If you get a chance to talk with Gary Smith, the new head coach of the Atlanta Silverbacks, it takes… oh, about three and a half seconds to sense the energy and enthusiasm he’s bringing to the job. Gary has been back in the States since the first of the year and he’s wasted no time getting to the task at hand of building the 2015 Silverbacks.
Gary began his playing career with the Fulham FC youth academy, and he continued to play League football in England until injuries ended his playing career when he was 29.
Smith coached for the Colorado Rapids from 2008 – 2011, leading them to the 2010 MLS Cup title as head coach. His coaching resume also includes development, scouting, and coaching responsibilities at Arsenal FC, Stevenage FC, and the Republic of Ireland National Team.
Coach Smith took some time out to talk with 10Soccer about the job in front of him.
10Soccer: What’s going to be different from your point of view since the NASL is operating the team instead of local ownerships?
Coach Smith: Of course I don’t know what went on last year – having not been involved in NASL before. There’s rules and regulations in this league that don’t abide in MLS, so there’s been a few things to get used to. But I have to say, it leans more so towards, I want to call it free market, because we along with every other club in the NASL are able to go and make our own deals and try and get the best possible contract for a player. Whereas with MLS you have to go through the league and that’s a big part of the business structure of MLS. With regards to ownership, I don’t see the commissioner who of course is the acting owner of the organization at the moment. My boss is Andy Smith, who I report to. If you compared it to English soccer Andy might be the acting chairman. So, very similar situation.
10Soccer: You have twelve players signed now. Do you already have ideas of other players you want to go after to fill out the roster?
Coach Smith: I do. Of course I talk to Andy, and then Evan Mitz who’s Andy’s assistant. It’s only been three weeks and prior to that I had not met the guys in person. And it was very obvious that there was a good rapport, which is vital. It was always going to be a real challenge to make sure that not only we filled the roster out, but we were able to fill it out with the right type of people. With the type of players to take the team in the direction that I feel that they should be going in. And of course to keep it within certain constraints and budgets. I’m very pleased with the guys that I’ve signed already.
In answer to your question, we have a number of names that we would like to push on with. Two or three of them that I can’t talk about at this point. But of course that’s never a done deal until the player agrees. I would say we’ve got another two players. One of which I’d like to think we can be announcing early next week. And the other player definitely by the end of next week. And then beyond that, I’ve probably got three or four younger, more developmental players that will be a tremendous fit for the type of people, the type of players, and with lots and lots of potential to come into the group.
10Soccer: You’ve done a lot of developmental organization work in your coaching history.
Coach Smith: That’s where I started my coaching career. It’s a passion as well of mine, as I’m sure it is for lots of coaches. There’s a number of different ways you’re extremely satisfied with the work that you’re doing as a head coach. One of them of course, is winning games of football. The other one is winning silverware. A third one, for sure, is creating a team that’s exciting, that the fans love to watch, and that they’re keen and completely exuberant for the next game to come around. And of course, seeing young players develop and turn into that swan from the ugly duckling sometimes. It’s extremely fulfilling to see young players in the right environment to blossom. Maybe they’ve not quite had the right information or they’ve not had the right training routine, or culture to work in.
And of course, they’ve got to get the right amount of playing time. It’s okay saying “Look, we’ve got all thee young players and we want to bring these young players through,” and there’s six players in the starting eleven who have got zero experience. Well, those player of course will learn on the job, but the team will suffer for that. So the head coach’s job is to try and balance that out.
10Soccer: You talked about your team being technically efficient, well balanced with pace, athleticism, and creative attacking. Do you look for players to fit that mold or do you develop the team into that mold through coaching?
Coach Smith: When you’re recruiting players it’s a little bit like an architect building a temple or an apartment block. Whatever you see in your mind, you draw on paper. That picture can change as you’re looking at it to move forward practically. But then, at that point, you take a photo of it and say, “That’s what I’m doing.” That early stage is important because now you start to recruit those players that fit what you’re after. Building a team is your vision.
So the recruitment goes along those lines; pacing, creation, strength, endurance, power, a back four and a goalkeeper that are reliable. So you’re looking for those qualities in players when you’re trying to recruit.
That’s why a head coach’s philosophy of how to play is so important. And not until the head coach is clear in his mind can he start to build, because if you’re slightly confused or you waver, then the picture or the building ends up a sham. You don’t get the end product that you’re looking for.
10Soccer: Was it attractive to come in as a coach this year, when there was only a handful of players currently signed on the team? You almost had a blank sheet of paper.
Coach Smith: Exactly. Six contracted players, and quickly five because [Kwadwo] Poku was sold to New York City [FC]. One of the first real decisions to make was how big was this squad going to be? What’s our budget? Do you want a big group which means you’re diluting some of that money, but you’ve got a lot of players to choose from and a lot of competition, or do you want a smaller group that you can give players a little bit more money to and hopefully see the reward in terms of caliber that you’re signing. And I think to this point we’ve been able to attract a good caliber of player. I’ve done as much homework as I can because you want a working culture and a team that are hungry to do well. Ultimately you need a culture that’s going to work hard and appreciate that it’s their job. At the end of it, when they win, that’s the reward.
10Soccer: In talking to players, do you see that Atlanta, both the city and the team, makes playing here attractive?
Coach Smith: I think there are a lot of attractions coming to this city. There are some fabulous opportunities, at the club, the future of this club, the future of other clubs. But then outside of the soccer environment you got a big city that offers an incredible amount to people in terms of social, family, work for their wives, family members. You’ve got an incredibly good climate. You’ve got a wonderful standard of living. I’ve only seen a small slice of what Atlanta offers, but just the sheer standard of living, it’s fantastic. And it’s a big attraction for European players.
