Hany Mukhtar photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer
Going into a two-goal deficit is, according to reports, not an ideal way to begin a soccer game. Nashville SC is well aware of that: the Boys in Gold faced down an 0-2 hole for the third time this season in Saturday’s game against Atlanta United. What Gary Smith’s team doesn’t know, however, if defeat: once again – and against the toughest opposition yet – they were able to find a pair of tallies to take a draw.
Atlanta United may not be the juggernaut it was in 2018 and 2019. But Mercedes Benz Stadium is a difficult place for opponents to find results, and the Five Stripes had never given up a two-goal lead to draw or lose a game, no matter where the team was playing.
“It’s tough to see where two goals were going to come from, up until the point that Hany scored,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “You keep hoping, and you try to urge the players on.”
It was the club’s first Designated Player scoring not just once, but twice after the 80th minute to salvage a draw for Nashville SC. Former Germany Youth International Hany Mukhtar made his first start since suffering a hamstring injury May 2 against Inter Miami. While he was out for just one contest, he was relegated to two appearances off the bench as he was eased back into the swing of things.
Fans may be excused for thinking he came off the bench Saturday, as well. He had just one shot (from well outside the box) and no key passes until he managed to change the game. He touched an 80th-minute pass from Dan Lovitz past Atlanta defender Brooks Lennon, and slotted to the far post, leaving keeper Brad Guzan helpless. Just three minutes later, a deflected ball in the box found Mukhtar all alone, and he went near-post to bring things level.
“We know, we said in the halftime: we are a strong team, we are a good team,” Mukhtar said. “So we need to always believe in ourself, even when we are playing bad – or not playing bad, but we are behind. You never have like a good, good feeling. So we just have to keep the head up and work hard.
“It was a pretty similar goal to my goal against Montreal. I each get a good touch, then I come in front of the opponent. Then yeah, just low-corner. I hit the target from there. I’m happy to help the team.”
A disappointing performance from the Nashville defense almost led to the side’s first defeat of the year. It was a South American flair to proceedings – as it often is for the Five Stripes – but Argentine Marcelino Moreno and Paraguayan Erik Lopez, rather than prolific goal-scorer Josef Martinez (himself a Venezuelan) provided the offense.
On Moreno’s goal in particular, a ball over the top from midfield gave Nashville’s backline a bit of uncharacteristic struggle. Dave Romney’s recovery run could do little to prevent a shot – and instead screened goalkeeper Joe Willis from seeing it. After that tally came six minutes into the contest, ATL was able to strike six minutes into the second half, as well, with Lopez executing a lovely flick to beat Willis to the ball.
“Look: if you’re going to get scored on, you want it to be an absolutely world-class goal,” said centerback Walker Zimmerman. “That’s just not the reality for either goal tonight. I know that we’re not going to be happy with the types of goals that we allowed. It definitely is frustrating, but again, super-proud of the group for showing some fight and getting us a point out of here.”
Escaping with a draw is a positive result, given the circumstances, but NSC almost managed to steal all three points. Dom Badji got a solo run in on Guzan just two minutes after Mukhtar’s second, but the veteran keeper managed to make the save. All Badji got to show for it was a badly twisted ankle – but with the Boys in Gold already exhausting their substitutions, he gutted out the final 10 minutes.
“When you look at Dominique Badji – he turns his ankle badly – the character that he’s shown to hobble that half out was really, really important to us,” Smith said. “We needed that extra body out there. It enabled me to do one or two other things to see the game out.
“But that is what rivalry games dish up. You often walk into a match thinking ‘Ok, this could well be the path we travel and the journey we take.’ And by the end of it, it looks nothing like the one you had in your mind. That’s certainly how the day unfolded.”
Making the most out of a less-than-ideal situation has been a bit of a theme for this Nashville SC team seven games into the year. The squad has had front-to-back positive performances, as well, but its resiliency must not be overlooked.
With a couple weeks to rest over the international window (to-date, Venezuela’s Jhonder Cádiz, Canada’s Alistair Johnston, and Costa Rica’s Randall Leal have been called up to compete for their countries), the Boys in Gold will hope to smooth over some of the wrinkles in their game, and hope the good times truly get rolling. The next opportunity comes June 18 with just the third road trip of the year, taking on New York Red Bulls in Harrison, N.J.
- Big shoutout to my C&C pos cohost West Boling for the inspiration to look up the Atlanta United stat. Obviously the Five Stripes only have four years worth of résumé, but never dropping a result after a multi-goal lead is… now in the dustbin of history. Nashville SC is one of just a few teams to beat the Five Stripes when Atlanta even scores multiple goals (4-2 in Nissan Stadium last year), as well.
- Luke Haakenson and Matt LaGrassa – certainly more LaGrassa than the preseason-hyped Haakenson – are sort of forgotten men on this roster at times, but both put in incredible shifts to help tie and then see out the game. “Big shout to them.”
- Badji’s finishing has not been good with Nashville SC. It has been particularly bad this year. But man, nobody will ever be able to doubt the guy’s heart. He was struggling at the end there, but knew that providing a body in the penalty area (even if he couldn’t move much) would be better than leaving his team short-handed. I alluded to it in the column, but that’s an embodiment of this team’s ethos, all the way.
- Atlanta looks quite a bit less impressive after Austin managed to also earn a draw at Seattle, but this Five Stripes team is still pretty good. The healthier Josef gets, the more formidable they’ll be. Getting them before he’s really cookin’ is helpful.
- I saw a lot of grief for Joe Willis* on the first Atlanta goal, and while you can always say the keeper shares some blame when the ball goes into the back of the net, that was a Romney issue through-and-through. His drop on the longball was poor, his recovery run put him in good-not-great position, and he was unable to block the shot. Do all that while getting into your keeper’s line of vision when the shot comes so he’s got no view of it? Very bad. I’ve been very clear that I think Romney is perhaps the best player on this team, but Saturday was not his finest day.
- Speaking of not-finest-day status, Randall Leal was rather quiet. Just two shots, and although one of them was a trademark “more dangerous than it should be from that position” long blast, he was not as involved as he usually is.
* Shop style guide commands he is first-last on every reference.