Hartford Athletic extended their lead at the top of USL Championship Group F with a 2-1 win over New York Red Bulls II. First half goals from Alex Dixon and Sam Strong opened up a halftime lead for the home team, before Sebastian Elney pulled one back for the Red Bulls.
Coach Radhi Jaidi made three changes for Hartford following the 4-1 home win over Loudoun United last time out. Leading goal scorer Ever Guzman was replaced by Tyreke Johnson, while Strong and Arthur Rogers were called up in place of Alex Lara and Conor McGlynn. Hartford were well rested, given their previously scheduled game at Philadelphia Union II was rescheduled due to a Union player testing positive for COVID-19.
The third placed Red Bulls were coming into this game on the back of three straight defeats, and coach John Wolyniec made eight changes to the starting lineup as the team searched to get their season back on track.
Goalkeeper Wallis Lapsley had been sent off in the 2-1 defeat to Loudoun last time out and was suspended for this game. 17 year old goalkeeper Alex Bobocea made his professional debut when subbing in for Lapsley against Loudoun, and would be awarded his first professional start here.
Former University of Maryland striker Elney was benched in favor of Jake LaCava, and academy prospects Kenan Hot and Tapiwa Shumba were called into midfield in place of Caden Clark and Chris Lema.
New York launched the first attack of the game in the 3rd minute when Cherif Dieye skipped into the penalty area before losing his footing. The ball fell to left back John Tolkin who fired over the crossbar from 20 yards out.
Hartford carved out a chance at the other end immediately, and as in the previous fixture between these two teams (a 1-0 Hartford win in New Jersey), the Red Bull defensive line showed vulnerability to runs in behind, Mads Jorgensen won a header in midfield and Daniel Barrera played a quick ball over the top to the onrushing Dixon who lifted his finish over Bobocea but wide of the goal post.
Hartford won a free kick when Johnson was fouled out wide by Boima Cummins. The free kick was crossed in by Gabriel Torres and punched clear by Bobocea. The goalkeeper’s punch reached only as far as Barrera who had his shot blocked behind for a corner by Roy Boateng.
The initial corner was cleared as far as Johnson, and the Southampton loanee’s cross back into the penalty area found a wide open Dixon who headed wide.
The Red Bulls had a golden chance to take a lead in the 8th minute when Cummins played a pass forward to LaCava, who charged to the byline before having his square ball tipped away by Parfait Mandanda. The deflection fell to a wide open Deri Corfe who rolled his attempted finish wide from the penalty spot.
A major reason for Corfe being wide open in the opening phase of the game could have been the somewhat unique 4-2-2-2 forwation implemented by New York. When New York were defending, the shape had the look of a flat 4-4-2, meaning right wingback Harry Swartz was matched up on Corfe, while Hartford midfield due Rogers and Jorgensen matched up with two central players in Barry Sharifi and Hot.
In contrast, when New York were in possession Corfe and Shumba had free reign to attack either wide or central, providing a 4v3 numbers up situation against the Hartford midfield centrally.
As can be seen in the diagram above, the Red Bull width is provided by center forward Dieye in this phase of play, while Corfe has taken up a position too central for Swartz to cover. Such movement leaves the opportunity for midfielders like Corfe starting wide to not be passed on effectively, or enter the central area when the opposing central midfielders are already occupied. The width in this system can be provided by either an advancing fullback or a forward while the midfielders create a numbers up situation centrally.
For this goal scoring chance, Corfe floated central away from Swartz and was picked up by nobody, in a play that could have well led to an early New York lead.
Hartford had a chance at the other end when Matheus Silva teed up Rogers to fire a long range shot that Bobocea parried to a following in Dixon. Selflessly, Dixon tried to set up teammate Barrera with an open goal but his wayward header was off target and the chance was wasted.
The lively start to the game continued and Torres sent in a cross that found Swartz. The wingback’s header was denied by a good Bobocea save and his blocked follow up shot fell to Barrera who lifted his effort over the crossbar.
New York won a free kick 30 yards out when LaCava was fouled by Kevin Politz. Corfe fired a low shot underneath the jumping wall that sailed wide of the target.
Hartford took a lead in the 21st minute and it was the lively Dixon who broke the deadlock. Johnson dropped a pass to Barrera out wide on the left, and the captain’s cross found a leaping Dixon who planted a header past Bobocea to open the scoring.
