Hartford Athletic will host Saint Louis FC on Saturday for the quarterfinals of the USL Championship playoffs. This will be the first time both sides meet this season.
So, who would’ve ever thought that Hartford would have postseason fixtures that weren’t friendlies? I’ll be honest, after last year’s results in its inaugural season, I didn’t have a lot of hope. However, the team changed tenfold this season. Aside from its results compared to last season, Hartford brought in a coach who had plenty of experience in coaching soccer in England. No offense to Hartford’s former coach Jimmy Nielsen, but Radhi Jaïdi has done a much better job with a squad that had about seven returning players. On top of that, after losing a key player like Jose Angulo for the 2020 season, Hartford easily found his replacement: Ever Guzmán, and man has he had an impact on the team after being San Antonio FC’s all-time leading goal scorer.
Hartford will enter the match hungry to keep its six-game undefeated streak going. After being on the road for its final games, this Connecticut team’s momentum doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Its eager fans will give Hartford a huge confidence boost to protect its 6-1-2 home record entering Saturday’s game. However, Hartford haven’t played against many teams outside of Group F, which is my main concern. They’ve only played against Indy Eleven, who were in the same group as Saint Louis (Group E) and were defeated 4-1.
Saint Louis, on the other hand, will enter the match after having a rocky end to its regular season. Unlike Hartford, out of Saint Louis’ final six games, they’ve only won half of them. And in those games, their opponents nearly came back towards the very end. If it weren’t for its 2-1 win against Indy Eleven, Indy would’ve been the team facing Hartford. Saint Louis FC aren’t necessarily the favorites to win this quarterfinal match and their 1-3-2 away record seems to further back that statement. Saint Louis has only played one match against a team from Group F, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, where they drew 2-2.
The only issue Hartford will have Saturday is not having Tyreke Johnson in the squad after being recalled by Southampton on Thursday. Johnson’s been essential to Radhi Jaïdi’s side after starting 11 of the 15 games he played and scoring once, but it’s possible that his place can be replaced with Gabriel Torres or a potential return of Harry Swartz in the starting squad. I can see Radhi Jaïdi playing a 3-5-2 formation, as contesting the midfield usually seemed to have worked for Hartford. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jaïdi plays a 5-3-2 formation, because it’s a new team they’re facing. So, he probably wouldn’t want to risk letting Saint Louis getting clinical finishes.
In the USL’s tier list for the teams in the playoffs, they placed Hartford in the “longshots” category. To that, I say they’re more of the dark horses in the playoffs, at least, in the Eastern Conference. As I said earlier, Hartford had a massive glow-up this season compared to last, and all it took was getting its feet wet in the league while obtaining a coach with Premier League standards. The players themselves have shown their strength as this season progressed. Even with signings during the season of Justin Haak and Idan Cohen, they were quick to settle in and play as if they were in the squad all along. It’s clear that the team’s chemistry has potential to take the Boys in Green far.