10Soccer: The NASL rosters I’ve seen have players from almost every continent, which means they have very diverse backgrounds. Does that present challenges to you and your staff from both the cultural and the soccer differences?
Coach Smith: Absolutely. For sure. The question that every coach has to ask is will this player fulfill what I’m asking of him? Secondly, can I communicate to him what I need as simply as possible? Now, at the very top level you’re going to have people that are bilingual or they’ve got somebody that will translate, but how easy is it for those players to digest? How are you going to form that rapport to build a bond and a relationship with the players? And last but not least, you bring these different cultures together and are they going to blend on the field? Have you got the right type in the right position and are they going to offer you exactly what you see?
10Soccer: You’ve hired Steve Guppy as an assistant coach. How about other assistants?
Coach Smith: I’ve spoken to probably six or eight guys in the local soccer community, just one of them that I knew from the past. And out of those guys I’ll try to come to a conclusion on how they might be able to fit into the sort of program that I’m after. Through their commitments and of course financial commitments on our side, it’s not easy to be able to attract them and say “Forget about the other job you’re doing, come to us permanently and we’ll absorb the cost of that.” That’s just not possible. But there are a lot of good caliber coaches within the Georgia soccer community that I have a chance to call upon which is great news. Atlanta, because of the sheer size of it and the volume of young soccer players, professional soccer players, and coaches – there’s so much more choice.
10Soccer: If you can successfully reach out to the local soccer community and bring those people in, that’s got to be a positive for the team.
Coach Smith: I would expect so. The other thing that’s been really noticeable is the support. There’s been a lot of good support. There’s obviously a relationship within the Georgia soccer community that has been nurtured well before I’ve got here. There’s a real nice feel for this franchise and soccer in general which is great news.
10Soccer: You’ve got experience with FA Cup and CONCACAF Champion’s League, tournaments outside of league play. Here with the Silverbacks you’re going to have U.S. Open Cup games. What’s your approach to balancing league games versus those outside competitions?
Coach Smith: It’s a simple answer really and it really connects with the similar job that I had in England with Stevenage. Just play the best team. That’s it. Of course I’ll be dictated by injuries and suspensions at any given time but I think two things apply here. The first one is the Cup’s very important to the franchise. It’s good for revenue for the club, you get through the rounds, the fans love it. It creates confidence or excitement around the town or the city. And I see that very much with the Silverbacks. With a tight group, I’m not saying there won’t be one or two changes due to issues, but in general it will be the strongest team. And secondly, the club’s got a great history in the Open Cup. Last year’s run in the Open Cup was fantastic.
10Soccer: You won the MLS Championship with the Colorado Rapids. Clearly you had a talented team but there were a lot of talented teams in MLS. What are the intangibles besides talent that puts a team over the edge to win a championship?
Coach Smith: Well, I think first of all the Championship came sooner than probably anyone expected. In my first full season we had a heartbreaking and final game of the season where we lost three – nil at Real [Salt Lake]. On the back of such heartbreaking match play in a one off game, I think it’d been branded into some of the guys’ minds, you know? I know it was mine. And when it came to that 2010 season there was a real drive and passion about the group to really achieve something that we felt we’d just somehow missed out on and it shouldn’t have been so. So there was a big driving force in the group. So that’s number one.
The second one is the players that were moved in and out. We get back to that development of the team, getting the right balance. When I signed Jeff Larentowicz at the start of 2010, we had two of the best midfield players in the MLS at the time, with Jeff and Pablo [Mastroeni]. They turned out to be an incredible partnership in the middle of that midfield. Omar [Cumings] and Conor [Casey] became a top scoring partnership in MLS. The group found a good rapport and the styling and vision that I’d seen for the team started to materialize. We had a very very good balance.
But along the way there’d been some really tough decisions. I remember trading Mehdi Ballouchy for Mac Kandji. We loved Mehdi. What a fantastic player, person, individual, character, team player. But it was at that point in the season that I just felt we needed something different and Mac offered that. It was really gut wrenching to make the deal but I felt in my heart of heart it was the right move. And there were a few others. But that is part of being their head coach.
In terms of intangibles your main players have to stay fit, and they have to stay well, and they have to stay in good form. The program that you put together daily, the right workload, all plays into it. That’s where the staff come in: the fitness coach, the trainer. Getting them back fit again when they’ve got knocks or keeping them out when they shouldn’t be training. The other coaches who are spending a lot of time and effort with some of the video footage and individual work makes such a difference. Those small percentages. Staying out in the afternoon every now and then. Working hard on set pieces, both ends of the field. Just generally keeping the team in good working order. It’s very important that everyone within the group is offering as much as they can to support the team.
All that is the product of a lot of hard work on the training field. Steve and I have been friends for a long, long time and we always had our vision of what we saw as a training environment and culture to work in – and that’s giving the players everything that we have, practically, working with them off the field on video analysis, their individual game. Along with the other staff, we were just picking up small percentages all over the field. We had a very good staff there, who should all get a huge pat on the back for what they got out of the guys. We all squeezed more out of that group. And of course the players wanted to do it. That’s the other important factor. If the players don’t want to do it and they don’t have that drive themselves, you’re still not going to win.
That is a big part of any staff member, in any sport, in any walk of life. The way you treat people, what you offer them. I think people see that if you’re going to offer more, in return you expect that they’re going to give everything that they have. If at the end of it we’re not successful, we know that we’ve done everything we possibly could.
And you want your fans to believe in you. Through thick and thin, they believe in you and what you can do. And once you get your fans on your side and they’re dragging you along you can jump some big hurdles that you might otherwise have not have done. And given the good support that the Silverbacks get, that will be part of what I need to achieve. A team that they’ll get behind, that they’ll believe in and give the team that extra percentage when we need it.