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Preview: Let’s keep an eye on Hartford

Hartford Athletic open their season tonight against the Riverhounds, filled with expectation, just as any USL team would to start their year. Although I think more so than ‘we want a cup!’, Hartford fans likely crave some measure of consistency for 2022. Since their entry into USL Championship, it’s been a bumpy ride.

Their first year in 2019 was a fairly standard first year, as they finished with a dismal 8-5-21 (WTL) record. They began the year with eight straight road games, losing every single one. Only in the final two games of the year were they able to string together two wins in a row. Of note, that team included former Riverhound José Angulo, current Riverhound Alex Dixon, and current Hartford Athletic captain Danny Barrera. So of course, they tore it down and built it back for 2020.

That next season was of course ‘the season we really would rather not talk about’ because of Covid-19, except it was a pretty darn good year for the Athletics. Playing in five-team Group F (and riding a lot of buses), Hartford topped the table with an 11-2-3 record, better than the second-place Riverhounds. Pittsburgh and Hartford basically spent the summer of 2020 stuffing poor NYRB II, Philly 2, and Loudoun into their proverbial lockers and taking their lunch money. Unfortunately, the Turf Whalers (not their official nickname) couldn’t parlay regular season excellence into post-season relevance, and got waxed, 1-0 in their first playoff game against St Louis FC, who were disbanded at playoffs end. Last note on 2020: Hartford started Parfait Mandanda in goal, and I challenge you to find a better name in sport than Parfait Mandanda. I will conceded that God Shamgod and Candy Maldonado are equally cool names. But not better.

In 2021, the Soccer Whale was pretty mediocre. Danny Barrera had 7 goals and 12 assists. Striker Jose Obregón Jr. had 10 goals. The Athletics were 12-5-15. The team went 0-2-2 against the Riverhounds.

So in short: a terrible year, a great year, a mediocre year, and no playoff victories. Hartford begin year four with potential, but also no clear identity as a club, and a lot to prove.

Tactics and Personnel

Like last week, the Hounds opponent today has no game film from this year to speak of. Based on lineup data from fbref.com, the formation the Athletics prefer remind me of an iconic line from Bull Durham about the pitching abilities of Nuke Laloosh: “He f***s like he pitches; sorta all over the place.” They played a 3-4-1-2; a 4-3-3, a 4-1-4-1; a 4-3-1-2; a 4-4-2, and a 4-2-3-1. Nearly every option possible. That previous sentence looks like a line of code from Cobalt or Turbo C++. Of course, this could mean nothing – formation is shorthand for tactics, and perhaps Hartford simply have a number of strong players that have specific tendencies but line up at diverse positions. Still, in general, most coaches use only two or three formations in a season. Second-year coach Henry Watling seemed to tinker a lot last year. Lets see if that trend persists.

Midfielder and captain Danny Barrera is back. He’s a wonderful player – the classic midfield metronome that does a little of everything. His 1.19 Goals Added (g+) in 2021 was 3rd on the team and 11th amongst all USL central midfielders, and his Passing G+ of 1.43 was his best attribute. Former Charlotte Independence winger Joel Johnson is with Hartford this year. The Liberian winger/fullback is quite fast, and has notched 15 assists in his USL career. The defense returns only two other players from 2021 – Ashkanov Apollon and Younes Boudadi. The team added Englishman Tom Brewitt from Tacoma Defiance in the offseason and a few other unknowns, so that’ll be interesting to keep an eye on. Oh! And Connor McGlynn did this last year:

So that’s fun.

Striker Jose Obregón Jr. is back, and he’s likely the main man up top. The rest of the forwards on the roster are a whole lot of unproven and yet-to-be distinguished guys; Prince Saydee, Jesiel Cedeno, Rashawn Dally, and Mitchell Curry. None has more than a handful of career goals at any level. Mitchell Curry played one match for Sunderland, so he might be the only current USL player you could find in the background of a tv show on Netflix. (“Sunderland Till I Die” is a must-watch for you football fanatics.)

The starting keeper is former Riverhound Austin Pack, who was with the team in 2019 and made 6 appearances that year. I always thought highly of him as a keeper, and he arrives at Hartford as another member of the Charlotte Independence diaspora, as that team has self-relegated to USL One.

This will sound like a repeat of last week’s preview of Memphis 901 FC, but I don’t think that highly of Hartford. There’s not a lot of former MLS draft picks here, or veteran USL guys, or lower league European guys, or guys with notable track records. They have all the makings of another mid-table run this season. But they might give the Hounds trouble this year after getting to know them so well over their brief existence. They might not win the league, but we do need to keep an eye on them for sure.

Predicted Lineup

Pack; Johnson, Boudadi, Apollon, Brewitt; Gomez, Barrera; Cedeño, McGlynn, Lee-Vassell; Obregon Jr.

Match Info

Riverhounds (1-0-0) vs. Hartford Athletic (0-0-0)
Date: Saturday, March 19
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds -215 / Draw +295 / Hartford +410 (BetRivers.com)
Tickets: Ticketmaster
TV: 22 The Point
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live updates: PittsburghSoccerNow.com live updates;  @RiverhoundsSC on Twitter
Match hashtag: #PITvHFD

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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