Hartford Athletic sealed first place in Group F with a comfortable 2-0 win at New York Red Bulls II, setting up the first home playoff game in history against Saint Louis FC next week. Second half goals from Tyreke Johnson and Conor McGlynn were enough to take all three points on the back of a strong defensive performance anchored by returning goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds had taken pole position in Group F the night earlier with a 2-1 win at Philadelphia Union II. Albert Dikwa scored a 92nd minute goal for Pittsburgh, an all too familiar heartbreak for the young Union II team on the back of Danny Barrera’s miraculous late winner for Hartford in midweek. The Riverhounds edged two points ahead on the back of the result and would now have to sit back and hope that New York could gain at least a point here in order for Pittsburgh to top the group.
Hartford coach Radhi Jaidi knew that only three points would be enough to achieve their objective and fielded his strongest available lineup after some midweek rotation. Captain Barrera returned to the starting lineup after coming off the bench to score his ‘immaculate deflection’ winner at Philadelphia, Aiden Mesias also was recalled in place of Mads Jorgensen while Justin Haak retained his place in the midfield of a 3-5-2 shape.
Veteran striker Ever Guzman was fit enough to play again after sitting out midweek, and he partnered leading goal scorer Alex Dixon in attack. Goalkeeper Mandanda returned from suspension and replaced Mike Novotny, who had made some important plays to keep Hartford on track while Mandanda was suspended for his red card in the pivotal 1-0 win at Pittsburgh.
New York were looking to finish their season on a high and end a difficult run which had seen them concede 15 goals in their last 4 games, a run that included a 3-1 loss at Hartford on September 16th. Teenager Luca Lewis started in goal in what was his 3rd appearance for the Red Bulls since signing from the U19 team of Serie A club Torino in September. The Red Bull attack was led by academy product Omar Sowe, who entered this game in fine form having scored 5 goals in his last 5 appearances.
Hartford fired out of the gates quickly and won an early corner when Johnson dribbled at Red Bull right back Boima Cummins and had his cross blocked behind for a corner. Joe Fala headed away Idan Cohen’s corner before Barrera fired a shot from the edge of the penalty area that was blocked by Sebastian Elney.
New York’s first sight of goal came in the 8th minute when Elney collected a throw in and dribbled across the top of the 18 yard box before releasing a shot that was pawed away by a diving Mandanda.
Hartford won another corner when Mesias picked up the ball between New York lines and spread a pass out to Cohen who had his cross blocked by John Tolkin. Red Bull goalkeeper Lewis punched the ball away and his clearanced reached only as far as Dixon who drilled a shot wide from 20 yards out.
Striker Elney was New York’s biggest threat in the opening stages and he was teed up by Jake LaCava before firing wide from the edge of the penalty area.
The game was moving along in end to end fashion and Hartford had a penalty appeal in the 20th minute. Mesias chipped a pass to Dixon who raced into the penalty area, only for referee Sean Lyons to rule no foul as he went down under contact from Fala.
Red Bull captain Elney was having no trouble finding space, and picked up the ball around halfway before driving into the penalty area and teeing up LaCava to drag a shot wide.
Hartford continued to absorb pressure and conceded a dangerous free kick when Dantouma Toure was fouled by Sam Strong on the corner of the penalty area. Strong cleared away the cross from the resulting free kick, but Sowe soon came forward again and won a corner after dribbling into the area and being tackled by Kevin Politz. Toure took the corner and Strong was there once again to head away the danger.
Pockets of space were being consistently found and exploited between the Hartford lines and Sowe was the next player to take advantage. Toure found Sowe who took a touch and fired a long range shot that was held at the second attempt by Mandanda.
New York won a 29th minute corner when left back Tolkin pushed forward and had his long range shot deflected behind for a corner. Kenan Hot sent in the corner and Johnson was the first to get his head to it before Haak finished the job and sliced the ball clear.
Elney continued to cause problems for New York and won a wide free kick when he was fouled by Politz. Tolkin took the free kick and his cross found LaCava at the back post where Haak put in a tackle to concede a corner. Tolkin sent over an inswinging cross from the corner that Strong headed clear.
The Red Bulls won another wide free kick in the 39th minute, and once again the influential Elney was the man brought down. Hartford defender Alex Lara received a yellow card from referee Lyons for the foul before Hot sent in a cross that was cleared away by the impressive Strong.
Sowe carried the ball forward minutes later but fired his shot high above the crossbar. Sowe and Elney being able to pick up the ball between Hartford lines was a repeated pattern that Hartford would need to fix at halftime. Playing with only three defenders can make it harder for a center back to be aggressive than they would be in a back four with extra cover. Without a center back partner, and with Lara and Strong often occupied with the Red Bull wingers, Politz was unable to go high and tightly track Elney and Sowe when they occupied deeper playmaking positions.
This places a premium on the central midfielders in front such as Mesias and Haak to be able to identify and mark the players floating between lines.
The home team kept coming and LaCava blew past Strong before sending over a low cross that Politz cleared under tight pressure from Elney. Tolkin then pushed forward and won a corner when his cross was deflected behind by Cohen. The threat was ended when Fala got on the end of the corner only to head the ball against the back of a teammate who was standing in an offside position.
