The ties that bind MVP favorites Mukhtar and Driussi

When Hany Mukhtar turned up in Nashville in January 2020, not many people took notice.

The Berlin-born attacking midfielder had signed as Nashville SC‘s first Designated Player the previous August, but upon arriving in the Music City from Danish club Brondby, he was pretty much anonymous.

“Three years ago, no one really knew who I was,” said a chuckling Mukhtar in a recent interview with ESPN. “Before, no one really cared about us as a soccer team in the beginning.

“But now they’re asking questions like, ‘When is the next game?’ Now, most of the kids are recognizing me, they’re saying, ‘Hi, Hany Mukhtar’ and they’re doing the goal celebration (captain’s salute) in front of me.”

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)

A similar story can be told about Argentine attacker Sebastian Driussi and Austin FC.

In a city where there is more scrutiny about who is under center playing quarterback for the Texas Longhorns than who is the occupant of the Governor’s Mansion, Driussi has quickly forged his way into the Austin mainstream for his play with the Verdes since joining in August 2021 from Zenit St. Petersburg.

“It’s something really wonderful, really beautiful,” Driussi said following Austin’s regular season finale on Sunday against the Colorado Rapids. “The people here in Austin bring me a lot of affection when I’m on the field or even when I’m on the street. The fans always treat me in the best manner and for a player that is very important, so I’m very grateful to the fans for all of that.”

These two players might come from different continents and speak different languages, but at a closer look, they share some similarities. Unlike Major League Soccer‘s more heralded stars in its bigger markets, like Carlos Vela at LAFC, Josef Martinez at Atlanta United or Inter Miami‘s Gonzalo Higuain, both Mukhtar and Driussi have found great success in a pair of new franchises located in medium-size markets. That has produced a unique link between the two over the course of the 2022 season in which they have emerged as the top contenders for the coveted Landon Donovan MVP Award.

Playing in a more advanced position on the field, Mukhtar has been crucial to Nashville’s fifth-place finish in the Western Conference. Diligent work with assistant coach and former Premier League player Steve Guppy has made Mukhtar a scoring threat, particularly in one-on-ones. That improvement has resulted in 23 goals to win the 2022 MLS Golden Boot, along with 11 assists, meaning he had a hand in 65% of Nashville’s 52 goals on the season.

“I think the change of my position helped me a lot,” Mukhtar said. “The coaches put me closer to the opponent’s goal because they said I had an amazing finish and that I just need to receive the last ball, not play the last ball. I think that helped me a lot. Last year I think I had a great season (16 goals, 12 assists), but I wanted to show everyone that it wasn’t a one-off.”

Driussi has been equally important to second-place Austin FC, amassing 22 goals and seven assists, helping the Verdes make a 25-point improvement, tying an MLS record for an expansion team’s second season. Defensively, his tireless running and pressing has been hailed by the Austin FC coaching staff, while head coach Josh Wolff has long said said that Driussi’s locker room arrival was an inflexion point for his side.

“The coaching staff and my teammates have allowed me to have big performances,” Driussi said. “They have helped me a lot during the week and you can see how that has been reflected on the field. This season has been very gratifying. We managed to achieve our goal, which was to qualify for the playoffs. I think we did a good job all season long, and because of that we deserve to be where we are in the playoffs.”

The first encounter between the two MVP leaders came as teammates during the MLS All-Star Game against the Liga MX All-Stars in August. That was followed by two September contests in a span of three weeks, with Mukhtar scoring a brace in a 3-0 Nashville win on Sept. 3, followed by a 1-1 draw two weeks later in Austin in which they each scored their team’s goal.

As the season has progressed and their familiarity with each other grew, a mutual respect and admiration has surfaced.

“He’s a team player,” Mukhtar said of Driussi. “I realized it when we watched more and more videos on Austin that he likes to drop pretty deep as an attacking midfielder and try to help the team and how he works without the ball is impressive. That shows what a great player he is. He’s not selfish. I have a lot of respect for him.”

“First, I just want to congratulate him. He had a very good season. He deserves the Golden Boot because he scored one more goal,” Driussi said of Mukhtar. “We had a chance to speak a little [after the two games], we wished each other luck, we know that the two of us were fighting for the same things. He’s had an incredible season.”

Mukhtar’s performance this season has even sparked conversation of a possible Germany call-up. Lothar Matthaus’ Euro 2000 call as a member of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars is the only precedent, but Mukhtar’s form is attracting attention back home.

“Right now in German newspapers people are mentioning me with the German national team. That’s a big honor for me,” Mukhtar said. “I know it’s a big step because obviously there are a lot of players playing Champions League and they are not getting called up for the German national team. But I still believe you can take someone to the squad who has a lot of confidence and who is scoring goals, which is the most difficult part of our game, so why not?”

The history is slightly better with Argentine MLSers. Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez got an Argentina call-up in early 2019 shortly after signing with Atlanta United, while current Atlanta man Thiago Almada spent the recent international break with the Albiceleste. Yet in a country where elite attacking midfielders seemingly grow on trees, an Argentina call-up for Driussi is likely not coming in the foreseeable future.

Landmark national team call-ups or not, though, the respective impacts made by Mukhtar and Driussi on their teams have been profound. Five years ago, neither city even had an MLS team to field, but now aided by their stride-for-stride jostling for top individual honors for much of the season, Mukhtar and Driussi have helped transform Nashville and Austin into soccer hotbeds dreaming of being the home of the league’s MVP.