Hany Mukhtar, one. Sebastián Driussi, zero.
In a matchup with heavy Audi MLS Cup Playoffs implications, between two frontrunners for the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP award, it was Mukhtar who got the better of Driussi, netting a second-half brace to lift Nashville SC to a 3-0 victory over Austin FC at GEODIS Park Saturday night.
“I have to give, first of all, credit to Driussi,” Mukhtar said after the match. “He’s played an amazing season, he’s an amazing player. I was with him in the MLS All-Star Week. He’s a good guy, very nice guy, very humble. But of course, in the end, I am here to win something with Nashville. And I think I’ve played a very good season, so obviously I want to win also the MVP award.”
Mukhtar takes Golden Boot lead
Mukhtar’s two tallies were his league-leading 20th and 21st goals of the season, surpassing Driussi’s 20 goals in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.
With 11 assists to his name compared to Driussi’s seven, the Nashville SC star also leads the league in total goal contributions (32) – and perhaps has even emerged as the new frontrunner in an MVP race that's coming down to the wire. A year ago, Taty Castellanos (19g/8a) and Ola Kamara (19g/5a) were tied with total goals, but the NYCFC striker won the Golden Boot because of the assists tiebreaker.
“It’s an amazing award,” Mukhtar said. “Last year, I think I was second or third, I was very close. That’s a goal, that’s my goal, my personal goal, you know? […] I know I need my teammates. They’re helping me, they’re pushing me. The coach gives me the confidence and now it’s on me. I have to deliver and I will give my best to win the award.”
As expected, Nashville head coach Gary Smith is in his talisman’s corner. In 2021, the 27-year-old placed second in the MVP voting behind New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gil.
"He’s in a race for this MVP award, [which] I think really has been magnified for him and for others because he didn’t get it last year when I think a lot of people felt he should’ve," Smith said. "To turn around this year and put in the type of performances and season that he’s had is phenomenal. I think it just shows the caliber of the individual.”
The home crowd certainly agreed, chanting ‘M-V-P’ after Mukhtar scored. The Designated Player even drew some admiration from Austin head coach Josh Wolff, who backed his own star as well.
"Hany Mukhtar’s a good player," Wolff said. "He’s a big part of, obviously, their attacks and their goal production, as is Sebastián for us. Sebastián’s consistency throughout the year has been tremendous, his quality has been on display from start to finish this year. It’s not often that he doesn’t contribute to a goal."
Round 2 awaits
Nashville and Austin will meet once again in a fortnight, with the scene shifting to Q2 Stadium on Sept. 17 (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
“Tonight has been [Mukhtar’s] night,” said Smith. “We’re playing in two weeks' time, and make no mistake: Driussi will be thinking to himself 'That will be my night and I want to make sure I have an impact on the game.’ And I would suspect that Austin would be feeling the exact same way, and it will be a tremendously difficult game.
“Tonight is our night, and everyone is going to enjoy it, but we know full well that we still have work to do and we have some very, very tough games coming up.”
Nashville leap into 4th
Not to be overshadowed, the three points vaulted Nashville into fourth place in the Western Conference table, six points above the playoffs line with four regular-season games remaining. This spot would guarantee a home playoff match at GEODIS Park, which opened May 1 as the largest soccer-specific stadium in the US and Canada (30,000 seats).
The Boys in Gold have won four straight games (new club record), including three in a row at home, outscoring their opponents by a margin of 14-1 over that span.
“Excited, absolutely overwhelmed with the way the guys went about their business,” said Smith. “The overall attitude over the last two weeks has been phenomenal, to try and reinforce the results that have gone before it, to keep us on this crest of a wave as it were. But most importantly, I think the guys in the game today found another conundrum to solve […] and of course, Hany’s yet again been absolutely outstanding.”
WATCH: Hany Mukhtar stays hot, Nashville SC roll past Austin FC