned the start for Nashville against Atlanta, while Ropapa Mensah scored the team’s first-ever goal in the second half thanks in part to Tucker Hume.
Today, Smith highlighted each player’s attributes and what he’ll be looking for from them in the team’s remaining preseason friendlies.
Michael Cox and Ropapa Mensah: “I think we can safely say that Ropapa and Michael have very similar qualities. They’re both athletic, they both have good individual talent, capable of beating a player one-v-one.”
Robin Shroot: “Robin is very intelligent, his movement is good, he’s got really tight technique and he’s a great link player and two good feet.”
Tucker Hume: “Tucker is completely different from all of them…that big target man who, I have to say, shows very good ability to link, he’s got a nice first touch, he’s very appreciative of others and, of course, aerially he’s a real threat.”
Smith admits he has “lots of options” at the forward position due to the diversity of the players in that area of the field.
“There’s plenty of dimension to that front line,” Smith said. “As we move down the line, it will be a case of looking at our opponents, seeing what players are in form and trying to get that combination.”
Hume agrees with both the variety and intensity of the forward competition.
“There are a lot of good players on this team at every position, especially the forward spot,” Hume said. “There’s speed, height, strength and technical ability. It’s good to see other players and see how they move, then try to take little things from them and implement them into my game.”
Hume-mongous Height…But That’s Not All
If you look at Hume’s 6-foot-5 frame, it’s tempting to compare him to Andy Carroll or Peter Crouch — large targets in the box whose height is their primary asset. But just as Smith praised Hume’s diverse skill set, Hume himself said there’s more to his game than aerial play.
“My height is the first thing they see, but being good with my feet and linking up play and being the target striker” are skills Hume says he brings to the table, adding that he wants to “be a big threat in the box, be clinical when balls come in.”
College Roommates Combine to Facilitate First Goal
Hume played a key role in opening Nashville’s account, flicking a header to Alan Winn and creating a two-on-one run that resulted in a goal for Ropapa Mensah.
“Being involved in [the goal] was a cool experience,” Hume said. “I was just glad to see us go out there and find the back of the net and give the fans something to cheer about. As far as the attack goes, we’ve only been together for 12 days so it’s nice to see some end product.”
You probably knew about Hume’s role in the franchise’s inaugural goal. But what you may not know: Hume and Winn were roommates for two years at The University of North Carolina and have extra chemistry as a result. It helped the team get on the scoreboard Saturday.
“Alan has tremendous pace, so when he saw that ball come in he knew to take off,” Hume said. “If you could go back and find some film, we’ve done that a few times.”
An even bigger assist: Hume helped recruit Winn to the team after the attacking midfielder declined a contract with the Colorado Rapids.
“When he started talking to Nashville I spoke with him a few times and told him everything that was going on here and how good of a club it was,” Hume said. “I was happy when we signed him, because it’s always nice to have a familiar face.”
Hume added that Winn was a good roommate at UNC, joking that he “didn’t clean up enough.”
You heard it here first: Gary Smith plans to seek employment elsewhere if the team encounters a downpour like the one it endured Saturday.
“If we get a day that rains that much again, I’m leaving,” Smith joked.
Rain soaked Music City all night and all day before the match, creating challenging field conditions and leading to Atlanta’s first goal, when a backpass stopped in a puddle in front of the net and created a sitter for Josef Martinez.
“It was a day that I’ve not seen in the year that I’ve been here,” Smith said. “Ten hours of rain before the game was quite extraordinary.”
The biggest takeaway from the conditions wasn’t his team’s ability to weather the weather. According to Smith, the larger challenge was experiencing a game environment for the first time as a team.
“Slowly but surely, we’ll get over those firsts – first time on the field, first time the fans have been there, first time we’ve played a game, first competitive match together,” Smith said. “There’s loads of things that we have to keep moving forward with and grow from. That will take a little bit of time.”
The Week Ahead
The preseason tests for this team have only begun. Next up are three matches in five days in Florida, including two against MLS teams. Smith plans to rotate the squad heavily with the aim of getting his first glimpse of what a starting group might look like.
“The group will start to shuffle out and we’ll start to see what a first 11 might start to look like, barring maybe two or three positions,” Smith said. “I’d like to make sure everyone gets plenty of minutes – preseason is really about that. Not just players working toward the starting group, but everyone understanding the direction we’re going as well, because without a shadow of a doubt, most of these guys are gonna be used throughout the year.”
Fans interested in watching next week’s matches will have two opportunities. IMG Academy plans to stream the Feb. 21 and Feb. 23 showdowns with Chicago and Ottawa, respectively. However, the Feb. 25 friendly with Orlando City SC will be closed.