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Radhi Jaidi, as Hartford Athletic head coach during the 2020 USL Championship season, guided the second-year club to its first playoff berth.
But now the Tunisian manager’s future could lie elsewhere, according to club chairman Bruce Mandell, as his one-year secondment comes to a close.
Mandell said this was the goal all along, though, when Jaidi arrived after leading Southampton’s U-23 team. Hartford has a partnership with the Premier League side, which also led to left winger Tyreke Johnson spending this past season on loan.
“He’s now free to pursue other avenues,” Mandell told New England Soccer Journal. “We’re free to continue talks with him, too. I think we’re certainly making plans and that coach Jaidi may not be here next year, which I think would be a great thing.”
Hartford went 11-3-2 during the adjusted 2020 season, beating the Pittsburgh Riverhounds by one point to top Group F. That earned Hartford a home playoff game, which they lost 1-0 on a 93rd-minute strike against Saint Louis FC.
Jaidi helped a relatively-young team – though it should be noted that leaders like midfielder Danny Barrera (30) and forward Alex Dixon (30) played key roles – navigate the season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Playing a regionalized schedule against mostly MLS reserve sides like New York Red Bulls II and Philadelphia Union II, they grew into the club’s 3-5-2 formation and finished with a joint second-highest 2.19 points per game.
It all leaves Jaidi receiving a massive endorsement from Mandell, especially after Hartford went a meager 8-21-5 in 2019 as an expansion club.
“We’d be very fortunate if [Jaidi returns], but on the other hand that wasn’t the aim here,” Mandell said. “The goal was for us to establish ourselves, which we did, to make the playoffs, which we did, and for coach to get the experience. He will be a Premier League manager one day. That probably won’t be his next step, but I’m looking forward to him growing.”
So where does Hartford go from here? Mandell said he’s already fielding calls from across Europe and the United States – “trust me, the phones are ringing off the hook,” he said – with interest growing after 2020’s marked improvement.
Technical advisor Paul Buckle will play a significant role in the next hire, as he did with Jaidi’s appointment. There’s even the possibility for an arrangement with other European clubs (ala Southampton) after they saw Jaidi prove himself.
“Other top-level European clubs are reaching out to potentially do a similar deal like we did with coach Jaidi,” Mandell said. “It’d be taking one of their top coaches and really provide them with an opportunity to coach a professional team. So there’s a model there. We’re not locked into it. The three interviews I have today are American coaches who are interested. We’re open-minded.”
As for timing, Mandell said they’re not cornered into a certain date. But the USL Championship is planning a 34-game season that “could be starting” May 1, so they technically don’t need a head coach until mid-February or March. The patience also comes from how Hartford’s head coach doesn’t pick the players, so they’re given a template rather than hand-selecting additions.
“We’re not looking for the unicorn manager,” Mandell said. “I don’t think that’s the right way to go. I think you build the club and you build the structure and have the infrastructure, then you provide managers an opportunity to come in and prove themselves tactically, picking who to slot in and you go. It’s not common, but we’re looking at this as being club-first and then the manager comes in as a member of the club and supports the vision.”
Given that timeline, don’t expect Hartford to rush into what’s potentially its third head coach in as many years after 2019 was spent with Jimmy Nielsen at the helm. They believe they have a template and proven model, so they’re making plans for a new face.
“That was the goal all along, that was the absolute goal,” Mandell said of Jaidi. “It was for him to come over, provide us with the professionalism that I saw and that Paul Buckle really believed we could bring to Hartford and give us that base, that foundation. He did it and was successful.”