The good part for Nashville SC: Hany Mukhtar is mounting another Landon Donovan MLS MVP case, contributing 14 goals and eight assists for the Boys in Gold.
The worrisome part for Nashville SC: They’re perhaps too dependent on the German attacker, who has directly contributed to 65 percent of their goals during the 2022 season.
Captain and midfielder Dax McCarty argued as much after a 2-1 loss Sunday against Minnesota United FC, a result that leaves them six games winless.
“On the attacking side of the ball, we have to figure out some way to get secondary scoring other than Hany. It’s just a fact,” said McCarty after Mukhtar’s 61st-minute goal at GEODIS Park briefly brought them level. “If we’re going to be successful, we cannot have him shouldering the burden and the load that he’s shouldering right now. It’s unsustainable in my opinion.”
Who steps up?
The Coyotes, Audi MLS Cup Playoffs qualifiers in their first two seasons while competing in the Eastern Conference, are narrowly hanging onto postseason hopes after Week 25. In the Western Conference for the 2022 campaign, they occupy the seventh-and-final postseason spot via the wins (8) tiebreaker.
As strong as Mukhtar has been in his Designated Player role, Nashville have gotten 1g/0a in 20 appearances (zero starts; 295 minutes) from striker Ake Loba, the club’s other attacking DP. MLS veteran forwards CJ Sapong and Teal Bunbury have combined for nine goals, then there’s a dropoff to a handful of players with two goals.
Head coach Gary Smith knows that production isn’t enough, noting Bunbury missed the Minnesota match due to a groin injury after scoring four goals in his last four games.
“I can’t say to you that we don’t need other players getting on the scoresheet. We truly do,” Smith said postgame. “And it’s for those guys to step up to the plate and get that job done.
“Unfortunately, one of our in-form players fell foul of a problem yesterday and that doesn’t help the process. Teal was in good form, we then have options, more experienced options coming off the bench to try and maybe carry the baton. But I’m guessing you’re going to tell me that every team’s got to contend with that, and they do have to. We’ve got to find a way.”
Mukhtar is among the most dominant attackers in MLS, with 16g/12a putting him second in 2021 MVP voting behind New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gil. This year he’s tied for third in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race, and he’s contributed to over half of Nashville’s goals in MLS (58 of 113) since their 2020 expansion season.
But the Coyotes need more than just their 27-year-old star, McCarty stressed, as their 34 goals scored are midtable league-wide.
“It’s really easy for teams to key in on Hany and try to disrupt his rhythm, foul him, get him frustrated,” McCarty said. “We see right now that the form he’s in, he’s going to get goals, he’s going to create chances. It’s just a matter of other guys stepping up and putting the ball in the back of the net, and that’s myself included.
“When you have chances on set pieces, when you have the opportunity to shoot from outside the box, are we putting the ball on frame? Are we following up shots that the keeper spills? It sounds really complicated but it’s actually just really simple.”
All the while, Nashville are 3W-4L-5D at their new soccer-specific home since it debuted May 1, following an eight-game road stretch before the 30,000-seat venue opened. Five of their last eight regular-season games come at GEODIS Park, a make-or-break period after having turned their previous home of Nissan Stadium into a fortress.
Despite the tough times, Smith is confident they’ll push through.
“I have no doubt that what we’re going through right now is part of the history of this club and we will come through this for sure and we will be a better group for it, we’ll be a stronger group for it,” Smith said. “I still believe we have enough in the group to go on a run that we haven’t been on this year and put ourselves in a very challenging position. The season’s not over, we’ve got a lot to play for and we’re in a lot of pain right now. But we’ll come through this.”
McCarty hammered home a similar message, with Nashville’s playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
“I can promise you that while it feels like the sky is falling, we do have guys in there that have character, have belief, have an ability to say ‘Look it’s not good enough right now but we can get through this and we can come out on the other side better for it,’” McCarty said. “And who knows – we need one result, one win, one bounce to go our way and that can change the trajectory of the end of our season for us.”
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