Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar launches himself into the MVP conversation

Hany Mukhtar delivered a night for the record books on Saturday against the Chicago Fire. As you may have heard by now, Mukhtar’s 16th minute hat trick was the fastest in MLS history. Within a blink of an eye, Nashville’s number 10 extinguished a Fire team that came in unbeaten in their last three matches.

With his three-goal performance, Mukhtar climbed into a third place in the Golden Boot race. Strikers Chicharito and Raúl Ruidíaz currently lead the pack. But right behind them sits Muhktar along with Nani, Gustavo Bou, Damir Kreilach, and Dániel Sallói.

Coming into the weekend, the early season MVP candidates included Carles Gil (New England Revolution), Chicharito (LA Galaxy), Raul Ruidiaz (Seattle), and Nani (Orlando). After Mukhtar’s performance Saturday night, his numbers look right in line with MLS’ elite playmakers.

Mukhtar’s job is also about to get a whole lot easier. The addition of club-record signing Aké Loba should inject even more firepower into Nashville’s attack. Loba’s pace and goal threat will occupy opposing backlines and provide additional breathing room for Mukhtar to operate at the edge of the box and pile on more offensive statistics.   

Now, I don’t expect Mukhtar to ultimately win the MVP award. The MVP race is as much more about national narrative as it is a purely numbers-based prize. The narrative will always focus more intensely on marquee names, big markets, and players on teams at the top of the table. But if Nashville remains in contention for a home playoff match and Mukhtar continues to bag goals, the German-born Designated Player will start gathering some consideration second and third-place MVP votes. A second-half slide or untimely injury to any of the other current frontrunners could facilitate a dark horse MVP run for Mukhtar.

That we are even discussing Mukhtar as a dark horse MVP is a remarkable turn. The attacking midfielder struggled to make an impact during the first half of the 2020 season, cementing an initial first impression that he did not belong among MLS’ elite attackers. To his credit, Mukhtar gained some comfort and established a more consistent presence in the second half of the year. He turned in an MLS Player of the Week performance in mid-October, netting two goals and assisting on the third against the Houston Dynamo.

But entering 2021, questions remained as to the impact he would exert on Nashville’s attack. Mukhtar’s answered the bell by improving across the board. According to American Soccer Analysis, Mukhtar’s Expected Goals per 96 (xG / 96) has increased from 0.30 xG in 2020 to 0.55 xG in 2021. His Goals Added per 96 minutes (G+ / 96) has increased from 0.26 in 2020 to 0.33 in 2021. Additionally, he has enjoyed modest rises in his Shot on Target Percentage, Key Passes (those passes that directly lead to a shot on goal), and Pass Score (number of passes completed over expected). Beyond the stats, he single-handedly earned a point against Atlanta by dragging the Boys in Gold back from a two-goal deficit.  

Mukhtar may have shot himself into a dark horse MVP candidacy on Saturday night against Chicago. But make no mistake, the historic hat trick was not an aberration. It was the culmination of Hany Mukhtar’s turn into an elite-level MLS playmaker.

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