With the assist, Barrera moved up to 4th on the USL Championship all-time list for career assists with 31, a list that is topped by another active player in Kenardo Forbes (40) of Harford’s Group F rival Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
Hartford defender Silva received a yellow card from referee Ernie Constantine in the 27th minute for delaying a restart.
In the other key game in regards to Group F, Tyler Pasher fired Indy Eleven into the lead against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, meaning Hartford could open up a significant lead at the top of the standings if both results held.
Red Bull won another shooting range free when the impressive Corfe received a pass from Tolkin and turned to face goal before being fouled by Strong. Corfe got up to take the free kick himself but his shot was blocked by the Hartford wall.
Corfe was soon involved again, receiving another pass from Tolkin and switching the point of attack to an onrushing Cummins who fired his shot well off target.
Hartford received a lucky break when Silva crashed into a hard foul on Dieye while already on a yellow card. Referee Constantine awarded a free kick but handed out no further punishment to the Brazilian defender. Sharifi took the free kick but his effort was comfortably saved by Mandanda.
The hard working Rogers dispossessed Sharifi in central midfield and the ball fell to Barrera who fired a deflected shot onto the crossbar and behind for a corner.
Hartford doubled their lead from the corner courtesy of an error by Bobocea. The goalkeeper pushed Politz in the back before allowing Barrera’s corner to slip through his hands, gifting Strong with an empty net to tap the ball into from a yard out for his first career goal.
Young left back Tolkin had an impressive game for the Red Bulls, and showed good signs of future leadership, taking the time to console his goalkeeper before the restart.
New York responded when Dieye picked up the ball out wide and teed up Corfe who curled a shot wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Hartford won a corner in first half injury time when Swartz drove forward and played Dixon in behind only for Boateng to intervene. Johnson took the corner but his deep cross cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
Johnson received a booking in the last action of the first half for a trip on Tolkin. Left back Tolkin was one of the bright spots for the Red Bulls in this game, providing width well when Corfe floated into central areas.
Hartford went into the break with a lead, while Group F rivals Pittsburgh were 1-0 down at Indy Eleven. The opening five minute sof the second half in Indianapolis were eventful, with Indy going down to 10 men after Ayoze received a red card, and Pittsburgh spurned a golden chance to equalize when Robbie Mertz failed to convert a penalty kick.
Red Bull coach Wolyniec made two substitutions at half time, bringing on Lema and Elney in place of Shumba and Hot. The interval also saw a change in shape from the Red Bulls, switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation for the remainder of the game.
New York won a wide free kick when Johnson pulled back substitute Lema. Sharifi swung in the free kick but his cross was punched away by Mandanda.
Red Bulls continued to press early in the second half and Lema launched a high ball forward. Pressure from Elney forced a weak header from Politz and the ball fell to LaCava who fired wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Left back Tolkin joined the attack minutes later but lifted his shot over the crossbar from 25 yards out.
New York were looking for a goal to get back in the game, and LaCava exchanged passes with Elney before his shot was crowded out inside the penalty area.
Coach Wolyniec made two more substitutions as the game entered the final half hour, bringing on Clark and Dantouma Toure in place of Dieye and Corfe.
Lema played a through ball to LaCava in the 64th minute and the striker cut inside before curling a shot high and wide of the target.
Red Bulls won a wide free kick when Elney was clipped off the ball by Barrera. Lema sent in the free kick but his cross was booted clear by Politz.
Hartford won a free kick out wide when Johnson was fouled by center back Boateng. Rogers crossed in the free kick and Strong got on the end of it only to lift his header over the crossbar.
The Red Bulls tried to play short from the resulting goal kick, but Swartz pressed Tolkin and forced a turnover. Swartz then found Jorgensen who bounced a pass off Barrera before having his powerful shot saved by Bobocea. Rogers took the subsequent corner but his inswinging cross was headed clear by Joe Fala.
Hartford defender SIlva received a second lucky break of the game in the 71st minute, when he dragged down Toure on the edge of the penalty area but no foul was given.
