Hany Mukhtar photo from file/Courtesy Nashville SC
There’s no denying that, for all the team’s perhaps-unexpected success in its expansion season, there have been a few obvious holes in Nashville SC’s inaugural MLS performance. Notably, there’s been a bit of difficulty in the goal-scoring department. Entering Wednesday night’s trip to Houston, the Boys in Gold were bringing up the rear in the goal-scoring table, with just 0.75 goals scored per game.
It also stands to reason that, without a number of top players available – forwards David Accam and Daniel Ríos still on the injury list, Best-XI centerback Walker Zimmerman resting a nagging issue before it escalated, with captain Dax McCarty and left back Dan Lovitz doing the same – the team would not have a sterling performance on the road in Houston.
“A big part of the decision-making process tonight was to offer guys like Dax and Lovitz the opportunities to really rest, and not put them in a position where they were going to put themselves at risk with injury, and they were able to do that,” said head coach Gary Smith. “There’ve been other guys in the group, and we’ve mentioned them coming on in the game, and that works towards them being in a good spot.”
Although the injury list itself was not as significant (McCarty and Lovitz were available off the bench, for example), the players Smith was confident putting into the starting lineup didn’t quite fit the team’s typical 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 shapes. Instead, he was forced into using a three-man backline for the simple sake of getting the top available players on the pitch.
That it resulted in an offensive explosion in a 3-1 victory over the host Houston Dynamo may have been a bit of a pleasant surprise.
“I just felt that the guys we had available, the shape actually lent itself better to the group than necessarily trying to fit them into a shape that might have been a little more awkward for one or two individuals,” he said. “And they took every single facet of playing in this 3-4-3 shape to a ‘T.’ Defensively they looked sound, and we obviously gave ourselves some exceptional attacking moments.”
Those attacking moments largely came from the performance of attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar. The team’s highest-compensated player, it’d be fair to have classed Mukhtar’s debut season as a disappointment through 16 games. The displays he showed with Denmark’s Brøndby IF didn’t quite translate into the free-flowing, chance-creating attacker Nashville SC expected. With just a goal and three assists (two of those from set pieces) on the year, the hope was that his year of adjustment to MLS – in the most difficult year ever to have to make such a transition – would portend a breakout in his sophomore campaign in America.
Mukhtar silenced many of those doubts with aplomb with two goals, including the game opener. Playing a 1-2 combination with forward Abu Danladi at the top of Houston’s penalty area, he found just enough space to slide the ball past Dynamo keeper Marko Marić.
“To be honest, the first, I wanted to chip the ball, but the goalkeeper waited pretty long, so I decided just to put it in the corner,” Mukhtar said. “I’m happy that I could help the team with the first goal. The most important is that we are coming close to the playoff spots, and I think for us as a team, it’s important for us to see that we are able to score goals, that we are able to play attractive football.”
Mukhtar contributed to Nashville’s second goal, playing a backheel to Taylor Washington that was converted with a thumping header by Danladi (himself recovering from a disappointing year, though his frustration has been primarily due to injury). By the time Mukhtar curled a free kick into the top corner of the net and gave his team a 3-0 lead before 23 minutes of gametime had elapsed, the decision seemed like it was never in doubt.
The German Designated Player has started to come good, and if he maintains his level of performance through the final six regular-season games, Nashville will have much more to play for than simply silencing the doubters.
“He played with enthusiasm, energy,” Smith said of Mukhtar. “He was a spark for the team, and as I’ve said, he was an inspiration for the other guys around him. On nights like tonight, it’s so very important that some of your top talent, and your top creators come up trumps, and he certainly did that tonight.”
Thanks to the comfortable lead, Smith was able to make some significant changes at the half, removing both Mukhtar and Danladi in the name of preserving their health. The Dynamo didn’t simply go away, though, and when Darwin Quintero pulled one back in the 75th minute, there was a storm for the Boys in Gold to weather.
“There was always going to be a period – it came in the second half – understandably, players were committing forward in the Houston group, and this is not an easy place to come and get a result, a victory,” Smith explained. “They have a fantastic home record for a reason, and they have a lot of very, very talented guys. After the goal was conceded, I did feel that there was a very, very important five or six minutes coming up, and if we could just navigate that, then we might be able to see it through, and we did just that. In the process, we saw three or four unbelievable one-v-one opportunities, and to be quite honest, we may well have extended our lead ourselves.”
With the result settled reasonably early, the primary source of excitement for Nashville SC was the debut of new signing Jhonder Cádiz. The 6-3 striker even had a potential moment to open his scoring account in Gold, though a heavy touch when he was in alone on Marić gave the Dynamo netminder a chance to claim the ball before Cádiz could shoot. That’s an understandable amount of rust for a player whose last competitive action came in early March, and whose time in Nashville has barely exceeded two weeks (most of which he spent away from the training pitch as part of his quarantine after arriving in the country).
“I felt very well,” Cádiz said through a Spanish translator. “Obviously, it’s been seven months that I’ve not been able to play, so I feel tired. I don’t have that game rhythm or match rhythm, but I’m happy. I’m happy for my teammates, I’m happy for the win, and I’m happy at the collective level. At the personal level, I need to continue working and get ready for the next opportunity.”
Given that he’s expected to be the piece to help open the goal-scoring and take this team to the next level – though Mukhtar’s blossoming certainly has an argument to be just as significant – Cádiz’s debut is expected to be just a sign of things to come. He hopes to turn his incredible potential into production for the team. The players around him appear to be perfectly poised to all take that step together./
“As a team, obviously our goal is to make the playoffs and go as far as we possibly can,” Cádiz said. “As a person and individual, you see I was signed to score goals – that’s my job, and to help the team. My goal is to do exactly that: score more goals, have some unity, help the team to get that objective.”
Nashville SC makes its next statement in the playoff race Tuesday, hosting FC Dallas at Nissan Stadium. Now that the Boys in Gold have moved comfortably into the postseason positions, continuing to maintain that standing – and improve upon it – will be the goal. The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m., and if Nashville earns the same type of results in its two-game home series against FC Dallas (the second contest comes Nov. 4) as it did with a win and a draw in two games in Frisco, an exciting debut season for the club will certainly continue deep into the Fall.