The ball was still in the back of the net when the chants began to fill Nissan Stadium.
“M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!”
In the 74th minute of a tense 1-1 playoff game against Orlando City SC, Nashville SC’s Hany Mukhtar took matters into his own hands, cutting from the right wing across three Orlando players and unleashing a left-footed shot from the top of the penalty box into the right corner of the goal. In all, five defenders and Orlando goalkeeper Pedro Gallese had a good view of the strike. Mukhtar, the diminutive attacker ran toward the packed stands to claim his reward.
“M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” thundered the second-largest Nashville crowd of the year.
The race for Major League Soccer’s Most Valuable Player Award is widely considered a toss-up, though two players have received a lot of attention: Valentín Castellanos from NYCFC won the Golden Boot for the most goals while Carles Gil of New England Revolution was the best player on the runaway best team in the league. But Mukhtar’s ability to rise to the occasion has put him squarely in the race. Eight of his 16 regular-season goals and seven of his 12 assists came after Nashville conceded an opening goal. He’s got a knack for the big moment.
“You want your big players to turn up on the bigger occasions,” coach Gary Smith said after the game. “And he’s done that tonight.”
To be fair, Mukhtar’s heroics have been necessary because of Nashville’s tendency to concede early goals, and this game was no different. After a fairly even opening to the game, bruising forward Daryl Dike got free on a corner kick and headed a goal past NSC keeper Joe Willis in the 14th minute. But Mukhtar responded seven minutes later with a shot that deflected off of an Orlando defender and past Gallese. A little bit lucky? Sure. But as he noted in the postgame, sometimes you earn your own luck.
The game was played before 26,043 fans, and if this is NSC’s final game at Nissan Stadium — their new, soccer-specific stadium at the Fairgrounds Nashville will be ready next season, and Nashville is one of the lower remaining seeds in the East — the team closed the place out in style with a memorable win. Center back and Defender of the Year candidate Walker Zimmerman controlled the penalty area, turning away numerous Orlando chances in the air. Despite giving up the Dike goal, the defense only allowed one other shot on target for the rest of the game.
“His head’s like a magnet,” Smith said. “If Walker Zimmerman’s not the best center back in this league and many others, I’d be surprised.”
There were any number of standout performances in the game. Alistair Johnston, who recently starred in Canada’s win over Mexico, moved from his typical outside back position to a more central slot in Nashville’s three-man back line, due to an injury to Dave Romney. Johnston led the team in both touches and tackles. Aníbal Godoy completed 90 percent of his passes and won six fouls in the midfield. And striker Jhonder Cádiz, who has spent most of the season buried on the bench, posted up his defender to receive a long pass from Daniel Lovitz, then turned and belted in a 93rd-minute goal to seal the game.
But in the end, it was Mukhtar’s night. After Orlando began to control the game after halftime — City held the ball for 65 percent of the second half — the attacker turned the game with that 74th-minute strike.
“We all felt it, that they had a little bit more possession and a little bit more control of the game,” Mukhtar said. “We know that in these playoff games, it’s all about one situation where you make a decisive move. All of the ball possession they had was good ... but in the end they didn’t create good chances. It’s all about the small situations to make it count.”
And according to at least 26,000 at Nissan, that makes you an MVP.