It was heartbreaking to see the 1-0 defeat Hartford Athletic suffered on Saturday night, but not everything is gloomy for the Connecticut team.
I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but I seriously cannot get over how much this team has progressed. Created in 2018 with its inaugural season the year after, Hartford’s first year in the USL Championship was debatably acceptable. Eight wins, not too bad; but 21 defeats? When Hartford brought in Jimmy Nielsen, fans had high hopes, as he had a strong leadership mentality and experience in the league’s playoffs for three out of four of his years with Oklahoma City Energy FC. Unfortunately, Nielsen wasn’t able to produce strong enough results, and he and the club had a mutual agreement for his departure after the inaugural season.
Fast-forward to the following year, and Head Coach Radhi Jaïdi has done absolute wonders; not only for the players and the club, but for the fans as well. Instilling a Premier League-esque philosophy from his time as coach of Southampton’s U-23, the fact that Hartford Athletic is a two-year old club and he managed to take them to the playoffs is astonishing, and I must say a good portion of the credit has to go to the head coach.
With that aside (again), I want to focus on Saturday’s match: what went wrong, and how Hartford can use their defeat to bounce back next season. In all honesty, I thought that Hartford’s performance was fairly decent, as they had really great chances to be in the lead but couldn’t execute their plays. However, they seemed nervous for a good portion of the match which, in my opinion, led to their defeat. Why do I say this, you might ask? Because I’ve seen this happen before, but with Peru in their return to the 2018 World Cup after 36 years. Like Hartford, Peru could’ve been a strong team in the group stage, but seemed so nervous and cautious not to mess anything up that they would end up choking their shots and ultimately not qualify for the next round.
It also didn’t help that the referee was questionable, especially in the second half. One of the most controversial moments that didn’t go Hartford’s way was in the 92nd minute, a minute before Saint Louis scored, when there was an apparent handball on Saint Louis’ defender Tobi Adewole. Even though the referee saw what happened with his own eyes, he let the play go on; and fans, including myself, were livid. All in all, Saint Louis had a great performance, especially their goalkeeper Kyle Morton. Even though this is their last year in the league, as they cannot financially support themselves for another season, I hope nothing but the best for them in their playoff run.
Now, where can Hartford go from here? Well, it’s a bit difficult to say as some key figures in the club will be leaving as their loan deals come to a close. Tyreke Johnson was the first to go as he was recalled by Southampton a couple of days before the quarterfinals, and goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda was next after leaving a heartwarming message for fans across social media following the defeat.
My main concern is the departure of Radhi Jaïdi as his 12-month loan will be up next month. There’s just something about his mentality that drove Hartford to where they got this season, and for him to leave on a high note in the club’s early history will be disappointing. Unfortunately, that’s how loan deals are. After his successful stint with the Connecticut club, I don’t think Southampton will be keen on letting him stay, as they would probably want him to produce similar results across the pond. But hey, anything’s possible in the beautiful game.
As for the rest of the players, I think the majority will stay. They’ve done absolute wonders for the club and, in return, received major appreciation from the club and the fans. The two players I’ll be most excited for next season are Markus Naglestad and Alfonso Vazquez, should they stay. Despite coming to the club about a third of the way through the season, Naglestad had made quite an impact on the field. As for Vazquez, his professional career is only beginning at 18 years old. Even though he’s made a handful of appearances, even scoring in one of them, the Connecticut native carries significant potential for the attack, which will add greater depth to the team. Even if Radhi Jaïdi doesn’t return for another season, he at least left an impact and a strong winning mentality on the club that can see Hartford return to the playoffs if they play their cards right.