When production catches up to potential for Nashville SC's Hany Mukhtar, watch out | Estes
No jersey number in sports is like No. 10 for a soccer team.
The No. 10, typically, isn’t just a star but the straw that stirs the drink. It's the playmaker, the intangible force that makes the beautiful game even more so, an attacking midfielder who runs the show and makes things happen that most could not.
Pele wore No. 10. Maradona wore it. Lionel Messi wears it.
And it has been apparent since last summer which player would wear it for Nashville SC.
When German-born Hany Mukhtar first set foot in Nashville, he did so while exiting John Ingram’s private plane. The soccer club’s majority owner sent his jet for Mukhtar, who signed in August last year as Nashville SC’s first designated player — an MLS tag for special cases and bigger names, allowing the cost to not hurt cap space.
In a league where a lot of players still don’t make $100,000, Nashville paid a transfer fee of roughly $2.85 million to land Mukhtar from Brondby IF in Denmark, according to ESPN. “Hany is a big piece of our vision,” Ingram said at the time.
You can already see why. On a soccer field, Mukhtar stands out as a reminder that some people are just born with gifts that few others possess. He can make the difficult look effortless, like a true No. 10.
“Hany is a very, very talented player,” said Nashville SC coach Gary Smith.
Nashville SC’s leadership didn’t bring Mukhtar here to score goals as much as create them. But right now, the club would take either.
With a record of 2-4-2, Nashville hasn’t been terrible as an expansion team. What success it has enjoyed, however, has been largely built on sound defense. The team hasn’t scored more than one goal in any of its games, including Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw with Orlando City at Nissan Stadium. Fair or not, the lack of scoring tends to fall more on Mukhtar than any other player, simply because of his expectations.
Mukhtar’s ability is so obvious that it’s easy to be impatient and overlook the realities of a 25-year-old still growing accustomed to a new team, league and country — and doing it in the middle of a pandemic.
He said he doesn’t want to make excuses, but “for me, it’s a tough year.”
“There’s a lot of adapting in his world, let alone in his game,” Smith said. “He’s running into opponents that he’s not seen before. He’s working with individuals in his own team that he’s still trying to build relationships with. I see flashes of the quality that he’s capable of."
To this point, Mukhtar hasn’t scored. He had a free kick barely miss in one game. He booted a penalty kick off the goal frame Sunday night against Inter Miami, missing an opportunity that should have meant his first MLS goal.
Wednesday night, though, brought another glimmer. Nashville’s second-half equalizer by Randall Leal — another talented youngster — was the result of a nifty 1-2 combination with Mukhtar, who picked up the assist and perhaps a little more confidence.
“Obviously, I hope to score more goals or make more assists,” Mukhtar said. “But in the end, it’s more important that the team is successful.”
Remember that Mukhtar’s addition wasn’t necessarily a play for 2020. Nashville’s money could have gone to an aging international superstar who could have sold tickets, landed on billboards, scored some goals and then moved on or retired in a year or two.
Mukhtar, while a rising star and not yet an established one, provides hope for years to come. Once production catches up to his potential, it could be special.
“I will do everything I can do to do my best and to get there,” Mukhtar said, “where I see me and where the other people see me.”
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.