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Heading into the 2020 Season New England Soccer Journal highlighted five storylines to look out for -- check them out here!
Eagerness surrounded what expansion coach Jimmy Nielsen could accomplish in Hartford, especially since he led an identical project at OKC Energy FC back in 2014. But things never quite panned out, as Hartford went 8-21-5 and finished 17th overall (second from last) in the Eastern Conference standings.
So, the club and Nielsen parted ways last October, opening the door for a new direction. They ultimately turned to former Southampton U-23 boss Radhi Jaidi last November as part of an expanding partnership between Hartford and the English Premier League club.
We’ll have more on Jaidi’s vision for the club in our Spring 2020 magazine, but the early feedback from players has been positive. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of boost Jaidi’s presence gives the roster, though it’s worth noting that only eight players are back from last year’s team.
Hartford starts its 2020 season with goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda and midfielder Tyreke Johnson both on loan from European clubs. They’ll certainly have something to prove to their parent sides, with Mandanda over from Belgian top-flight side Sporting Charleroi and Johnson over from Southampton.
Johnson, a 21-year-old winger, could be the most intriguing of the two, since he played for Jaidi on Southampton’s U-23 team and made his Premier League debut last season against Arsenal. As for Mandanda, the 30-year-old brings experience between the sticks alongside returner Mike Novotny. Most notably, Mandanda has earned seven caps for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and helped his country to a third-place finish at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations tournament.
As much as domestic players with ambition form the spine of most USL Championship teams, experience from abroad can also prove fruitful. Odds are Johnson and Mandanda will play big roles, too.
Amid a busy offseason, one of Hartford’s most impactful signings could be forward Evér Guzman. The 31-year-old joins after spending three seasons with fellow USL Championship club San Antonio FC, where he managed 25 goals and six assists through 65 games.
Guzman hovered around the 10-goal mark during his last two seasons with San Antonio, which could prove massive for a Hartford team that saw leading scorer Wojciech Wojcik depart this offseason for USL League One club Forward Madison FC. Wojcik had a decent return of seven goals, but they’ll need a true goalscorer to step up in 2020.
Perhaps Guzman can do exactly that, as he played in Mexico from 2004-17 with notable stops at Morelia and Veracruz. He was also part of the Mexico team that won the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship, where he starred alongside reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela.
While there aren’t Homegrown Players like with the New England Revolution, there’s something special about the local presence that can be found on Hartford’s roster.
Two of the players, defender/midfielder Harry Swartz (Needham, Mass.) and forward Mac Steeves (Needham, Mass.) go way back in the youth soccer ranks. They both have roots at the Boston Bolts, only for Swartz to thrive at Northeastern and Steeves to star at Providence College. As for the other local, former Yale midfielder Nicky Downs (Lakeville, Conn.)enjoys a key roll. Before turning pro, he also played for Hotchkiss and with Black Rock FC.
Local success stories gives the fans something extra to get behind, and all three players should enjoy significant roles.
As Hartford looks to avoid a sophomore slump, a push into the playoff fray would do wonders for the club. Comparatively, they were truly out of the race by mid-August last year.
That’s not to say that anybody is expecting Hartford to win the USL Championship Final, but being in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt is an entirely realistic ask for the second-year side. It’s up to Jaidi to steer Hartford in that direction across the 34-game regular season.
The match further favors Hartford, with 10 teams from the East and West both making the playoffs, starting with the Wild Card Round on Oct. 21. The final will be held Nov. 12-16, with the specific date to be determined.