The strong second half performance from New York paid off and they pulled a goal back in the 74th minute through substitute Elney, his team leading third goal of the season. Clark picked up the ball and passed to Toure before charging into the penalty area and receiving a return pass before squaring a ball across goal for Elney to convert.
Striker Elney showed good movement for the goal, pulling off the shoulder of Politz who passed him onto Strong, only to check back and sidefoot the ball home in a pocket of space between the two defenders.
The hydration break came immediately after the goal, giving both coaches a chance to rally their teams with the result now very much in the balance.
Hartford won a free kick by the sideline when Johnson was fouled from behind by Cummins. Rogers crossed in the free kick and Fala cleared only as far as Barrera before Hartford came again. Swartz sent over a cross for Strong who had his header deflected behind for a corner. Rogers swung in the corner but his high cross sailed out for a goal kick.
New York coach Wolyniec made his 5th and final substitution in the 81st minute, replacing Sharifi with Omar Sowe.
Defender Strong received a yellow card for a clumsy challenge on Sowe, gifting New York a dangerous set play on the corner of the penalty area. Lema sent in the cross but his low ball into the box was cleared by Politz.
Jaidi made a triple substitution with three minutes remaining as Hartford looked to close out the win. Nicky Downs, Dre Deas, and Aiden Mesias were introduced in place of Dixon, Johnson and Rogers.
The Red Bulls won an attacking set play in stoppage time when Tolkin pushed forward and was fouled by Downs. Strong rose high to head clear Lema’s cross and Torres punted the ball clear.
The Red Bulls had one more chance when Sowe launched a high ball into the penalty area that bounced around before being claimed by Mandanda who punted clear and time ran out on a well earned three points for Hartford.
Indy held on to beat Pittsburgh 1-0, meaning this result saw Hartford open up a three point lead at the top of Group F having played one game less than second placed Indy. A midweek trip to face last placed Philadelphia Union II lay ahead for Jaidi’s confident team in their playoff push.
The defeat marked the first time ever the Red Bulls II had ever lost 4 games straight, and they fell 6 points behind second placed Pittsburgh in the race for the playoff spots, having played one game more. Coach Wolyniec and his team also faced Philadelphia as their next opponent in a weekend home game.
The Red Bulls fielded many academy products, and all would be looking to follow in the career footsteps of Red Bull academy alumni Tyler Adams who had a very significant week in Europe. Adams scored the winning goal to fire Red Bull Leipzig into the Champions League semi-finals in a dramatic 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid.
The 4-2-2-2 formation used by the Red Bulls in the first half is a model very similar, if not replicating the ‘Brazilian Box’ midfield used famously by the Brazil national team when winning the 1994 World Cup. Anyone interested in reading more on the subject can read this article by Stefan Vasilev on The Ball is Square.
21’ HAR Alex Dixon (Daniel Barrera) 1-0
40’ HAR Sam Strong (Daniel Barrera) 2-0
74: NYR Sebastian Elney (Caden Clark) 2-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
#10 CM Daniel Barrera (Hartford Athletic) – The match was won in the first half, and it was Barrera who was at the heart of the action. Found space between the lines consistently and capped a quality performance with two assists. His pinpoint cross was headed home by Dixon, before his corner was fumbled by the goalkeeper to present Strong with an empty net.
3: CM Daniel Barrera – Man of the Match.
2: CF Alex Dixon – Scored one and could have had a couple more in a dynamic first half performance, stretching the back line consistently.
1: CD Sam Strong – Physically tough performance at the back capped with a first career goal for the powerful defender.
New York Red Bulls II
3: CF Jake LaCava – Lively performance from the center forward, consistently getting shots off and almost created the game’s opening goal when Corfe fired wide early on.
2: M Deri Corfe – Created a threat for Hartford from both wide and central positions. Consistent source of shots and crosses, a driving force in the Red Bull attack.
1: LD John Tolkin – Classy performance from the young left back. Got forward consistently and provided width effectively when Corfe floated into central positions.
HAR: Mandanda, Silva, Politz, Strong, Torres, Jorgensen, Barrera, Rogers (Downs), Swartz, Johnson (Mesias), Dixon (Deas).
NYR: Bobocea, Tolkin, Fala, Boateng, Cummins, Shumba (Elney), Sharifi (Sowe), Corfe (Toure), Hot (Lema), LaCava, Dieye (Clark).