Hany Mukhtar shines, scores two goals as Nashville SC comes back to beat Orlando City, 3-1

Drake Hills
Nashville Tennessean

For the second season, in its second year in Major League Soccer, Nashville SC has advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 3-1 win over Orlando City SC on Tuesday at Nissan Stadium.

Nashville’s MVP candidate and attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar scored two goals to cancel Daryl Dike’s goal in the 14th minute. Nashville center forward Jhonder Cádiz scored a dagger in the final seconds of the match – his first since April 24.

"We surely had some good moments and dictated the game for good periods and so did they," Nashville coach Gary Smith said after the match. "But it wasn't really until Hany scored that second goal, with what was a tremendous individual moment. It really separated the groups and gave us an opportunity then – maybe to just feel that there was a chance to win this game."

Nashville will travel north to face No. 2 seed Philadelphia Union on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. (ESPN) at Subaru Park.

Here are a few observations from the match:

Orlando City's Daryl Dike scores

The attention had been on Dike before the ball was kicked from the corner.

Match referee Ismail Elfath blew his whistle to warn Dike and Alistair Johnston of their premature contention. Somehow, once Orlando’s Mauricio Pereyra curled the in-swinging cross into the box, Dike rose above the clutter and headed in his sixth goal in six career matches against Nashville, and third of 2021 against the Boys in Gold.

Set piece goals have been a thorn in Nashville’s side this season. Dike’s header was the 14th such goal Nashville has allowed and the third equalizer from a set piece given up to Orlando in 2021.

The dead-ball struggle wasn't lost on Smith, but the Nashville coach was more concerned with what led to Orlando's opportunity and goalkeeper Joe Willis' hesitation as the ball flew into his area.

"Of course, I'm unhappy about the goal and the way it came about. But it was actually how it got to that point," Smith said. "We'd had a difficult 15 minutes. We didn't secure the ball well. There were too many unforced errors and the corner came from a missed connection in that midfield area and ended up with us under pressure. Those moments were avoidable."

Smith said Nashville wasn't concerned with defending corner kicks or set pieces, noting that in Nashville's three previous matches, zero goals came from set pieces.

Nashville SC midfielder Hany Mukhtar (10) reacts after scoring a goal against Orlando City during the second half of an MLS playoff soccer match at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.

Hany Mukhtar strikes back, again

Mukhtar entered the MLS postseason as one of three league MVP finalists. Voting for the league’s end-of-year awards closed Nov. 8. But if Mukhtar’s double against Orlando didn’t solidify his case, nothing will.

After Dike’s early strike, Nashville kicked its attack into high gear, which was evident in Mukhtar’s miss in the 21st minute. Three minutes later, central midfielder Anibal Godoy poked the ball away from an Orlando midfielder, passed it to Mukhtar, who spun toward Orlando’s goal for an immediate counter attack.

Before Orlando center back Antonio Carlos could close in on him, Mukhtar let it rip from 20 yards out, skimming Carlos’ right leg, dipping into the right part of the net.

"It was a great ball-winning situation from Godoy and in the end, you have to earn the luck. And if you're not trying to shoot, you will not score the goal," Mukhtar said.

But Mukhtar wasn’t done yet.

Nashville SC midfielder Hany Mukhtar (10) heads to the locker room after their victory against Orlando City in an MLS playoff soccer match at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.

In the 74th minute, Nashville won the ball in its own half. Center forward CJ Sapong collected the clearing ball out Nashville’s defensive third and laid it off to Mukhtar. The 26-year-old attacking midfielder would execute a sleek, three-man weave with Sapong and Randall Leal.

Dribbling from the right, Mukhtar crossed over left back Emmauel Mas, before dipping inside to his left and sending a roller into the net. Fans at Nissan Stadium chanted “M-V-P” for Mukhtar, as play resumed after the goal.

"I knew that I have to beat him (Mas) and maybe fake another (stepover) to create a little bit more space," Mukhtar said. "In the end, one of my better goals."

For stories about Nashville SC or Soccer in Tennessee, contact Drake Hills at DHills@gannett.com. Follow Drake on Twitter at @LiveLifeDrake. Connect with Drake on Instagram at @drakehillssoccer and on Facebook.