Smith: Don't forget "very special" Hany Mukhtar during Messi Mania!

Mukhtar - Leagues Cup template

Even when he’s not playing, questions about Lionel Messi find their way into MLS press conferences nowadays.

That was at least the case Sunday night after Nashville SC defeated the Colorado Rapids, 2-1, at GEODIS Park to start their Leagues Cup campaign with confidence. And, as is usually the case, Hany Mukhtar played a leading role for the Music City club, tallying one goal and one assist after subbing on in the 55th minute.

But what about that free-kick goal the GOAT scored two evenings prior, captivating the global soccer world and going social-media viral to hand Inter Miami CF a 2-1 win over Liga MX side Cruz Azul?! And it came in the 94th minute of Messi’s debut – a storybook ending to the Argentine superstar joining the league.

Nashville head coach Gary Smith, recognizing few players can compare to the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, entertained the postmatch topic with grace while praising his own star attacker.

“Have you not seen this guy score a free kick in a very similar fashion? I'm not trying to compare Hany to Lionel Messi. What I'm trying to say is this guy right now is, if not the best player [in MLS], he's certainly in the top ones. He's performed over the last three years at an incredible level,” said Smith, recognizing Mukhtar as the reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP and Golden Boot presented by Audi winner.

“Now, what I saw the other night was amazing from Lionel Messi – and I have to expect that he's not trained an awful lot either, but the caliber of his play, just the confidence he brought out of other players. Do we not see that from this gentleman next to me for our group?

“So, Lionel Messi is a wonderful signing not just for Miami, but for the league of course as well. But we are talking about the game tonight and let's not forget what this guy does because he's very special.”

Mukhtar, alongside center back Walker Zimmerman, started on the bench after representing Nashville last week in the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target in Washington, D.C. And within his first two touches against Colorado, the German star turned Sunday’s match on its head, eventually sending the Coyotes atop group Central 4.

The latest Mukhtar showing snapped a six-game goalscoring drought, which coincided with a 1W-5L-0D stretch for Nashville in league play. Seeing the ball again hit the back of the net, Mukhtar provided a window into his mentality.

“Ever since I'm 19 years old, I had a player I was always looking up to,” said Mukhtar. “He was an international player for Jamaica, a legend in Leeds United, I played with him at Brøndby. His name was Rodolph Austin.

“He told me if you don't believe in yourself, no one will believe in you. I think even if you don't score for three, four games or you have a bad streak, you still have to believe in yourself because in the end people are paying money from their salary to watch us and our responsibility is it to perform. … I'm never doubting myself even if I don't score for three, four games.”

That attitude now has Nashville longing for a deep Leagues Cup run, knowing a trophy, regional bragging rights, three 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup spots and prize money are all up for grabs.

Up next, Nashville will chase a positive result Thursday when hosting Liga MX side Club Deportivo Toluca (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). If they stay on this track, they’ll have swapped their summertime slump for a knockout round push.

“The result was very, very important I think emotionally for all of the group,” Smith said. “It puts us on a very positive track and maybe in a position – there's still work to be done – but control this group of three teams and finish top of it and give ourselves a home game possibly in the last 32.”