Hany Mukhtar photo courtesy Nashville SC. He’s a candidate for MLS player of the week! Vote here.
Throughout its existence, Nashville SC has had a reputation as a defensive team. There are reasons both fair (elite defensive output!) and unfair (not a ton of goals in Year One of both USL and MLS) that this has been a hard label to shake. But why would Nashville want to shake it? The simple reason is that being branded a defensive team inherently implies a lack of offense, and thus an inability to climb from the fringes of the playoffs into the realm of the elite.
Saturday evening, Hany Mukhtar scored as many goals in the first 16 minutes as all but two MLS teams (Montreal and Cincinnati in a 5-4 head-to-head cracker) notched in the entire weekend. Indeed, he outscored the entire output of both teams in five of the MLS games that were played over the weekend.
When the dust settled, Mukhtar’s MLS-record hat trick (completed earlier than any other in league history) was more than enough to beat Chicago Fire, but teammates CJ Sapong and Tah Brian Anunga added tallies for good measure for a 5-1 trouncing of the Windy City side.
“Tonight, I think maybe we just got some of the reward that we’ve, seen either not quite go our way or squandered in the past, and certainly results that I felt we’ve deserved,” said head coach Gary Smith. “But tonight, we got what we deserved. We managed the game well when we needed to, and five goals is always a very nice feel.”
The headman’s not wrong about Nashville having given up points by squandering chances (or allowing opponents to score from low-probability opportunities). In four home draws alone, the team has notched expected goals totals much higher than the opposition, but FC Cincinnati, CF Montreal (twice), and Atlanta United were able to escape with draws.
On this night, Mukhtar was able to turn 1.13 expected goals into three of the kind that actually count on the scoresheet. That led to an offensive breakout for the Boys in Gold, but more importantly, it may be a weight off the shoulders of the German. His Designated Player status puts an easy target on his back, and he had experienced his ups and downs through the early stages of the season. A performance that needs no qualifiers when discussing its high level shows that he just may be ready to move beyond range of criticism that followed him last year and into this season’s early stages.
“Amazing day for me, I mean it’s not happened every time, but I work hard every training, and I will keep doing it,” Mukhtar said. “Of course, I am very happy, but we have to continue this way – and me, I have to continue this way – and a lot of work in front of me.
“Last year, I never – I hate to find excuses – last year was one of the most difficult years for everyone, and me of course. New country, no one could visit me because of the pandemic. But I don’t want to look back. But in the end, now I know the guys better, and they know me better, they know my strengths, and I know their strengths, so it fits better. It take always time, but I think still we can develop a lot of our game.”
His head coach echoed the sentiments, acknowledging that, fair or not, Mukhtar’s going to be held to a higher standard than his teammates, and needs to live up to it.
“He’s been extremely bright along with other two lads up front,” Smith said. “They’ve really given us purpose and a buzz about our frontline that, when you’re at home, you desperately need, of course.
“As part of that attacking group, he has been a real catalyst not just obviously for his own gain, but for others as well. And I couldn’t be more delighted for him. As I think I said in here, or someone in the changing room, that it’s the quickest MLS hat trick in history I believe, so to that degree, it’s a nice record for him to hold at this point.”
A Nashville team that has spent this entire season near the top of the expected goals charts has felt due for a breakout, given that the Boys in Gold haven’t always been able to convert. But the team has now scored 21 goals on 23.44 expected. It may not be possible for the side to shake a reputation as being offense-free, no matter what happens. But fourth in the league in Goals Scored, sixth in the league in points per game (i.e. the Supporter’s Shield race), and it’s hard to deny that this squad is developing new angles and characteristics.
When Anunga – a defensive midfielder known mostly for ensuring that “defensive” was the more-visible aspect of his game than “midfielder” during his first year-plus in Nashville – is out scoring goals for fun against what had been one of the hotter MLS teams in the past few weeks, it’s hard to deny that the book on NSC’s national perception at the very least requires a new chapter.
