This story was originally published in 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.
Just like that, year No. 2 for USL Championship side Hartford Athletic is over.
Hartford hosted Saint Louis FC at Dillon Stadium on Saturday night in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal match, having topped Group F. They had clear chances, but ultimately a 93rd-minute game-winner from midfielder Joaquin Rivas sealed the 1-0 defeat.
As the emotions settle from a 2020 season like no other, we’ve compiled five key takeaways. From head coach Radhi Jaidi‘s overall impact to some new faces who lifted the squad, there’s a lot to sort through.
Let’s get underway:
Whether you’re a top-division team or mired in the lower leagues, loans can be a fruitful acquisition mechanism. Most often, they allow clubs to take a short-term rental on established pros whose contracts need offloading or young prospects who need first-team minutes to develop.
Hartford Athletic tapped into both avenues to great effect in 2020, notably landing starting goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda from Belgian side Charleroi. Mandanda, 30 and part of the Congo national team, brought some stability and highlight-reel moments to a position that included a rotating cast a season ago.
As for the younger crowd, left winger Tyreke Johnson provided an ever-steady presence with two goals and one assist. The 21-year-old was one of Hartford Athletic’s top players before being recalled from loan just before last Saturday’s playoff match, which was tough timing. There was also U.S. youth international center mid Justin Haak, who’s a Homegrown Player for MLS side New York City SC. The 19-year-old started eight games down the stretch, strengthening the heart of the park.
Now, Hartford turned to loans in 2019 with players like ex-FC Cincinnati outside back Logan Gdula (East Lyme, Conn.) and former New England Revolution goalkeeper Cody Cropper. But this year’s loanees left a profound impact as the second-year club reached new heights.
Whether it was during preseason or in the playoff buildup, you often heard players talk about head coach Radhi Jaidi‘s impact. Professionalism, standards and expectations were common topics.
Hartford Athletic deserves credit for getting this hire right, as Hartford went 11-3-2 to clinch the top spot in Group F. Previously the head coach of Southampton’s U-23 team, Jaidi struck the right tune in a season that included a four-month layoff and congested schedule. Now, Jaidi largely had nowhere to go but up after the club struggled results-wise in 2019 with Jimmy Nielsen at the helm. But he had to steer the retooled roster correctly, which he certainly did.
However long Jaidi remains with Hartford, his effect on the club will remain. The former Premier League and World Cup center back instituted a new level, which showed from preseason last winter through the playoffs this fall.
Only one field player (defender Matheus Silva) played more minutes than midfielder Danny Barrera in 2020. The 30-year-old earned the captain’s armband, too, and provided on- and off-field leadership.
In terms of his box-score impact, Barrera had two goals and seven assists. The latter was good enough for fourth in the USL Championship, as the left-footed maestro pulled the strings from a central position.
Barrera’s creativity allowed forwards like Ever Guzman and Alex Dixon to thrive, giving Hartford two go-to strikers who made dangerous runs and often capitalized on their chances. More often than not, Barrera was the provider.
Facts are facts: Hartford Athletic, during the 2019 season, struggled as a first-year club. They went 8-5-21 to finish second from bottom in the 18-team Eastern Conference. A lengthy road swing to start the year factored in, but there were too many matches where results slipped away.
With that reference point, it’s remarkable to think of how far the Green & Blue climbed in 2020. They reached the playoffs for the first time, and even hosted said quarterfinal match at Dillon Stadium before a reduced-capacity crowd.
Who knows what year No. 3 has in store, but there’s some on-field momentum that wasn’t present at this stage last year. Given all the challenges thrown Hartford’s way in 2020, it’s great to see professional soccer in Connecticut on the upswing.
When the USL Championship season was reconfigured to account for limitations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, geography shaped the eight groups. The idea was simple: reduce travel given the broader public-health situation.
That placed Hartford Athletic against MLS reserve sides like New York Red Bulls II, Philadelphia Union II and Loudoun United, three clubs they largely handled with ease. But when facing more experienced and veteran-laden teams, Jaidi’s group encountered obstacles.
Their only three regular-season losses came against Indy Eleven and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, then Saint Louis FC bounced them from the playoffs. A 1-0 win Sept. 26 over Pittsburgh pushed Athletic atop Group F, but some questions nonetheless arose against teams with more experience.