Nashville SC take on Austin FC on Saturday night at Geodis Park, pitting the two frontrunners for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award head to head.
Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar and Austin’s Sebastián Driussi have been the two most dangerous attackers in the league in 2022. The pair have combined for a staggering 39 goals and 18 assists. Only two clubs (that’s right; clubs) have scored more than their combined 57 goals this season.
The MLS schedule makers did the MVP race a favor, waiting until the very end of the season to put Austin and Nashville on a field together. With just five weeks left in their seasons, the two teams will play each other twice, putting the two MVP leaders on display down the stretch.
Percentage of Austin’s goals: 45%
Why Driussi should win:
Chris Bils: As soon as Sebastián Driussi stepped on the pitch in Verde, you could see he had MVP potential. I just didn’t think it would coalesce this quickly. To say that Driussi is in this position because his team is near the top of the table obscures the point.
Austin FC is where it is because of Driussi. And it’s far more than the goals he scores, although those are helpful too.
Watch him throughout a match, and you can begin to understand what makes Driussi tick. When an opponent has the ball, he’s the first one trying to win it back (fifth in MLS in presses, with 550). If he senses danger in the midfield, he’s not above tracking back to help (37 tackles, third for ATX).
And when it’s time to score, Driussi senses blood in a way we’ve only seen from a handful of players in this league. He’s consistent, too. His 20 goals are spread throughout the 28 games Austin has played. He’s scored three braces, and has at least one in 17 games (61%). In the matches that he has scored, Verde has a record of 10 wins, 3 losses and 4 draws.
Of late, he’s had to carry more of the weight, scoring in seven straight matches and contributing to at least one goal in 11 straight games — the third-longest such streak in league history, and has kept Verde afloat despite conceding 19 goals in that span.
From start to finish, nobody has done more to put their team where it is.
Percentage of Nashville’s goals: 67%
Why Mukhtar should win:
Ben Wright: To start, let me just say that a vote for Driussi isn’t a bad vote in any way. He’s an elite attacker and at the most fundamental level, we’re lucky to get to watch players like him, Mukhtar, Emanual Reynoso and plenty of others put together such impressive seasons at the same time.
That being said, I think Mukhtar has a slightly stronger case. He’s contributed to a few more goals than Driussi has this year, and while combined goals and assists certainly don’t come close to encompassing the whole of this award, when the margins are this thin they play a part.
As much as Austin are where they are because of Driussi, Nashville have been exponentially more reliant on Mukhtar. He’s contributed to 67% of his team’s goals, the most in the league. He has 14 goals more than the next closest player on his team. He’s contributed a goal or an assist in 12 of Nashville’s last 13 games, almost single-handedly spurring their return to form after a really rough summer.
Aside from actual goal production, Mukhtar leads MLS in virtually every attacking stat. His 107 shots are 14 more than Chicho Arango in second. His 39 shots on goal are 30 more than the closest player (also Arango). He has the seventh most key passes in the league, carrying not just the finishing burden for Nashville, but the creating burden as well.
Certainly a big part of Mukhtar’s case comes down to the literal definition of “most valuable”; he’s more important to Nashville than arguably any other player in MLS. But in a much simpler sense, he’s been the most dangerous attacker in MLS for two years, and after finishing second in MVP voting last year, he’s become even better in 2022.
However you slice it, the MVP race is as close as it gets. Nashville and Austin play each other twice in the next five weeks, and with both sides fighting for playoff positioning down the stretch, there’s plenty of soccer left to play.
Will Sebastián Driussi or Hany Mukhtar emerge as a clear favorite? Their head-to-head matchup tomorrow night is the first step towards finding out.