Nashville SC has gotten familiar with the road over the last month.
The Boys in Gold played six matches in October, five of which were away from Nissan Stadium. In that stretch, the team learned a lot about how to grind out results. They put those lessons to good use in a 1-1 draw on Sunday afternoon at Orlando City SC.
Orlando took a 1-0 lead in the 18’ minute, but Nashville stayed the course and equalized in the 53’ minute thanks to a Hany Mukhtar finish. It was the third time in October that Nashville came back from a deficit to earn a result, and Nashville’s fourth result in five road matches in that span.
Head Coach Gary Smith praised his team’s competitiveness in difficult circumstances on the road.
“I think we’ve played nine out of the last 12 games away from home, and we’ve managed to compete with just about every single team away from home,” Smith said. “This side is built to compete. We have an edge to us. We’ve got three or four players, and when we’re on top form, those connections are there to be seen.”
The dynamic of the match started to turn after halftime. In the first five minutes of the second half, Nashville SC owned 90% of possession. That possession and pressure paid off when CJ Sapong and Randall Leal linked up to find Mukhtar sprinting towards the box in the 53’ minute. The German Designated Player made a calm run and buried the shot into the bottom corner for his 15th goal of 2021.
Smith says the team came out with a new attitude in the second half.
“The second period saw us show some more confidence and more belief in our play,” Smith said. “The home team jumped on us in the first 15 minutes, and they had some joy from that. It’s not the first time it’s happened to a team, and it certainly won’t be the last. But we found a way to stay in it, to navigate some difficult moments, and then to get ourselves back into a better position and ask some questions of Orlando.”
With the goal, Mukhtar moved into the league lead for combined goals and assists with 27, passing New York City FC’s Valentín Castellanos. In terms of the conversation for Major League Soccer’s Landon Donovan Most Valuable Player award, Smith laid out his case for Mukhtar.
“If I’m not mistaken, the criteria for an MVP is somebody who not only scores goals, but also could be encapsulated as the talisman for that group, somebody who leads that group. And it’s probably always going to be somebody who’s creative and exciting, so let’s just look at what he gives our team. Fifteen goals is an incredible return and phenomenal for an attacking midfield player. He adds to that his assists and his creative qualities are there to see every game. He makes a difference, and he gets himself in areas that he’s going to ask questions of defenders constantly.”
With a spot in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs already secure, Nashville still heads into Decision Day with a lot on the table. While the club could have a home playoff match wrapped up with other results on Wednesday night, a win on Sunday against the New York Red Bulls, coupled with dropped points by the Philadelphia Union, could put Nashville SC back into sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference.
Smith says Sunday’s result puts Nashville in a position to earn what it wants on Decision Day.
“It’s a draw, it’s a point, and it’s a very hard-earned point,” he said. “It keeps [Orlando] at arm’s length from us and takes us one step closer to the top four.”
Tickets are still available for Sunday’s nationally televised Decision Day match here. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. CT on ESPN and ESPN Deportes.