Nashville SC

For Music City Mukhtar, A Salute

Photo and artwork by Mike Meredith/Club and Country

On an August evening in 2019, a young man stepped off a private jet at Nashville International Airport.

It probably wasn’t the first time he’d been on one – after all, this was a onetime Germany Youth International, with stints playing professional soccer for Hertha Berlin, Red Bull Salzburg, Benfica, Brøndby. Hany Mukhtar was nothing if not experienced in the life of a professional athlete. But his next step would be the biggest.

That evening, he knew he was making official his signing as Nashville Soccer Club’s first Designated Player. He knew that he would likely be relied upon to spearhead the attacking group for the Boys in Gold. That wasn’t new to him: forged in the fires of the Hertha academy in his native Germany, he’d blossomed into the primary creative force in his four seasons at Brøndby, just north of the border in Denmark.

But there was no way Mukhtar would know just how much his game would grow, and how much success he’d find when he finally stepped foot in Music City.

After all the delays in getting to Nashville (including the signing itself, delayed by a trip to visit extended family in Sudan), he was finally ready to take the reins. He didn’t officially record an assist on the first goal in club history – his free-kick service led to a blocked header for Walker Zimmerman, who then poked in his own rebound – but his contribution to the matter was crucial. A global pandemic, uh, affected the rest of the way that year turned out. He tied for the team lead in each major category with a paltry four goals and four assists. But there was no questioning his importance to the team. He led the way with 24 key passes, competed 84.8% of his passing attempts despite operating in condensed areas high up the field, and combined well with his teammates.

He was a very nice player, but certainly not a future MVP.

2021 changed that. After a Labor-Management battle delayed the start of the season, Nashville SC began with a three-game draw streak that didn’t seem to portend big things. FC Cincinnati was one of the worst teams in the league the previous year (and indeed, would go on to win a third-straight Wooden Spoon as the worst team in MLS), CF Montreal was on the heels of a first-round playoff exit (which represented its high-water mark in the league to that point), and fellow 2020 expansion team Inter Miami CF (whom Nashville SC had bounced 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs the previous season) was not exactly Menchester City.

The fourth game provided a glimpse of what Nashville SC could be, with a 2-0 win over a New England Revolution side that would ultimately go on to set an MLS points record. But neither Mukhtar not Revs talisman Carles Gil found the scoresheet, and it certainly didn’t feel like a matchup of the two players who would run away from the field for the playoff race.

MLS President Mark Abbott presents Mukhtar with his trophy

NSC would ultimately finish third in the Eastern Conference, and New England’s record-setting pace was too much for Mukhtar to overcome on an individual basis. Even his league-leading 28 goals and assists (16 and 12) wasn’t enough when Gil put up 18 assists for a blistering Revs attack. While both teams bowed out on penalties in the conference semifinals that year, only Mukhtar would keep up the production the following year.

Mukhtar didn’t score until the seventh match in 2022. But from there, the German was not to be stopped. He led the league with 23 goals, winning the Major League Soccer Golden Boot. Despite bearing much of the burden for his team in putting the ball into the back of the net, he managed to tie for ninth in the league with 11 assists. On the heels of a runner-up performance the previous season, he won by only a slightly smaller margin than Gil had beaten him by the previous year (48.03% to 16.80% for Austin FC’s Sebastian Driussi, compared to the 52.07-11.80% in favor of Gil for 2021).

Along the way, Mukhtar didn’t just score a lot of goals. In many ways, he became soccer in Nashville. General Manager Mike Jacobs extended his contract – with a hefty raise – in the run-up to the 2022 season. The team success didn’t quite live up to expectations: Nashville finished fifth in the Western Conference, and fell in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. But with Mukhtar on the pitch, the future is still bright for the Boys in Gold. He met his fiancee in Music City. He plans to open a soccer academy in his new hometown, with a first camp held over the Thanksgiving holiday.

From Berlin to Nashville, Hany Mukhtar has blazed a trail. And now, he has the hardware to show it.

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