After a dismal loss in Houston last Saturday, with head coach Gary Smith sternly calling out his players’ performances, Nashville needed to turn things around quickly. They did that with a convincing performance against the then-Eastern Conference leaders who were eight games unbeaten, starting with Muyl’s golazo in the 28th minute after a goalkeeper assist that Joe Willis provided.
“It felt like this game was more important than most that we play to try and get back on track,” said Smith. “I’m very, very pleased. We can hopefully forget all about the difficulties of the weekend.”
Nashville’s 2-0 defeat at Houston was a stark contrast to their overall performance in MLS. The defensive stalwarts were exposed often by Houston, despite playing with a man advantage for nearly an hour. And even upon bringing 2021 Landon Donovan MLS MVP runner-up Hany Mukhtar off the bench at halftime, they looked toothless in attack, managing just two shots on goal.
“It didn’t feel like the Nashville DNA. That was a little bit striking and was a punch in the mouth for us,” said Muyl. “We’re not used to it. That’s why it hurts so much.”
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Just four days later, Nashville looked like Nashville again, especially when CJ Sapong and Mukhtar combined for a trademark goal in the 51st minute. Sapong corralled a ball over the top and held off a defender before slotting a simple pass across the goal to set up Mukhtar for an easy finish. It’s the 11th time the attacking duo has combined for a goal in the last two seasons.
“It was out of the same sort of connection and understanding that we’ve seen so much of in the past between Hany and CJ. It’s great to see that,” said Smith. “In all honesty we haven’t seen enough of it, and that may well be because teams that we’re playing against are pretty appreciative and understanding of what they’re capable of.”
With Mukhtar and Sapong combining for six goals and six assists so far this season, and a home-heavy schedule for the remainder of the year, Nashville are optimistic that their showing in Houston will prove to be a rarity.
“We’ve had a lot of good performances here already,” said Smith. “We’re going to need a certain type of mentality to get through some of the challenges of last weekend and to galvanize the crowd again.”
“Hopefully we can use Houston as a springboard of what we don’t want to see, what we don’t want to feel like,” admitted Muyl. “No one cares if you're tired. No one cares if you’re hurt or you're sick, you have to put in a performance. That’s what’s going to separate us if we can take the next step as a club and a team.”
Nashville, now in their third MLS season, have made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs the last two years. But they’re in the Western Conference this year, battling in their new 30,000-person digs – the largest soccer-specific stadium in the United States and Canada.
“We all forget that we are in the very early stages of developing as a team and as a soccer club in general,” noted Smith. “I think because things have gone very decent for us, it’s easy for me personally to look at each and every game to be a little too critical. When you look at a broader picture of what we’ve been able to produce, what the guys have been able to overcome, they’ve been terrific.
“Tonight is one of those nights again where they’ve shown their true colors.”