One of my absolute favorite things about MLS is that central attacking playmakers still thrive here. Teams still use No. 10s. Teams still rely on their central attackers to create a handful of magical moments every game and a handful of truly mind-blowing moments every season. And sometimes, teams pit their attacking playmakers against each other in marquee matchups.
That’s exactly what we’re getting this Saturday, when Austin FC will host Nashville SC (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). Two of the best teams in the West – with two of the best playmakers in the West in Sebastian Driussi and Hany Mukhtar – are going head to head for the second time in as many weeks. Nashville won 3-0 last go-around.
In addition to leading two strong teams, Mukhtar and Driussi are leading the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP race right now, too. Both players have hit the 20-goal mark and are lighting things up in the attack this season.
As we cast an eye on Saturday’s game, let’s compare Mukhtar and Driussi’s MVP cases.
The case for Mukhtar
When you’re talking about Mukhtar’s 2022 season and his MVP candidacy, it’s impossible to overlook how central Mukhtar has been to Gary Smith’s team. Mukhtar has scored 22 goals (with 11 assists) this year, which puts him in the top spot for the Golden Boot presented by Audi race. He’s also responsible for 45% of Nashville’s total goals this season, which is the highest rate in MLS this year and 13% higher than Driussi’s 32%. That’s a massive number!
With all of those goals (and that high percentage of his team’s total goals), Mukhtar comes closer to defining his team’s results than any other player in the league. And isn’t that a big part of what being the league’s MVP is all about?
Despite playing as a second forward or an attacking midfielder and not as a classic striker in Nashville SC’s attack, Mukhtar regularly moves into positions to shoot and score goals. He sees and attacks space better than almost anyone in MLS. According to Second Spectrum, Mukhtar is fourth in the league in runs per 90 minutes among players with at least 1,000 minutes this year. He’s also in the 98th percentile in shots per 90 minutes in that same group of players.
He sees space. He attacks space. And he takes dangerous shots.
Mukhtar causes problems for opposing defenses in transition, where he acts as a willing runner and gets on the end of balls in the box. He’s 10th in xG per 90 minutes in transition among players with at least 1,000 minutes this year, which puts him in the 96th percentile.
He’s also in the 94th percentile when it comes to xG against organized defenses among that same group of players. Just look at this goal from Nashville’s game against the Portland Timbers in early July. Mukhtar passes the ball out wide, immediately cuts into the box, and stays one step behind the Timbers’ backline to create space to receive the ball. The ball does find Mukhtar, who finishes with a first-time shot.
Whether it’s on the break or against a lower defensive block, Mukhtar finds ways to wreak havoc on defenses.
Mukhtar doesn’t just cause problems with his movement and his goal-scoring. No, he also creates chances for his teammates with his passing. According to Second Spectrum, Mukhtar is in the 93rd percentile for expected assists per 90 minutes. He’s also fifth in the league in total xA this year.
With his league-leading goals tally, his versatile attacking skill set, and his clear importance to Nashville, this year’s MVP award is Mukhtar’s to lose.
The case for Driussi
How many players can say that they were the attacking focal point for the team with one of the best year-over-year improvements in MLS history?
Austin FC struggled in their expansion season. They finished second-to-last in the Western Conference with 31 points from 34 games. This year, though, with Driussi leading the way, Austin are sitting in second place in the West with 54 points from 31 games. They’re an MLS Cup contender, in large part, because of their Argentinian attacking midfielder.
Driussi’s role in Austin FC’s rise, mixed with his ball progression and goalscoring, make him a top-tier MVP candidate. Per Second Spectrum, Driussi is in the 97th percentile for non-penally xG this season. He’s finding dangerous spots in the attack and he’s converting those chances at an absurdly high level.
According to FBref, Driussi’s 20 goals have come from 13 xG. That means he’s converting far more shots into goals than FBref’s model expected. Now, does that mean Driussi is a super-finisher and that he’s going to score at this rate forever? Given what we know about finishing and xG, almost certainly not. But doesn’t it make for a compelling storyline this season? Absolutely.
Driussi is firing off difficult shots and finding the back of the net on a regular basis. And he’s doing all of that as a flexible No. 10 who pops up in spots all over the field to help Austin advance possession.
Per FBref, Driussi averages the fourth-most progressive passes per 90 minutes on Austin FC’s roster among players with at least 1,000 minutes. That means he’s finding clever forward balls that drive Austin closer to goal. After getting his team into the final third, Driussi will often slip passes to Diego Fagundez or Alex Ring, who will then play the ball back to Driussi for the finish. So Driussi starts, and ends, sequences for Austin FC.
You can see that pattern on Driussi’s goal in Austin’s commanding 4-1 win over LAFC in late August. He plays Fagundez into space behind LAFC’s backline and into the final third. After playing the pass, Driussi moves into the box, receives the ball, turns his defender, and finishes to extend his team’s lead.
By helping both start and finish attacks, Driussi has been absolutely indispensable for Austin FC this year. If indispensable doesn’t describe an MVP, then I don’t know what does.
Advantage goes to…
As strong as Driussi’s case is, it’s difficult to look past Mukhtar and his production this year.
Carrying a huge chunk of Nashville’s attacking burden for an entire season and still producing? That’s impressive. Carrying the attack for an entire season, producing crazy good numbers, and still getting your team in the hunt for a home playoff game? That’s an MVP.
What Driussi and Austin FC have done this season should be applauded, but with a league-leading 33 goal contributions and the clear link between his production and Nashville SC’s success, the MVP award is Mukhtar’s until proven otherwise.