Survive and advance. Nashville SC did just that with a 2-1win at Louisville City in Round 16 of the U.S. Open Cup. It was a tight affair throughout until Hany Mukhtar entered the match and took over.
Here are my three thoughts on the match:
Hany Mukhtar’s scintillating form
Cue up the DJ Kenno music, Mukhtar is on fire.
Nashville’s talisman has now notched four goals and two assists in the last five matches. That scintillating form carried through last night as Mukhtar rescued Nashville from impending extra time with a beautiful goal in the 89th minute.
Mukhtar provided a noticeable spark when he entered the match in the 77th minute. Mukhtar is quite accustomed to being the best player on the pitch. But he was on a different planet compared to Louisville City. For a team that had performed so well in bottling up Nashville’s attack, it must have been disheartening to see someone of Mukhtar’s quality immediately snatch control of the game.
Beyond the importance of Mukhtar’s goal in advancing the Coyotes into the next round, the goal saved an extra thirty minutes of running for several key contributors. Nashville’s hectic May schedule has forced rotation and resulted in dropped points. Not adding to the physical load with another extra-time Cup match will help Nashville immensely as they head to Colorado for a Saturday night meeting with the Rapids.
It was a big moment for a multitude of reasons. When a bit of magic was needed, Mukhtar answered the call yet again.
Elliot Panicco’s steady play
All eyes were fixated on Elliot Panicco last night as Joe Willis gave way to another goalkeeper for the first time in Nashville’s MLS era. Willis’s recent struggles are well documented and giving him a mental and physical breather was the right call by Gary Smith.
On the whole of the night, Panicco performed quite well. He was steady throughout the match and never showed any indication that he has largely been away from Nashville’s training ground the last two seasons while on loan with Austin Bold and Indy Eleven.
I especially liked Panicco’s 40th-minute save. On the surface, it’s nothing special, but he dealt with the shot and made sure that the rebound went out and away from the goalmouth. After a week of goalkeeping blunders plaguing Nashville, steady, even if unspectacular, is just what the doctor ordered.
Panicco did concede one goal on the night, but you can hardly fault the 6’5” goalkeeper. It was a perfectly placed header with plenty of pace behind it, and poor marking gave Ownby all the time in the world to pick his spot. There’s not a keeper in the world that saves that header.
It will be interesting to see what the Nashville staff does with its goalkeeping position. I fully expect Joe Willis to be back on the starting lineup come Saturday in Colorado, and Gary Smith said as much post-match.
“Yes, there was a mistake [from Willis] at the weekend, and yes there was a mistake against Montreal,” said Smith. “Do they play into it? Maybe a small amount. But I think what it does is it just says, ‘look, I’ve played every minute of every game since the club’s inauguration.’ He probably needed this moment.”
Panicco did demonstrate that he is capable of stepping in if Willis’ woes continue, and proved that Nashville have a viable long-term option waiting in the wings.
Aké Loba’s improved play is still not enough to supplant Sapong.
Aké Loba found the back of the net for the first time since Nashville’s October comeback in Cincinnati.
It is no coincidence that the goal came from a blistering counterattack. Loba has always looked at his most dangerous when the game opens up. He made a lung-busting run to arrive in time at the far post, and his efforts were awarded with a goal.
Beyond transition play, Loba is slowly starting to play within himself. Throughout his first year in Nashville, it felt like Loba sought to prove his price tag with every single touch. Over the last couple of weeks, it feels like Loba has dialed the flair down a degree.
However, there were still moments last night where Loba needed to make a different decision. Early in the match, Loba excellently shrugged a Louisville attacker off the ball and sparked a counterattack. But I am still not sure what he was thinking with this pass to no one. He needs to either find someone on the left wing or check back and retain possession for the Coyotes.
Loba was also involved in a few offsides decisions that continue to indicate a lack of timing and chemistry with teammates. However, I am still not sure that he was not played on by a Louisville defender on his 14th-minute breakaway.
If Loba can just nail down the timing, he will create loads more chances for Nashville. His pace and ability to turn and drive at defenders is an absolute nightmare to deal with.
Loba’s play is certainly improving. But it’s not enough to supplant CJ Sapong as Nashville’s first-choice striker. With the June international break looming and only six matches remaining until the MLS transfer window reopens, there’s not much time for Loba to stake a claim for more meaningful minutes before some big decisions from both player and club may need to be made.
An MLS club needs to make a move for Louisville City defender Joshua Wynder. The 17-year-old already looks like he belongs at the next level. Now, he may be planning for a transfer abroad once he reaches 18 years old, as Jonathan Gomez did before him. But that should not stop any MLS team from making a run at acquiring Wynder.
As USL academies take root, there will be more and more high-quality players produced by lower division sides. Like every other league in the world, poaching talented academy products from the lower divisions is a market worth mining. This is especially true for a club like Nashville SC. The academy is still in its infancy and has yet to produce a homegrown signing. With the oldest roster in the league, Nashville needs to find other avenues to inject youth into the side.