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Hartford Athletic preseason laying foundation for Radhi Jaidi era

By Jason York (New England Soccer Journal), 03/16/20, 10:30AM EDT

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This story was originally published on New England Soccer Journal. Hartford Athletic supporters can apply the code HA25 at checkout for 25% off either a year-long digital or all-access subscription. Launched in March 2013, New England Soccer Journal covers youth soccer up to the professional ranks across the entire region. Click here for more info and to subscribe.

Editor's Note: This article was written prior to the postponement of the start of the 2020 Season.

Hartford, CT - The 2020 Hartford Athletic preseason has gone surprisingly fast under new coach Radhi Jaidi, according to forward Mac Steeves (Needham, Mass.). That’s not an indictment of anything former coach Jimmy Nielsen did before the start of last season, Hartford’s debut in the USL Championship, only an informed observation roughly two weeks before the new campaign, which begins March 13 at New York Red Bulls II. “Since [Jaidi has] been here, he’s brought us from the first stage of preseason into the second stage of preseason very gradually, but at a high pace,” Steeves said. “He’s progressed us further than I thought we would be at this point. He’s definitely a top-level coach.” Jaidi, who had coached the U-23s at English Premier League side Southampton since 2017, is on a 12-month appointment with Hartford as part of a growing partnership between the two clubs.

Jaidi added that local players such as Steeves, plus midfielders Harry Swartz (Needham, Mass.) and Nicky Downs (Lakeville, Conn.), have a desire to improve the club’s fortunes. Last season, Hartford struggled as it finished 16th out of 17 teams in the Eastern Conference with an 8-21-5 record and minus-31 goal differential. “The returning boys have the characteristics of caring about Hartford Athletic and caring about what’s going to happen this season,” said Jaidi, with Hartford returning just eight players from 2019. “We’ve got new players who have the hunger, will and desire to improve but also to help the club. If you look at the squad, we have a young team, but this is not a weakness. It’s a strength because we know these players want to improve.” Steeves, who played in 15 matches last season and scored two goals, including the team’s first-ever home goal, said training starts typically starts with video analysis, and then it’s “fine-detail coaching” during fieldwork. “[Jaidi] sets out a plan, formation and says, ‘This is how we’re going to play and this is what we’re going to do,’” Steeves said. “He does a really good job of explaining it all and making sure everyone is clear on their roles.” Steeves said it doesn’t matter what his role is, as long as he’s a healthy contributor throughout the USL Championship campaign. He’s been plagued by various injuries in recent years, and switched to a vegetarian diet this offseason as a preventative measure. He’s also working with strength coach Lucas Kruel to keep his hips secure. “Lucas does a really good job working with me on my hip mobility,” Steeves said. “He’s definitely helped with my range of motion.”

Swartz hasn’t previously had a full professional preseason, as he didn’t sign with Hartford until May last year, following four years at Northeastern. Hartford has played a robust slate of preseason matches so far, including two against New England Revolution II, which will soon began its inaugural season in USL League One. Athletic has also played Red Bulls II and will encounter Philadelphia Union II on Friday. “We want to be as challenged as possible, because we know the USL Championship is not an easy league and we want to be ready,” said Swartz, who had four goals and three assists in 20 matches last year. “We want to prove some people wrong this year and have a good season.” Downs, who juggled completing his economics degree from Yale during his first season as a professional last year, said unencumbered recovery time this offseason was embraced. Now, he’s switched to soccer as his “sole focus.” “I learned a lot from the first year, obviously, on the whole, it didn’t go as well as we would have wanted, but everyone saw glimpses of how good we were capable of being last year down the stretch when we won,” Downs said. “The unfortunate thing about last season was it all came together, maybe too little too late.” For example, Hartford secured a 4-0 win over Birmingham Legion with two games left last year, when their playoff hopes were over. Birmingham is coached by former Revolution assistant Tom Soehn and has former Revolution head coach Jay Heaps (Longmeadow, Mass.) as club president and general manager.

That match showed what Hartford can accomplish, with newcomers such as forward Éver Guzmán now hoping to forge a winning identity.

“We know who we’re going to be this year, we have an identity, whereas I think maybe part of our problem last year was we didn’t know exactly what type of team we were going to be,” Downs said. “This year it’s a young group and it’s a hungry group that’s going to work really hard and make life difficult for other teams. When you couple that work with kind of the detail that Radhi wants out of us on the tactical side, I think that could be a really good thing.”

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