In the brightest lights, Nashville SC star Hany Mukhtar shined in a most American way | Estes
True supporters in soccer don’t date their teams. They get married.
Their sections sing of undying devotion, about following teams no matter what or where. The adopted anthem for Nashville SC’s team is titled “Never Give Up On You.” They’ll play this heartfelt tune before home games, when it’s easy to pledge allegiance and sway and raise scarfs. But know that they’ll play it immediately after games, too, even bad defeats. The real ones are going to stay.
Such public reassurance, I'd say, is an example of how soccer is changing Americans.
Tuesday night at Nissan Stadium, though, celebrated the opposite. It was what makes Major League Soccer different from the world’s other pro soccer leagues.
And Hany Mukhtar, for one, loved it.
In the brightest lights to date in Nashville SC’s season, the club’s star player was sensational. He scored twice in a 3-1 victory over Orlando City SC in the first round of the MLS playoffs, including a masterful goal in the 74th minute that put his squad ahead for good.
“You want your big players to turn up on the big occasions,” said Nashville coach Gary Smith. “And he’s done that.”
Here in the United States, we like our big occasions. We like our pro sports seasons to end in playoffs — and MLS does.
Most other international soccer leagues don't do playoffs. They’ll typically have regular-season standings to decide the champion. That’s just how it works in, let’s say, Germany — Mukhtar’s native country.
“Honestly, I love it,” Mukhtar said. “Because it’s very interesting, very entertaining for the fans. I know how it is in Germany. Sometimes the season is over and the champion is (known) in March already or April.
“It’s very interesting (in MLS). The regular season is over. No one cares about it. … You have one game.”
Some players might not respond to the pressure of a one-game playoff meaning more than a 34-game regular season. Mukhtar clearly is not one of those players.
After a tremendous season that left him a finalist for the MVP award in MLS, Mukhtar embraced the moment Tuesday as an opportunity to shout – louder for the newbies filtering in the back of the room – his quality. After Orlando took an early 1-0 lead, Nashville’s playmaker and MVP candidate scored on a deflected shot to tie the game. Then came the brilliant game-winner.
“A craft that not many have,” said Smith of Mukhtar, “and he seems to be getting better and better.”
As Mukhtar arrived for his postgame press conference Tuesday night, Smith was departing the room and shouted: “Let me introduce you to the star of the evening.”
Mukhtar seemed almost embarrassed. He’s a player who when asked about the game’s second goal kept dwelling on how a teammate – C.J. Sapong – had continued his run to lure away a defender and create space for Mukhtar’s solo move.
Don’t be fooled. What’s happening with Mukhtar is special. That’s why he was once the first big signing in Nashville’s club history.
“If you look across history at teams that are successful,” Smith said, “they’ve got a Mukhtar on the team – either an out-and-out goal scorer or somebody who is capable of turning a game on its head.”
Mukhtar was again the difference for a team that has reached the MLS quarterfinals for the second season in a row. He also might be the reason to think Nashville could advance even further this time, beginning with this weekend’s second-round game at the Philadelphia Union.
Win or lose, you know those Nashville SC supporters will remain on board.
Win a few more games and a trophy, though, and you know their devoted ranks will grow quickly.
That’s the beauty of playoffs in these United States. We do like our big-time players in big-time games. Good thing for Nashville that it absolutely has one.
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.