Following Lionel Messi’s MLS debut in Leagues Cup 2023, a graphic came up on the screen that was a wink and nod to the fact that Messi was now in a new league: “The Argentinian Mukhtar.”
Even Nashville had fun with it, quote tweeting a screengrab of the graphic with a goat emoji colored in with Nashville gold.
Messi may be coming into the final on an absolute tear (nine goals and an assist in six matches) but the defending Major League Soccer MVP, Hany Mukhtar, has been playing at an elite level for his team as well (two goals and six assists in six matches).
The two players may not have to come into direct contact much on the pitch, but their gravitational pulls as the most dangerous attacks for their teams will largely determine who ultimately wins on Saturday night.
Messi and Inter Miami come in as the favorites and it’s not a surprise why based on their performance over six matches in Leagues Cup. Messi, and fellow superstar teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, have completely remade a Miami team that came into the tournament last in MLS.
As much as soccer is a team sport, Messi’s individual efforts have been the highlight of their run to the finals. In his MLS debut, Messi snatched victory from the jaws of a draw with a stoppage time free kick goal to beat Cruz Azul 2-1.
In wins over Atlanta United, Orlando City FC, and FC Dallas, he opened the team’s scoring to put the team on the front foot. And in Dallas, he scored a late equalizer to force the match into penalties, where Miami won.
He didn’t score first against the Philadelphia Union, but his long-range goal to make it 2-0 felt like a door closer in a match the Union were hoping to compete in.
Needless to say how Messi goes, Inter Miami goals.
But on the opposite side of the pitch Mukhtar has been a superstar in his own right, quickly making Nashville SC a consistently competitive team in MLS in just its fourth season of existence. And now a finalist in Leagues Cup.
Mukhtar scored the opening goal in the club’s 2-1 Leagues Cup debut and also provided an assist on the second and eventual game-winning goal. In one of Nashville’s biggest upsets of the tournament, Mukhtar provided the assist to Sam Surridge’s last-moment equalizer to force penalties against Club América and gave the team the chance to win.
He then provided the assist on Nachville’s first three goals in a 5-0 thrashing of Minnesota United FC in the quarterfinals. In the semis against CF Monterrey, he started the counter attack and provided the assist on Surrdige’s eventual game-winning goal.
While his goal total isn’t close to Messi’s in this tournament (9 vs. 2) his goal involvements is much closer (10 vs.8).
The superstars are the ones who need to show up in the biggest moments for clubs who want to win titles. Messi vs. Mukhtar will be the first major superstar battle in the Messi MLS era. How it ends will go down as an historic moment in either club’s history.