National Writer: Charles Boehm

Three Takeaways from Nashville's Hany Mukhtar-fueled playoff win over Orlando

After a regular-season slate of three draws, the final one white-hot with controversy, the fourth meeting of the year between Nashville SC and Orlando City SC finally featured a winner. And it was a pretty clear winner, even if they had to mount yet another comeback to do so.

The Boys in Gold are moving on in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, and the Lions are heading home after a 3-1 defeat.

Here are some talking points from Tuesday night's Eastern Conference Round One match.

The Nashville two-step

NSC are a committed, organized defensive unit anchored by an elite center back in Walker Zimmerman. And yet they kept finding ways to concede first all season.

When Daryl Dike muscled his way through a crowd to head home a 14th-minute corner kick, it looked like Nashville’s recurring bugaboo might finally sink them when it mattered most.

Yes, NSC rallied again and again all year, and finished with the fewest losses in MLS (four), none of them at Nissan Stadium. But there’s risk built in there, and chasing the game is not exactly what Gary Smith’s squad is built for.

So of course they stormed back yet again, urged on by a season-high crowd of 26,000-plus spectators braving a chilly night in Music City, tipping the game in their favor with particularly impactful work from two of their most important partnerships: The Dax McCarty-Anibal Godoy central midfield duo and CJ Sapong and Hany Mukhtar up top.

Some smart pressing on Junior Urso in the immediate aftermath of a foul won by Orlando caught the Lions in transition, and Mukhtar’s enterprising look from range was rewarded with a big deflection off the boot of Antonio Carlos – a lucky break, but one well earned. From there, Nashville were cruising.

“Your best players have got to perform,” said Smith postgame, “and you also need a little bit of luck. The first goal was lucky. It's a good strike. But if it doesn't clip the defender, it doesn’t go in. So you got to have a little bit of fortune as well. And we've seen multiple times, teams, again through history, where sometimes their name’s just written on it. I'm not going down that road right now, but we needed that little bit of luck to get back into it.”

There’s just something so resourceful about this NSC side.

Piano movers, piano players

Back in 2019, when none of us were quite sure what Nashville SC would look like as an MLS outfit, I visited the city for a sit-down chat with general manager Mike Jacobs and his “round table” of technical staff decision-makers. Jacobs explained that the club wanted to be both glitzy and hard-working, reflective of a community where stars and stagehands rub shoulders every night.

Verily, that vision has come to pass.

“We had 10 out of 13 games away from home. I can’t stress enough what that does to the mentality of the team,” noted Smith, referencing an influential midseason schedule wrinkle. “When you go away game after game after game, against tough teams, you’ve got to roll your sleeves up, you’ve got to work hard. You're concentrating on all of the, not the finer qualities, but the core qualities of the team. If you don't work hard and you don't compete, you don't get results.”

Smith and his staff first built a stout foundation with Zimmerman, Godoy, McCarty and goalkeeper Joe Willis, and while the creative spark took longer to engineer, Mukhtar is now providing it at a league-MVP caliber – without neglecting his duties out of possession, mind you.

As the German was quick to note on Tuesday, he directly and obviously benefits from Sapong’s rugged targetman work, as his game-winning goal encapsulated.

“That's what is good about our team. It's not about the individual,” said Mukhtar. “In the end, one has to score, but we know that we have to fight for each other. We have to give everything – I mean, if you look at the second goal, of course they’ll say ‘you did it good.’ But if CJ wouldn't make the run, the right back would just stay in their position and I would not score the goal. So in the end, one has to score, like I said, but yeah, we are a great team and we fight for each other and that makes us so strong.”

Parts, and the sum of them, in Orlando

Conversely, a once-promising campaign sputters to a too-quiet close for OCSC. The Lions looked like real contenders at several junctures this year, only to be slowed and eventually bled out by what feels like a steady succession of small cuts.

Take the return of winger Chris Mueller – who clearly rubbed some at the club the wrong way with his decision to play out his contract and sign with Scotland’s Hibernian, effective in January – to the starting XI on Tuesday. On one level it was a no-brainer, considering how key he’s been to the Lions' attack in their best moments under coach Oscar Pareja.

But on another, this was asking a lot of a player who hadn’t even suited up for the Decision Day finale at Montréal, whose relationship to the collective around him appeared to have been stressed, then repaired, but with a few threads still flapping. Daryl Dike, Nani, Sebastian Mendez – other crucial figures were also carrying burdens of their own at various times throughout 2021, and over time it ebbed the life force of the group, which looks to be at the end of their current cycle.

“I think we made a good season in the beginning, then we had some troubles,” said No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra after Tuesday’s loss. “It was a really tough season for us as a team and personally many players had really difficult moments out of the field. We are a really close team and everybody feels everything when this is happening with each other. So the last [portion] of the season, it was difficult for us.

“We came to the playoffs and we had this opportunity, we were winning. We didn't take the chances, so now we have nothing to say. The moment to say it is on the pitch.”

On Tuesday Pareja would not be drawn on the changes that lie ahead this winter. But difficult decisions will have to be made, and notable departures feel inevitable. Perhaps the shift towards an FC Dallas-style youth movement will accelerate; you can be sure Dike's name will dot the transfer-gossip pages.

“I don't think anybody in this locker room is happy just to qualify in the playoffs, which is something that we feel is an achievement for the club. But I can see the locker room today [is] very sad because they had much potential to advance,” said Pareja, drawing a tart comparison to a Nashville side he clearly considers reactive in nature.

“What we do is trying to be the protagonist among the teams and try to manage the tempo of the game, manage the ball and create sequences. We did it, but in the last third we were not effective. We had multiple chances to be more precise and today it makes a difference in the game.”