Hartford Athletic snatched a late draw from 2-0 down courtesy of goals from Markus Naglestad and Alex Dixon in the last 5 minutes to move into a tie for first place in USL Championship Group F. Underdogs Loudoun had looked on course for a big road win for most of the encounter, as Shane Wiedt and Elvis Amoh had fired them into a 2-0 lead.
Coach Radhi Jaidi named an unchanged lineup for Hartford on the back of their 2-1 win against New York Red Bulls II 8 days earlier. Hartford’s midweek game was postponed due to a Philadelphia Union II player testing positive for COVID-19.
Tyreke Johnson and Dixon led the Hartford attack, with leading goal scorer Ever Guzman still sidelined with injury. Arthur Rogers continued in central midfield alongside Daniel Barrera and Mads Jorgensen.
Loudoun did have a midweek game and went down 2-0 at home to Group F leaders Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Midfielder Nelson Martinez received a red card in the defeat and was subsequently suspended for this fixture, being replaced by Jeremy Garay.
Coach Ryan Martin made three more changes and was looking for an improved performance, given Loudoun’s previous two trips to Dillon Stadium this season ended in 3-1 and 4-1 defeats respectively.
Colin Miller was replaced in goal by Simon Lefebvre, while Peabo Doue and Theodore Ku-DiPietro were replaced by Michael Gamble and Josh Fawole.
Young, powerful forward Alioune Ndour was at the heart of Loudoun’s first attack, checking to receive the ball to feet before playing a ball in behind. Gamble raced onto the ball in the left channel but his cutback was intercepted by a recovering Rogers.
Hartford won a 9th minute corner when Dixon rolled Wiedt and raced to the byline after receiving a Harry Swartz throw-in and the striker’s cutback was cleared behind by Allexon Saravia. Gabriel Torres took the corner but his inswinging cross cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
Loudoun winger Kairou Amoustapha was lively in the opening stages and took a touch forward before switching the point of attack to Gamble, who dribbled to the edge of the penalty area before releasing a low shot that was parried behind by Parfait Mandanda. Garay drove a deep cross in from the corner that Madanda claimed before being fouled by Amoh.
At the other end, Sam Strong played a long ball forward to Dixon who cut inside Wiedt before firing a low shot into the arms of Lefebvre.
Loudoun won an attacking free kick in the 22nd minute when Strong fouled striker Ndour. Loudoun made the set play count when Garay curled in a cross that found Wiedt who planted a header past Mandanda to open the scoring with his first career goal.
The physical battle between Strong and Ndour continued and the Loudoun forward received a yellow card for a foul on the center back soon after the goal.
Hartford carved out a chance in the 33rd minute when Rogers found Johnson and the Southampton loanee dribbled forward before firing a hard shot that was palmed away by Lefebvre and out for a throw-in. Johnson collected the throw and drove into the penalty area but no foul was given when he went down under contact from Saravia.
Johnson came yet again less than a minute later and floated over a back post cross that Jacob Greene cut in front of Swartz to clear.
Loudoun carved out a great chance when Amoh found Amoustapha with a good through ball and the winger raced away before squaring to Ndour who had his weak finish saved by Mandanda from 7 yards out.
Ndour would soon be involved again and cut inside Strong before firing a shot from the edge of the penalty area that was deflected behind by Kevin Politz. Garay’s first corner was blocked behind by Torres, before he skewed his second cross directly out for a goal kick.
In previous games at Hartford this season, Loudoun had emphasized possession but often lacked a penetrative threat, the introduction of Ndour had changed that and his pace caused problems again in the 37th minute. Timmy Mehl rose to head away a Hartford goal kick and his header was flicked on by Fawole. Striker Ndour raced into the penalty area and was denied by a sliding Matheus Silva challenge that conceded a corner. Garay drove a deep corner to the back post where Fawole directed an acrobatic volley well off target.
Hartford won a 45th minute corner when Dixon passed to an overlapping Swartz before Greene put in a strong sliding tackle. The corner from Torres was headed away by Amoh before Silva teed up Johnson who had his shot from the edge of the penalty area saved by Lefebvre.
The halftime whistle blew and Loudoun went into the break with a deserved 1-0 lead courtesy of a performance that was far superior to their previous two trips to Dillon Stadium.
Indiana University alumni Mehl was playing well in partnership with Wiedt, and his added physical presence saw Loudoun form a much stronger line as well as defending their box well from crosses.
While the inclusion of striker Ndour had bolstered the Loudoun attack, Hartford appeared to be feeling the absence of Guzman in their front line.
