Hany Mukhtar wants Nashville SC to change the way they play.
The 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, speaking at the league’s 2024 preseason media day, once again called for his team to become better on the ball.
“We are a very difficult team to play against,” he said. “I think we have showed that over the last four years, we have qualified for the playoffs each year we are in the league. But to your question, to achieve the next level, it’s important for us to also dominate the games with the ball. We have to do the next steps in our future for the club and to bring more success.”
“We saw it with the Columbus Crew. They just won the MLS Cup and they’re one of the best teams with the ball,” he continued, citing Wilfried Nancy’s Cup-winning side, who led the league with an average of 57.1% possession. “Of course you can reach a very high level being hard to play against, but in the end you have to score goals and you have to play with the ball. We have definitely space to improve.”
Nashville have never been a possession team. Since joining MLS in 2020, they’ve been in the bottom 10 in the league’s possession totals every year (their best-ever total was actually in 2023, finishing in 21st with an average of 47.7% possession).
Per American Soccer Analysis, they’ve completed the seventh-fewest passes per game of any team in that stretch. And also according to ASA, their Goals Added passing score in the final third has been the ninth-poorest in MLS since 2020.
Under Gary Smith, they’ve been elite defensively, conceding the second-fewest goals in MLS regular season play since they debuted. They haven’t been able to match that at the other end of the pitch, though. Since 2020, they’ve been the 16th-best scoring side, scoring 1.34 goals per game.
Maybe it hasn’t been the most entertaining style of play, but it has been effective. They’ve achieved the minimum benchmark of qualifying for the postseason every year, and they qualified for the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup by virtue of their captivating run to the Leagues Cup final last summer.
Despite all that, their struggles in possession and in front of goal were on full display in 2023. Their 29 goals scored were the second lowest of any playoff team. Only seven teams in the entire league scored less. After the Leagues Cup final, Nashville scored eight goals in their final 12 games, the worst mark in MLS.
While Mukhtar’s comments were almost certainly fueled by the whimpering end to Nashville’s 2023 campaign, it’s not the first time he’s publicly lobbied for Nashville to tweak their approach. After a 4-1 loss to Charlotte FC in July 2022, Mukhtar said Nashville needed to improve with the ball, calling for them to be able to control the game with possession. He echoed those comments again before the start of the 2023 season.
When you see the best teams in the world and in the league, they all have the quality with the ball and have quality, even if you’re leading 1-0 or 2-0, to control the game with the ball. That frustrates the opponent more and more. I really, deeply believe (and think the team will agree with me) that when we can improve those small things, to control the opponent over two or three minutes with the ball, then we will make the right steps in the right direction.Hany Mukhtar, July 13 2022
Now, with Dax McCarty heading to Atlanta United, Nashville have lost their best passer. They’re banking heavily on 23-year-old Dru Yearwood to be the answer in midfield, and seemingly hoping that pushing their defensive and midfield lines higher will lessen their reliance on long balls and lead to more and better chances.
Whatever the solution, Mukhtar is eager to get back to his 2022 MVP form and put a disappointing close to 2023 behind him.
“I’m an offensive player,” he smiled. “I want to score goals. I want to celebrate. That’s what soccer is about.”