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Hartford Athletic, at 3-0, sits atop Group F of the reworked USL Championship standings. For a club that finished 2019 with the third-lowest point total across both conferences, it’s a welcomed, although unfamiliar, position of comfort.
But captain and veteran midfielder Danny Barrera knows that everything could change quickly.
The 30-year-old, in a phone interview with New England Soccer Journal, preached caution ahead of Wednesday’s road trip to face Indy Eleven.
“In this game, you can be on top of the world and then you’re out injured for six, eight months,” Barrera said. “I try to make them realize that, yes, it’s good work we’ve been doing, but it’s still very early and as many good things as we’ve done, there’s room for improvement. It’s not how you start, but come game 16 are you in the playoffs and fighting for a title? That’s what matters.”
Hartford’s 2020 season, its first under former Southampton U-23 head coach Radhi Jaidi, began July 17 with a 1-0 win at New York Red Bulls II. But Barrera said that nearly was a draw instead, had Deri Corfe’s 97th-minute bending shot not hit the post. Then in last weekend’s 3-2 win over Philadelphia Union II, Hartford allowed the first two goals before recovering to earn all three points.
Jaidi had a similar message, even if the club’s finding newfound success.
“It’s only the start,” Jaidi said. “I’m not even thinking about being at the top as much as I’m thinking about our performance on the pitch and then improving us in many aspects. I’m very happy with the fact we got three out of three and nine points, but it’s only the start.”
That focus is attributed to Jaidi’s mentality, Barrera said. He referenced the club’s first preseason, before the COVID-19 stoppage in March, when they spent six hours per day between on-field sessions, recovery, video work and the weight room. Perhaps it comes from Jaidi’s own playing days, as highlighted by the former center back starting for Tunisia at the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups.
“You’re used to training, doing your work and going home,” Barrera said. “But he’s teaching all of us that to be a winning team you have to put the time in. He’s injected that we’re not taking any shortcuts, we’re going to put the time in. He changed the whole mentality of how things are running over here. It’s also a younger group of players who are perhaps less experienced and more coachable.”
On the latter, Barrera said he’s been especially impressed by rookie midfielder Conor McGlynn, a Siena product who signed last winter after impressing at an open tryout. Veteran striker Ever Guzman (two goals), Southampton loanee Tyreke Johnson (one goal) and goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda (on loan from Charleroi) have all carved out key roles, too. As for Barrera himself, he has three assists and trails just Kenardo Forbes of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds for the USL lead.
They’re all hallmarks of a retooled roster that Barrera said reflects ownership recognizing the expansion doldrums of 2019 required an overall revamp. It starts with Jaidi’s attention to detail, which translates into buy-in before each group’s top two teams reach the playoffs.
“[Jaidi] knows what it takes to win and he’s trying to instill into everyone that working together will benefit all of us,” Barrera said. “It’s not cutting any corners and doing the right things, taking care of every detail.”