The pairing of Dixon and Johnson was struggling to find a way through. Both strikers looked to make runs behind and stretch the Loudoun backline, a tactic that Hartford has used with success this season, but also one that started to look one dimensional as the half progressed.
One striker checking deep to receive the ball would likely have been a more uncomfortable pattern for the central defensive pairing of Wiedt and Mehl to deal with, but time and again no short option was offered and through balls failed to break down Loudoun in the opening half.
Hartford coach Jaidi changed his strike pair during the break, Johnson was shifted out to left wingback in place of Torres, while Naglestad was brought on for his debut to partner Dixon.
Naglestad was signed from Egersund of the Norwegian third tier, where he netted 26 goals in 28 games and led the league in goal scoring over the 2018/2019 season.
The play of the Hartford front two improved immediately in the second half, and Dixon checked deep to receive the ball in the center circle before spraying a pass out wide. Swartz settled the ball before swinging over a deep cross that Johnson just failed to make contact with at the back post.
The improved center forward play showed itself again in the 55th minute when Naglestad checked deep to receive the ball and was fouled by Garay before he was able to play a through ball to Dixon who was looking in behind.
These movements by Hartford gave Loudoun many more tactical problems than they experienced in the first half. With one center forward high and one deep, a center back was now forced to decide whether he should track and mark the checking forward or hold the line. If the offside line is held, a midfielder must now pick up the forward which can cause overload or the forward is left floating in space between the lines as an extra man to build with, this is something Hartford managed to good effect in the second half.
Hartford carved out another chance to draw level in the 60th minute when Johnson twisted and turned to create space against Saravia before hanging a deep cross to the back post where Swartz rose above Greene before guiding a header wide.
Johnson found room against Saravia again minutes later only to have his cross hacked behind for a corner by Mehl. Rogers took the corner but his cross was too high for everyone and sailed out for a goal kick.
The visitors won a corner at the other end when Amoh muscled Jorgensen off the ball and fired a long range shot that was deflected behind by Politz. Garay’s deep corner was headed back across goal by Amoh and Ndour just failed to make contact from 2 yards out.
Loudoun won a free kick when Mehl stepped forward in possession and played a ball over the top to Fawole who was hauled down at the byline by Silva. The Brazilian defender received a yellow card for the challenge, his second booking in as many games. Garay drove a low cross in from the free kick that was cleared by Jorgensen.
Hartford continued to find themselves on the back foot, and Loudoun won a corner when Amoh dribbled by Rogers and passed to Ndour who had his shot deflected behind by Silva. Like every other corner, Garay drove a cross to the back post where Ndour headed wide.
Coach Jaidi made a double substitution in the 72nd minute when he looked for a way back into the game. Jorgensen and Strong were withdrawn and replaced by Nicky Downs and Aiden Mesias. Wingback Swartz was moved into the back three as Hartford looked to field a more attacking lineup.
The task ahead of Jaidi and his team soon got bigger as Loudoun doubled their lead in the 73rd minute. Garay lifted a ball forward into the penalty area that was hooked clear by Silva, only for Amoh to latch onto it and beat Mandanda with a spectacular driven finish from 20 yards out.
Hartford responded by winning a shooting range free kick when Dixon was fouled by Amoh, captain Barrera stepped up to take it but lifted his shot over the bar.
Loudoun coach Martin made a defensive oriented substitution in the 82nd minute, replacing Amoustapha with the experienced Doue. 28 year old Doue was deployed on the left wing here, but also had experience as a starting left back this season, so the change seemed to add some steel as Loudoun looked to close out the win.
Hartford received a lifeline in the 85th minute, and two substitutes played a role in clawing the score back to 2-1. Mesias received the ball between the lines and drove forward before being fouled on the edge of the penalty area by Amoh who received a yellow card.
With Jorgensen and Barrera having already failed to put a free kick on frame, debutant Naglestad stepped up and curled an excellent finish over the wall and into the net.
With their tails up, Hartford came forward in numbers again but Johnson’s cross went out of play for a goal kick.
Loudoun continued to attack themselves and left back Greene came forward and sent in an 87th minute cross that Fawole connected with only to see his shot saved by Mandanda.
Greene was soon called into action on the defensive end and received a yellow card for using his hand to prevent a Barrera through ball from sending Dixon in on goal. The play awarded Hartford another shooting range free kick, and once again it would be Naglestad who stepped up to take it.
Naglestad crashed his shot against the crossbar and Dixon headed in the rebound from close range to level the scores in dramatic fashion.
There was a great lesson in the goal for young strikers, as Dixon did well to stay onside and follow the shot in while the Loudoun defense stood flat footed.
