MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

MVP contender? Nashville SC star Hany Mukhtar is "achieving his true potential"

When Nashville SC dispatched a jet to pick up their first-ever Designated Player, the aircraft landed at Nashville International Airport with grandiose hopes, a club scarf and big smiles.

Hany Mukhtar arrived in August 2019, completing his move from Brondby to Nashville ahead of their 2020 expansion season. The one-time German youth national team wunderkind had been excelling in Denmark as a goal-dangerous No. 10, one who could create assists and finish chances.

His debut campaign stateside – marred by the standard difficulties of moving to a new country and exasperated by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a few injuries – wasn't bad, but his four goals and four assists in 15 appearances (13 starts) weren't anything too special. Rather, a historic expansion season defensive unit carried Nashville to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

This year, though, has been special for NSC's No. 10. With 10 goals and nine assists – his 19 combined goal contributions the most in MLS – this is the Hany Mukhtar Nashville envisioned when signing him as a centerpiece for their new endeavors. It's the type of campaign that starts generating Landon Donovan MLS MVP buzz, too.

“This year he’s achieving his true potential," general manager Mike Jacobs told "He’s showing the rest of the league the things we saw in him when he was at Brondby."

Mukhtar was acquired for a transfer fee of just under $3 million after finding consistent footing for the first time in his career, recording 28 goals and 36 assists in 134 appearances at Brondby. He joined the Danish Superliga club in 2016-17 after breaking through with Hertha Berlin and then spending time with Benfica and RB Salzburg, plus excelled at all German youth national team levels.

He had grown used to changing clubs, but a move from Europe to America is never easy.

“It was a new country for me, a new league," Mukhtar said. "I didn’t know anyone. The first year was good, but now it’s been a really good season. I like the guys and we have great players.”

Mukhtar is starring in an attack led by him, Randall Leal and veteran striker CJ Sapong. The trio have mostly been first-choice under head coach Gary Smith, with Alex Muyl also playing a key role.

“There were a number of different reasons we didn’t quite see the individual we expected (in 2020), even though there were flashes of it and he was still a big part of the group," head coach Gary Smith said. "What we’ve seen this year, someone who’s much more confident, settled, composed and comfortable in his surroundings. Not just the city he’s in, but the team he is with and the fluidity (he and his teammates) have.”

Another factor in Mukhtar's big season is a slight position tweak. Rather than lining up as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Mukhtar has spent most of the season playing as a second forward, lately often in a 3-4-1-2 formation.

Mukhtar has been the brightest performer in Nashville's attack, one that has broken defense-based narratives that surrounded the team in 2020. Nashville have the third most goals in MLS (38) and are in the top third for both expected goals and chances created.

“When I can get goals and assists, it’s always good," Mukhtar said. "The new position has helped because I’m closer to the opponent’s goal. It’s making me more dangerous.”

Mukhtar is quietly enjoying an elite season, seemingly flying under the radar just like his second-placed Nashville squad with 11 games left. They're well-positioned to make a second Audi MLS Cup Playoffs trip in as many years and host a postseason game at Nissan Stadium.

Mukhtar wasn't selected for the 2021 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target, but he isn't concerned about individual accolades.

"For me, it’s very important the team is successful, not the individual," the 26-year-old said. "I just want to show everyone that I’m in a good way. There’s still time in the season. I need to work harder and get better.”