From (near) worst to first: How Hartford Athletic went from a losing team to hosting a playoff game
At times, it felt like nothing broke Hartford Athletic’s way in its inaugural season. Now a year removed and set to host its first ever playoff game, the team’s veterans feel as though the fortune has been reversed.
“It seemed like a lot of things were against us last year,” said goalkeeper Mike Novotny. “It’s definitely a different vibe this year. It just seems like everything is going our way. There’s little things that we couldn’t get last year, things that were possibly going against us. It’s nice that we’re getting a little bit of luck this year.”
Hartford finished second-to-last in the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference in 2019. It lost its first eight games, all on the road. Even when the team returned home, it wasn’t really home, as Athletic played its first seven games in Connecticut at Rentschler Stadium in East Hartford while Dillon Stadium was under renovation.
Hartford won eight games in 35 tries last year. In a shortened 2020 season due to a COVID-19 related suspension, Hartford won 11 out of 16 games, clinched its first postseason bid, placed first in the USL’s Group F, and will host Saint Louis FC on Saturday in the first round of the playoffs.
The roles are reversed from last year to this year. Hartford is now at the top of the table, though players felt something building last season after winning five of their last 12 games.
“At the end of the season we finished pretty strong,” said midfielder Harry Swartz. “A lot of the guys last year kind of carried that over into the locker room this year.”
Seven players returned from last year’s team to play in 2020. Veterans Ever Guzman (forward), Markus Nagelstad (forward) and Parfait Mandanda (keeper) came on and provided a mix of experience and skill to a team that needed both.
Guzman (32), Mandanda (30), Nagelstad (29), captain Danny Barrera (30) and forward Alex Dixon (30) are the elder statesman in an otherwise youthful locker room. Their presence, along with their on-field capabilities (Dixon, Guzman and Barrera combined for 13 goals and Mandanda recorded three clean sheets in net) have helped guide the team to success.
“It’s an advantage, because we’ve been through a lot, the veteran guys on the team,” said Dixon, one of the team’s first signings. "We’ve been in the game for a while, we’ve played in different countries, different leagues. We try to push our experiences on to the younger boys and give them any kind of advice they might need.
“It’s been a good balance between the old guys and the younger guys, and you can see the fruits of the labor.”
There was a coaching change, too. Radhi Jaidi, formerly Southampton FC’s U-23 coach, was brought in to replace Jimmy Nielsen as head coach. Nielsen was heralded as a fantastic player’s coach who the team enjoyed playing for. Jaidi has that, too, but wanted to bring a certain level of professionalism to the team which he had picked up playing in the Premier League and for the Tunisian national team.
“Both men are great leaders and have really excellent leadership qualities,” said Nicky Downs, a Waterville native. “Jimmy was the best man manager I ever played for. Radhi obviously has done an amazing job with our relatively young group, and kind of instilling a winning mentality and learning how to get results in games that maybe might not be going our way.”
Hartford has felt a little luckier than other teams due to the advantage of having fans allowed at games. Athletic is one of seven teams in the USL with spectators, and after allowing 25% capacity for the regular season, Dillon Stadium will hold 40% capacity for Saturday’s game as the state has moved into phase three of its reopening.
Players on last year’s squad felt a boost when they finally played in a sold-out Dillon Stadium come July. They hope to give the city’s fans, which have not seen a professional sports team host a playoff game since the AHL’s Hartford WolfPack did so in 2015, another reason to keep packing Dillon Stadium.
“I think we have the best fans in the league,” Dixon said. “Not even at just the games, they come out to the airport to meet us after away games. We want to thank them first and foremost. To get a home playoff game, and have that be the first playoff game in the club’s history on top of that, it’s a great feeling. We want it to not be the last one of the season.”
Shawn McFarland can be reached at email@example.com.
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