NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Big moments require big players to step up.
Midfielder Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC’s first Designated Player, made the plays that put Nashville into the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a 1-0 win on the road over Toronto FC.
He saw a header sail over the net in the 72nd minute, another header hit the crossbar in the 90th, and his wonderful chipped goal overturned for offside in the 99th. Despite all of that, Mukhtar kept his head down and worked.
He finally got his moment in the 108th minute when he weaved through three Toronto defenders and put a shot on target that required a narrow save from Toronto’s keeper Quentin Westberg. The shot trickled towards the net, where forward Daniel Ríos pounced to ensure Nashville went in front and secured the win.
Head Coach Gary Smith says Mukhtar has gotten more comfortable as he has adjusted to the rigors of Major League Soccer, a new country and playing in the midst of a global pandemic.
“He’s a very different player,” Smith said. “He is a natural 10, but he has a tremendous amount of energy and wonderful team ethic. We rely on him to be creative, and we rely on him to be a focal point in our attacks. I think the travel, the heat, the change of environment and the change of personnel in the teammates have all been big factors in him settling in, staying healthy and getting a run of games. If you look at his last three or four performances, he’s been a difference maker. In the last two games he’s been outstanding. We’re delighted he’s feeling more comfortable and is displaying all the qualities we always knew he had.”
Mukhtar was the key cog for the Boys in Gold all night long, completing 81.1% of his passes and leading the team in shots with six. Over his last four appearances, Mukhtar has four goals and two assists. While he wasn’t credited with an assist on Ríos’ goal, Mukhtar says the play came straight from the training ground.
“All I remember was a great ball from [Daniel] Ríos,” Mukhtar said. “We train all the time 1v1 for this situation. I tried to do my best to get the shot off. Unfortunately, the goalkeeper saved it, but Ríos is a goal-scorer, and he got the goal. I’m very happy with the result.”
Now, Nashville SC turns its attention to Sunday night and the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Columbus Crew SC. After outshooting the second-best team in the conference 21-12 and pulling out a well-earned victory, Ríos says he feels ready for what comes next.
“I feel confident, but obviously we know that there is still a job to do,” he said. “There are never easy games, and every game is different. We’ll be ready for the semifinal.”
Nashville SC faces Columbus Crew SC on Sunday at 7 p.m. CT live on ESPN, ESPN Deportes, ESPN 94.9 and El Jefe 96.7.