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In front of sellout crowd, Hartford Athletic win in opener at Dillon Stadium

Hartford’s Wojciech Wojcik celebrates with teammate Ryan Williams (14) after Wojcik scored his first goal of the season in Saturday’s 2-1 USL Championship win over Indy Eleven at Dillon Stadium. Goalie Evan Newtown is upset. More photos from opening day at Dillon Stadium. 

HARTFORD, July 13 – It was hot and humid Saturday afternoon in Hartford as thousands of soccer fans trekked to the renovated Dillon Stadium.

However, the renovation isn’t finished yet. Air conditioning still has to be completed and landscaping work is continuing. The old stadium scoreboard that did its job for years despite missing light bulbs lay in dirt along a wall while a temporary scoreboard was aloft over the field.

Work on lighting, the sound system and plumbing still remain to be completed.

Didn’t matter.

For the first time in decades, Dillon Stadium was pulsing with energy as sellout crowd of 5,500 fans filled the 84-year-old facility to watch the expansion Hartford Athletic stun Indy Eleven, 2-1 in a United Soccer League (USL) Championship division contest.

Indy Eleven is in second place in the USL’s Eastern Division and had won their last 10 matches. Hartford had won just two of their 16 matches.

Didn’t matter.

Hartford’s Nicky Downs (21) and Indy Eleven’s Garcia Ayoze battle for the ball during Saturday’s USL Championship game in Hartford. The Athletic won, 2-1. More photos from opening day at Dillon Stadium. 

It was a great day for soccer, Hartford and the state with the debut of the newly-renovated Dillon Stadium. Work is expected to be completed in August but the Athletic will play their final 10 games of the season there.

“An awful lot of people worked awfully hard to bring this back to life,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said, clad in a green and blue Hartford Athletic jersey. “It’s an exciting day not just for the city of Hartford but for the state to open this stadium and to play a true home game for the Hartford Athletic and bring this stadium back as a community asset.”

The $14 million renovation of the stadium includes $10 million from the state of Connecticut through the State Bond Commission, $2.3 million from the owners of the Hartford Athletic – the Hartford Sports Group and $1.2 million from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

Bruce Mandel, the chairman and CEO of Hartford Sports Group, was thrilled and couldn’t stop smiling. There were plenty of hugs during ribbon cutting ceremonies just inside the Dillon Stadium gates and during a brief pre-game ceremony where Mandel saluted the vocal and enthusiastic fans who have been supporting the Hartford Athletic already this season.

Hartford Athletic played seven homes at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

Hartford’s Alex Dixon (11) races Indy’s Neveal Hackshaw (15) to the ball during Saturday’s game in Hartford. More photos from opening day at Dillon Stadium. 

Dillon Stadium has had a long and colorful history. Opened in 1935 by the city of Hartford, it was known as Municipal Stadium and hosted many baseball games. It was renamed Dillon Stadium in 1956 to recognize 35 years of civic service by James H. Dillon, the Recreation Director in Hartford.

The facility hosted two professional football teams – the Hartford Charter Oaks (1964-67) and Hartford Knights (1968-73). The Knights won two league championships had an undefeated season in 1973.

The Hartford Athletic are the third pro soccer team to call Dillon Stadium home. The Connecticut Wildcats/Yankees of the American Soccer League (1973-75) played here and the Hartford Bicentennials of the original North American Soccer League played here for two years (1975-76).

A goalie on the Connecticut Wildcats was Wethersfield’s Tony DiCiccio, who was better known for coaching the U.S. women’s soccer team to an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup championship in 1999.

Legendary musical acts have entertained Connecticut fans at Dillon Stadium. The Rolling Stones performed here in 1966 and the Beach Boys twice held concerts here in 1966 and 1973. The Grateful Dead also held two concerts at Dillon in 1972 and 1974.

The facility also hosted numerous high school football and soccer games throughout the last eight decades. In fact, the stadium got so much use that the natural grass surface was often a muddy mess by November.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, with a green Hartford Athletic jersey, cuts the ribbon to open the renovated Dillon Stadium Saturday drawing a cheer of celebration. More photos from opening day at Dillon Stadium. 

But it’s a new era now with new memories to be made.

The synthetic turf field is filled with cork and coconut husks – much cooler than crumb rubber pellets – and it will be available for high school contests and other community events. Bronin said the annual Thanksgiving game between Hartford Public and the Bulkeley/Weaver co-op team will be back at Dillon Stadium in November.

The Hartford Athletic sent the fans home happy with a victory in the new facility. Jose Angulo scored his fourth goal of the year with a low shot from the left side of the penalty area in the 58th minute for a 1-0 lead. Danny Barrera, who joined the club on June 12, and his passing has been impressive in his five matches with Hartford.

Indy nearly tied the game midway through the second half when Paddy Barrett’s header off a free kick by Garcia Ayoze went just wide of the right post. But in the 72nd minute, Hartford’s Wojciech Wojcik added a second goal for the Athletic as he took a pass from Barrera in the penalty area, cut past a defender and fired into the top-right corner for a 2-0 lead.

It was Wokcik’s first goal of the season and Barrera’s second assist of the game.

Hartford travels to Kansas City to play the Swope City Rangers on Tuesday. The Athletic return home on Saturday when they host the Charlestown Battery at 5 p.m.

This group of girls soccer players from Wethersfield were in the crowd Saturday to root on Hartford at Dillon Stadium. More photos from opening day at Dillon Stadium. 

NOTES: The two teams played in March with Indy Eleven beating Hartford, 1-0 before 20,251 fans at the Lucas Oil Stadium — home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. … Wojcik made 22 appearances with Indy Eleven from 2015-16. … The Hartford Athletic are a new expansion team in the United Soccer League, a Division II league. Major League Soccer is a Division I league. The Hartford Bicentennials were a Division I team in the NASL in the 1970s. The Hartford Athletic are the first Division II team in the state since the Connecticut Wolves, who played five seasons in the old A League from 1997-2001 out of Veteran’s Memorial Stadium in New Britain.

Hartford 2, Indy Eleven 0
At Hartford
Indy Eleven (10-3-4)       0  1  — 0
Hartford (3-12-4)              0  2  — 2
Goals: Hartford — Jose Angulo (58), Wojciech Wojcik (72); Indy – Garcia Ayoze (PK, 88); Assists: Danny Barrera (H) 2; Saves – Evan Newtown (Indy), Frederick Due (H); Corner kicks – Indy 8-1

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 30 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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