Loudoun coach Martin reacted to the goal by making a double substitution as stoppage time began, replacing Saravia and Fawole with Christian Sorto and Erumuse Momoh.
Hartford received yet another free kick, this time further out as Downs was fouled by Doue. Barrera sent in the cross and Silva headed onto the goalpost only for an attacking foul to be whistled on Naglestad to end the attack.
Barrera continued to drive the Hartford attack in the late stages, and chipped a pass to Naglestad in behind, the striker took a touch wide and sent in a cross that was cleared by Momoh.
The final substitution of the game was made in the 95th minute when Hartford goal scorer Dixon was replaced by Dre Deas.
Hartford were attempting to snatch victory from the jaws of what seemed like inevitable defeat 10 minutes earlier, and Downs teed up Barrera to fire a shot from distance that was tipped over the crossbar by a diving Lefebvre.
The initial corner was headed away by Doue before a second cross sailed into the hands of Lefebvre as the final whistle blew on a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw.
Goalkeeper Lefebvre slammed the ball into the turf in frustration at the whistle, showing that while a road point at second placed Hartford was a good result by some measures, throwing away a two goal lead so late would make it a very frustrating journey back south for Ryan Martin’s team.
POST GAME FALLOUT
Hartford’s late comeback maintained their unbeaten home record on the season, and lifted them level on points with Group F leaders Pittsburgh Riverhounds having played two games less. The game also marked the second time this season Hartford had fallen behind 2-0 at home, but had not lost either game with the other being a 3-2 comeback win over Philadelphia Union II.
Naglestad’s impressive debut, accompanied with Dixon’s 3rd goal of the season showcased the attacking depth available to coach Jaidi as he awaited the return from injury of Guzman.
Hartford’s next game will have massive playoff implications, as they go into a battle for first place against the Riverhounds at Dillon Stadium on Friday night.
Despite the late comeback, this marked one of Loudoun’s more impressive displays of the season alongside the road over New York Red Bulls II back on August 12th.
Midfielder Amoh fired his 4th goal of the season as he continued to showcase himself as one of the best players in the league. It was also Amoh’s third goal at Dillon Stadium, meaning he had scored as many goals at the ground as any Hartford player this season.
Young striker Ndour showed great ability and looks to be a player capable of making a real impact in the USL, and possibly even move up to the MLS given his young age of 19.
Loudoun will play host to New York Red Bulls II this coming weekend, and could leapfrog New York into 3rd place in Group F with a victory.
22’ LOU Shane Wiedt (Jeremy Garay) 0-1
73’ LOU Elvis Amoh (Josh Fawole) 0-2
85’ HAR Markus Naglestad (Aiden Mesias) 1-2
89’ HAR Alex Dixon (Markus Naglestad) 2-2
MAN OF THE MATCH
#88 M/F Tyreke Johnson (Hartford Athletic) – Was Hartford’s lone goal threat in a poor first half, and when shifted out to left wing back at the interval remained a threat going forward while also putting in a quality shift on the defensive end.
3: M/F Tyreke Johnson – Man of the Match.
2: CF Markus Naglestad – The introduction of Naglestad immediately boosted the output of the Hartford front line, showing good ability to drop into space and receive the ball to feet. Capped his performance with an excellent free kick goal, before another free kick hit the bar and was headed in by strike partner Dixon for the equalizer.
1: CM Arthur Rogers – All action performance by the central midfielder, showing himself as Hartford’s best midfield ball winner on the day, and linking possession well for the home team.
3: CF Alioune Ndour – The introduction of Ndour as a center forward added strength, speed and a real added threat to the Loudoun front line. While his finishing was not good on the night, Ndour has the tools to develop into a real force at USL level.
2: CM Elvis Amoh – The Hartford nemesis scored his third goal at Dillon Stadium in as many games, this time firing a 20 yard wonder goal past Mandanda in yet another quality performance. Amoh is showcasing himself as one of the better players in Group F, if not the league consistently.
1: RM Kairou Amoustapha – Fast and direct winger who gave Hartford wingback Torres a rough night on the defensive end, his pace provided a consistent outlet for his teammates, and could have had an assist after setting up Ndour inside the 6 yard box during the first half but for a poor finish and Mandanda save.
HAR: Mandanda, Silva, Politz, Strong (Mesias), Torres (Naglestad), Rogers, Jorgensen (Downs), Barrera, Swartz, Dixon (Deas), Johnson.
LOU: Lefebvre, Greene, Wiedt, Mehl, Saravia (Momoh), Amoh, Garay, Fawole (Sorto), Gamble (Ku-DiPietro), Amoustapha (Doue), Ndour.