Also: do not forget to vote in the Community Ratings!
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal begin to click, Nashville SC’s potential takes on an entirely different ceiling. The Designated Player duo has struggled at times this season – Mukhtar’s two free-kick assists were the only scoreboard production through seven games – but combining for a goal Wednesday evening could help begin to turn the corner.
Mukhtar assisted Leal’s first goal in Gold, and Nashville SC was able to hold Orlando City SC to a 1-1 draw in Nissan Stadium.
“We’ve trained a long time together, and we find each other, and the connection will get better with more games and more games,” Mukhtar said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“I’m very happy,” added Leal. “I’m very happy but we will go home disappointed because we want to win… We have to win all the games here at home, so always, it’s pressing at home. Now, I think the goal is less important for the moment, and the important thing is we are getting points – important points – and we have to go forward.”
The strike, coming just minutes into the second half, allowed Nashville SC to show that a re-focused mindset coming after the break would change the nature of the contest. A 45-55% possession disadvantage in the first half was a result of an inability to maintain precision and direction through the midfield. Nashville SC didn’t give up many good chances to the Lions – even Benji Michel’s 17th-minute goal was a screamer from outside the box – but was unable to create much for itself, too.
Coming out of the half, Nashville was determined to avoid a repeat of the previous games between the clubs, just a week earlier, when Orlando took the game by the throat in the second 45 minutes.
“The difficulty for us was actually building and gaining some traction in the game,” head coach Gary Smith said of the first half. “We squandered the ball too easily, it wasn’t precious enough to us. And in the second half, I felt the team did a much, much better job of just working Orlando over, and making them run, and asking them some defensive questions. That started from almost the first two or three minutes of the second half.”
In particular, getting Mukhtar and Leal performing at a high level was a key.
“In the first period, it was far too easy for their defensive shape and team organization to deal with two of our most creative players,” Smith said. “Randall spent too much time in front of defenders, and in a position where he’s easy to mark – or certainly he found it very very tough to get away from anyone. There were two instances where he stayed wide and got himself in good positioins, and he actually created – on his own – two shooting opportunities. Same applies to Hany. Slightly different to Hany, you know. When we’re building out, he’s got slightly more license to overload areas, but he’s at his very best when he’s behind midfield players, in front of defenders, getting in those half-pockets and on the half-turn, and asking questions of the backline. Second half, he did that more often.
“We were giving a lot of wrong pass and everything,” Leal said. “He told us in the second half we have to show something more, and we can do it. I think the second half, we go to the pitch with another mind and everything, and then we get the first goal quick.”
Nashville SC took the same number of shots in each half – four apiece – but they were far more dangerous in the second, with three testing the keeper (as opposed to one in the first half), and tilted the possession battle to have 53% of the ball after the break, too.
The second-half collapse in Orlando the previous week is easy to forget when the Boys in Gold were the aggressor in the second half at Nissan Stadium until “hold on for dear life” time. The ability to control the second half of play was in part facilitated by a much less stressful travel schedule. The trip to Orlando was the fourth road game – with same-day in-and-out travel as part of the first phase of MLS’s return-to-play protocols – in two weeks, whereas this game allowed NSC to play in the friendly confines of Nissan Stadium. Shockingly, not having to board a flight and play a game in the same day is conducive to a higher caliber of play.
“I think it helped enormously, Smith said. “I think I saw an Orlando team there that were starting to show some signs of fatigue, as you might expect.
“Tonight, they showed the signs. It’s not easy. You get up early in the morning, you want to get to your venue as early as you can so the players can settle in, have a rest – possibly even a sleep – get the right food in order. They’re not in their natural surrounds. Tonight – not just tonight: I felt as though we showed some very, very good signs against Miami – that’s two games at home now since the difficulties that we had and this new restart. I’ve seen some really positive aspects of our game.”
That’s not to say that the “hold on for dear life” time was a non-factor. A 79th-minute touch from midfield Captain Dax McCarty nearly went into his own net, ultimately pinging the outside of the post for a corner kick. Joe Willis was forced off his line to make a save against a completely unmarked Júnior Urso. And of course, in the end, a draw is still just one point in the table, whereas the squad would certainly have been far happier to come away with the win and all three points.
Against an Orlando team that is in the top three in the Eastern Conference table (while Nashville is climbing its way back from a tough start to the season, and at times inconsistent results since the restart, and sits No. 12), and has been one of the hottest teams in the league since the beginning of the MLS is Back Tournament – in which Nashville SC was unable to participate – any result is nothing to look down upon.
Particularly when it has the added bonus of perhaps opening up the potential of Nashville’s two highest-profile players, it can be taken as a major step in the right direction.
“It’s just nice to see those two combine,” Smith said. “There was just a real energy about the opening exchanges. Delighted to see those two in the thick of it. We’ve been in some very very good positions, and Randall probably more so than Hany has had some great chances to open his account, and hasn’t been able to. So it was very, very pleasing not only to see him score, but obviously to get ourselves back on track so early, and give the group a lift.”
The Boys in Gold have just three days off once again in their strenuous restart to the season, and will hit the pitch in Miami Sunday evening. NSC knocked off Inter Miami CF at Nissan earlier this week. Taking that show on the road could be yet another building block toward a strong debut year in Nashville.
Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar photo by Sierra Swenson/Courtesy Nashville SC