NASHVILLE - Before the 15th minute on Wednesday night against the Houston Dynamo, Nashville Soccer Club was a team looking to keep up in the playoff race with a heavily-rotated lineup on the road.
By the 23rd minute, everything had changed.
Hany Mukhtar’s brace and Abu Danladi’s thundering header in an eight-minute span gave Nashville SC a massive 3-1 win over Houston. With the win, Nashville earned its largest road margin of victory in its Major League Soccer history and earned three crucial points in the standings, vaulting the first-year club back above the playoff line to eighth place.
Smith says he couldn’t be prouder of his group for a gutsy performance under arduous circumstances.
“When you take into consideration the amount of changes, the changing team shape, the output and the professionalism of the group, to give that sort of display with just two days of preparation is remarkable,” Smith said. “These guys for me tonight are absolute heroes, they put so much into that.”
Nashville’s lineup on Wednesday was the club’s youngest in its MLS history. While veterans such as Walker Zimmerman and Dax McCarty rested for this match, young up-and-comers such as Jack Maher and Tah Brian Anunga slotted in and performed well. But even with such a young lineup, one of Nashville’s key cogs in Mukhtar stepped up to lead the way.
Mukhtar, Nashville’s first Designated Player signing, had his best match of the season with two goals and an assist. His world-class free-kick goal in the 23rd minute was nominated for Goal of the Week, and his overall performance earned him MLS Player of the Week honors.
Smith says he was delighted to see Mukhtar perform at such a high level.
“His performance tonight was where I think he would like it to be for sure,” Smith said. “He knows he’s capable of it. Coaches and players alike know it. He is an inspiration when he plays in that way. It wasn’t just the goals; it was his general play. He played with enthusiasm and energy. It was a spark for the team, and as I said he was an inspiration for the other guys around him. It was a nice light tonight, and it’s so very important that some of your top talent and top players come up trumps, and he certainly did that tonight.”
Wednesday’s match also saw the debut of Designated Player and forward Jhonder Cádiz, who subbed on in the 70th minute and took two shots in his first appearance. Smith says he was happy to see Cádiz on the pitch while he builds up his match fitness. The striker hadn’t seen match time since the French Ligue 1 season shut down in March.
“Jhonder is working through his integration in the group and what we would classify as a match fitness scenario,” Smith said. “Tonight’s performance gives him 23-24 minutes to try and build that base. He looked physically very capable; he’s a mobile guy as well. Once he gets a little sharper and more up to speed, you can see he’s got that trick and disguise to go beyond someone and turn the pace. Everything that we all saw in Jhonder I think he’s showing in very small doses.”
For Cádiz, he says he’s just happy to be in the group and help contribute to the club’s high aspirations this season.
“As a team, our goal is to make the playoffs and go as far as we possibly can,” he said. “As a person, I was signed to score goals. That’s my job and to help the team. My goal is exactly that: score more goals and help the team in reaching our objective.”