With 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar yet to score in the 2023 campaign, the goals had dried up for the Coyotes, who’d lost back-to-back 1-0 matches before their trip to Exploria Stadium. Nashville were also eliminated from the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs by a 1-0 scoreline at the LA Galaxy, and the team has consistently struggled to find goals when Mukhtar doesn’t end up on the scoresheet.
But sometimes familiar problems have familiar solutions, and against Orlando that solution was, once again, Mukhtar, who landed a goal and an assist to lift his side to a 2-0 win against a fellow Eastern Conference playoff hopeful.
"He needed to get off the mark somehow, some way," Nashville head coach Gary Smith said of his superstar attacker. "The confidence of hitting the back of the net for forwards and creative players does them the world of good. So delighted, of course, he's got himself on the sheet."
After coming off the bench for Nashville’s first two matches of the season due to a preseason hip injury, Mukhtar is fully rounding into form, and his latest tallies bring him to 1g/3a for the year.
More than boxscore stats, though, it’s the inventiveness of the German attacker's play that shows his resurgence is in full bloom. Against Orlando, no moment showed that quality more than his lightning-quick restart in the 28th minute, when, after drawing a foul in his own half, he immediately played a longball to free teammate Fafà Picault in on goal, an opportunity which the speedy winger converted with a first-time, half-volley, chipped finish to put the visitors up 1-0.
“It's pure inspiration from Hany,” raved Smith. “... He's a genius. If he was in any other walk of life, if he created new lightbulbs, you know, he’d probably [find] another way to create electricity or something. He's just such an intelligent lad. He sees things quicker than a lot of other people.”
Picault prods Orlando
“He's got so much to do, so much to do from there,” said Smith of Picault’s goal. “Running at breakneck speed, a pace that none of us could even dream of, and he's got to try and work it over the top of [Pedro] Gallese coming out with some sort of feeling. It's a fantastic finish.”
For Picault, who found himself in a handful of dustups throughout the match, the goal was extra sweet coming against Orlando, who’ve become something of a personal rival over the years.
"I think being a choir boy is not always going to do it in these games when you're playing against Orlando," Picault said. "They hate me out here, and I don't really like them that much either when I play them.
"So, with all respect, this is a spot I usually score at, and it's good to hear the crowd silenced and score here."
Outside of the goal, Picault is happy the connection he has with Mukhtar off the field is beginning to show on the field, as the duo, and the team, continue to battle through thick and thin.
"We're great buddies off the field, which is amazing, and then on the field it shows and it helps," said the veteran winger, who started on his preferred left side instead of the right for the first time this season.
"There's a lot of football to be played and a lot of chemistry to continue to be built. And I think over the next few weeks and months, we'll start to see that more and more and continue to grow. So I'm very excited, and I think it's something that we can get behind it and continue to build on."