“I’ve been given a little bit of license to go forward, which was not the case last year, because we were not in that spot to like open up the field and go forward,” Anunga said. “We have a much better balance and understanding now. Like, I’m being told a little bit from the coaching staff to maybe drive forward a little bit, which wasn’t much my role last year, was more stable, stay in, and helping stabilize things. But I’ve been given a little bit of a license, I think.”
It wasn’t a perfect performance by any stretch – Chicago cut the lead to 4-1 almost immediately out of the halftime break. While coming all the way back wasn’t likely to happen with a red card issued to Johan Kappelhof on the play that led to Mukhtar’s third goal, the Fire showed signs of life even a man down that Nashville would like to, uh, not have happen.
There’s a major caveat to all of NSC’s success so far this year: the vast majority of it has come at home. The only three roadtrips thus far have resulted in a loss (2-0 to New York Red Bulls) and a pair of draws (scoreless at Real Salt Lake, and 2-2 against Atlanta United before the Five Stripes utterly imploded). A midweek journey up to Columbus, Ohio – where the Crew is consistently one of the most formidable sides in the league – will provide another chance to prove that this team is for real.
“I was feeling good before the game, and I knew we could do it, because I believe in the training sessions that we’ve been having all week,” Anunga said. “So it’s a good boost to go into Columbus, and why not get a result?”
The game kicks at 6:30 CDT (7:30 local) Wednesday evening. If Nashville can get a win – even a result – it’s a statement to the rest of the league that this squad is serious about contending in the East.
- I’m still suspicious that Mukhtar’s goal may actually be the fastest in MLS history. If the opener, which came at 9:57, had been three seconds later, we’d be talking about a tie for the fastest. The final one came at 15:28, so 5:31 is the benchmark we’re looking at here. Still hunting down a to-the-second boxscore (or a broadcast-style highlight that has a visible clock) for Harut Karapetyan’s faster hat trick.
- With three goals on 1.13 xG, Hany Mukhtar is now well above his expected conversion: he’s at 7 goals on 5.63 xG for the season now. As I’ve been preaching as Nashville’s aggregate G-xG has been ugly, so too is that the case with individual players. Certainly there’s more every player can do, but the “Mukhtar doesn’t produce” narrative doesn’t really hold water at this point. ASA has switched him to striker (which he really doesn’t play aside from the Philly game, except situationally), but if listed with CAMs, he’d be No. 1 in goals scored and xG, and while his assist numbers (No. 15 in xA, ninth in assists at the position) aren’t elite, the dude’s putting up numbers for one of MLS’s best offenses.
- It’s pretty disappointing to see this team give up another soft goal. Unlike the set-piece chances in recent games, Joe Willis didn’t really have much to say about this one, and was totally laid out to dry by his backline. That it evolved from a situation where it felt like NSC missed a few chances to clear (I’ll have to give it a look for a potential film room piece) is even more frustrating. The same caveats about not having Walker Zimmerman and Alistair Johnston (and Aníbal Godoy) apply. But the depth still has to avoid the mistakes.
- Speaking of no Zimmerman and no mistakes, the set-piece defense looked very good. When much of NSC’s struggle had been “Jack Maher isn’t the athlete Zimmerman is,” I don’t know that there was a ton Smith could do other than say “jump higher,” but a Chicago team that’s very set-piece-reliant didn’t produce much.
- The elephant in the room here is the red card. Nashville wouldn’t have been as dominant if Chicago had the full complement of players for the vast majority of the game. That Nashville went from a 3-0 lead (0.69-0.00 in xG) to 5-1 (2.66-1.98 xG) despite having an 80-plus-minute man advantage is a little worrisome.
- Gamestate effects come into that, of course. Chicago was throwing numbers forward knowing that the difference between 3-0 and, like 70-0 is less meaningful than the difference between 3-0 and 3-1. Nashville wasn’t going out of its way to generate and take chances – and was still doing so, and scored a couple more goals – so it’s not worth sweating. It does take some shine off the advanced numbers, though.
- I know they have some really talented players, but Chicago was approximately as awful as I expected. Couldn’t defend even before going a man down, and they don’t have a ton of ideas other than “have our players be talented.” With the understood caveats that they were without their head coach – tactical and emotional effects in play there – it was ugly.