The fans of the Hartford Athletic will get another chance to cheer on their team Saturday in the first round of the USL Championship playoffs.
Hartford scored two goals in the final 26 minutes of a scoreless game to beat the New York Red Bulls II, 2-0, Sunday night at MSU Soccer Park in Monclair, N.J., and win Group F by one point. The Athletic went 5-0-1 in their final six games to beat the Pittsburgh Riverhounds by a point for the Group F title.
Winning the group will give Hartford (11-3-2) a home game in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the St. Louis FC (7-5-4) on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Dillon Stadium.
A year ago, Hartford went 8-21-5 in their first professional season and finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. This year, in a pandemic-shortened season, the Athletic are in the post-season for the first time.
“It feels great. It is amazing,” Hartford coach Radhi Jaidi said. “I’m proud of the staff and players. It’s been a tough time. They have worked hard for it and sacrificed for it.”
This wasn’t easy for the Athletic. The Red Bulls II, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015, had several chances in the first half but Hartford goalie Parfait Mandanda was up to the task with several outstanding saves in the first half.
“We knew that New York was a very dangerous team in transition. We stood up and defended very well (in the second half) from blocking shots and blocking crossing passes,” Jaidi said.
New York’s starting goalie Luca Lewis made some nice stops, too, including a one-handed deflection off a close shot from Hartford’s Alex Dixon early in the second half.
Hartford took advantage of their opportunities in the second half. Dixon made a nice run into the New York side of the field and played a nice ball to Ever Guzman near the top of the penalty area. Guzman looked like he would attack but quickly ripped a shot to his left across the penalty area where Tyreke Johnson ran onto the ball and blasted it past Lewis for a 1-0 lead with 64:28 gone in the game.
Conor McGlynn scored his first goal of the season just seconds after entering the game. Johnson had the ball in the New York end, eluded a Red Bulls II defender and got a pass to McGlynn, who took a quick tough and ripped a rocket into the top corner with 16 minutes remaining for a 2-0 lead.
That sparked a wild celebration on the Hartford sideline with Jaidi joining the celebration with the Athletic players.
“I enjoyed that,” Jaidi admitted. “It was so, so intense. The game could have gone either way. The second goal came at the right time to (ice) the game.”
Johnson finished with a goal – his second of the season and his first since July 20 – and an assist.
A group of Hartford fans attended the game, parked in a parking garage that overlooked the field. The fan’s drum could be heard throughout the game and a Hartford fan played the Brass Bonanza song after Hartford scored their two goals.
It was an impressive finish to the season with four of the final six games on the road. Hartford went 5-0-1 with two wins over New York, a 2-0-1 record against Philadelphia and a huge 1-0 win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 26 that enabled Hartford to have a chance to win the Group F championship.
Hartford swept all four games they played with the Red Bulls II this season, outscoring New York, 8-3 in the four contests.
St. Louis FC earned their playoff spot with a 2-1 win over Indy Eleven on Saturday to finish second, one point ahead of Indy Eleven in Group E. The Athletic didn’t play St. Louis this season but they did face Indy Eleven in Indianapolis in July and dropped a 4-1 decision.
USL Championship set up eight groups to help limit travel and potential exposure to the contagious COVID-19 coronavirus. The season was suspended on March 12 but it resumed in early July with a 16-game schedule for each team, virtually all within their respective groups. Fifteen of Hartford’s 16-games were against the other four Group F squads.
Jaidi said the playoff berth and a home game is a focus of celebration for the club and the fans.
“For us, it is getting back to business and trying to prove ourselves in the playoffs,” he said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Hartford 2, New York Red Bulls II 0
At Montclair, NJ
Hartford (11-2-3) 0 2 — 2
New York (5-11) 0 0 — 0
Goals: Hartford – Tyreke Johnson (Ever Guzman) 65, Conor McGlynn (Johnson) 75; Saves: Parfait Mandanda (H) 4, Luca Lewis and Ciaron Dalton (NY) combined 4; Shots: 6-5, Hartford; Shots on target: 14-10, New York; Corners: New York, 8-3
2020 Group F final standings
|New York Red Bulls II||16||5-11||30||37||15|
|Philadelphia Union II||16||2-11-3||20||45||9|
x-clinched Group F title; y-clinched playoff berth
2020 USL Championship playoffs
Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Game 1: Pittsburgh (11-4-1) at Louisville (11-3-2)
Game 2: St. Louis FC (7-5-4) at Hartford (11-3-2)
Game 3: Charleston (9-3-3) at Charlotte (8-4-4)
Game 4: Birmingham (7-5-4) at Tampa Bay (10-3-3)
Western Conference quarterfinals
Game 5: L.A. Galaxy II (8-6-2) at Reno (11-2-3)
Game 6: Sacramento (8-2-6) at Phoenix (11-3-2)
Game 7: Tulsa (6-2-7) at El Paso (9-2-5)
Game 8: New Mexico (8-4-3) at San Antonio (10-2-3)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Game 9: Winner game 1 vs. winner game 2
Game 10: Winner game 3 vs. winner game 4
Western Conference semifinals
Game 11: Winner game 5 vs. winner game 6
Game 12: Winner game 7 vs. winner game 8
Eastern Conference championship
Game 13: Winner game 9 vs. winner game 10
Western Conference championship
Game 14: Winner game 11 vs. winner game 12
USL Championship finals
Game 15: Winner game 13 vs. winner game 14