Wingback Cohen conceded another corner when he tackled Red Bull winger Toure at the byline to stifle another attack. Tolkin’s corner was cleared before Hartford went end to end in a sweeping counter attack that ended when Barrera’s cross was claimed by Lewis.
New York won a third corner in a matter of minutes when LaCava entered the penalty area and was tackled by Politz. Tolkin’s corner was punched away by Mandanda and Barrera booted the ball clear as the halftime whistle blew.
Hartford coach Jaidi will have been relieved to see the interval arrive as his team was riding out a spell of significant pressure in the latter stages of the half.
With only three points being good enough to seal a home playoff game, pressure to go forward and find a goal would be on Hartford in the second half. While they pushed for the vital breakthrough, Hartford would also have to remain alert at the back as they faced a New York attack spearheaded by Sowe, LaCava and Elney that was growing in confidence as the game went on.
New York started the second half as they ended the first, and Sowe played a through ball to Elney who forced a good save from Mandanda to keep the game scoreless.
Tolkin sent in the resulting corner but his low cross was cleared at the near post by Politz. Dixon picked up the clearance and surged forward past the halfway line before Samad Bounthong dragged him down and received a yellow card from referee Lyons.
Hartford found some attacking momentum of their own and Barrera’s cross was deflected by Lewis and fell to Johnson at the back post only for the Southampton loanee to roll his shot wide. Johnson was soon involved again and launched a ball forward to Guzman who took a touch around an advancing Lewis only for center back Joseph Zalinsky to recover and clear the danger.
Mesias was the next Hartford player to attack and entered the penalty area before being dispossessed by a strong tackle from Bounthong.
In search of a potentially vital goal, Hartford continued to press forward and Cohen won the ball before playing an excellent pass in behind for Dixon who was denied by a sharp save from Lewis.
Young goalkeeper Lewis was putting in a strong performance for Red Bulls, this will have been a welcome sight for coach John Wolyniec. Goalkeeper has been a problem position for New York, with errors from Wallis Lapsley and Alex Bobocea having cost the team game winning goals in previous defeats against Hartford this season.
New York won a wide free kick when Toure was fouled by Cohen, and the resulting free kick was sent into the penalty area by Hot. Mandanda claimed the cross before New York forward Sowe received a yellow card for obstructing the goalkeeper as he looked to launch a quick counterattack.
The foul on the goalkeeper from Sowe was likely influenced by the New York pregame scout, as a quick punt from Mandanda to striker Guzman had set up the only goal in Hartford’s 1-0 win at New York in the season opener.
Lewis came up big once more for New York in the 58th minute, parrying a long range shot from Barrera before getting up quickly to make a second save from Mesias to keep the score locked at 0-0.
It was an open and entertaining second half, and it was Hartford who would make the precious breakthrough via Johnson in the 65th minute.
Johnson started the move when he picked up the ball around the halfway line before finding Dixon and making a run forward. Dixon passed to strike partner Guzman who drove forward and dragged a ball across goal for Johnson to tuck away at the back post.
Red Bull coach Wolyniec responded immediately to conceding the goal when he replaced winger Toure with Cherif Dieye.
Hartford almost doubled their lead just minutes later when Mesias lifted a cross to a wide open Guzman who skewed his shot wide from close range.
Coach Wolyniec continued to make changes with a triple substitution in the 71st minute as his team looked for a way back into the game. Cummins and LaCava were replaced by Edgar Rito and Deri Corfe, while 16 year old academy product Ciaran Dalton replaced Lewis in goal to make his professional debut.
Hartford coach Jaidi made a substitution of his own in the 73rd minute, introducing central midfielder McGlynn in place of Mesias. The introduction of McGlynn proved to be an inspired move as the former Siena College midfielder doubled Hartford’s lead less than two minutes after entering the game.
Left wingback Johnson won a tackle on halfway and drove forward before passing to McGlynn who curled an excellent finish past Dalton to cue wild celebrations from the visiting team. The significance of the goal showed in the fact that often composed head coach Jaidi ran down the sideline to celebrate by the corner flag with his players.
With a two goal lead and 15 minutes remaining to defend it, Jaidi introduced more fresh legs when he brought on Arthur Rogers and Dre Deas in place of Cohen and Dixon.
With Hartford possessing the ball well to see out the game, frustration started to show from New York and Dieye received a yellow card for a reckless foul on Johnson.
New York coach Wolyniec made his fifth and final substitution in the 89th minute, replacing striker Elney with Serge Ngoma. In response, Hartford introduced Alfonso Vazquez and Gabriel Torres in place of Guzman and match winner Johnson.
The Red Bulls continued to attack and Strong received a yellow card for fouling winger Dieye as Hartford fought to keep a clean sheet. Johnson had his shot from the free kick saved by Mandanda, with the rebound falling to Bounthong who drilled a shot wide. Less than a minute later, Dieye picked up possession and cured a shot against the goalpost from 20 yards out.
New York were determined to go down swinging and won another corner in stoppage time when Ngoma was tackled by Strong. Dieye collected Corfe’s corner at the back post before blazing a shot off target in what turned out to be the game’s final attack.
This win saw Hartford finish atop Group F and locked in a home playoff date next weekend against Saint Louis FC, while second placed Pittsburgh would now travel to face Louisville City in the playoffs first round.
The historic result was celebrated wildly by a Hartford fan group that had commandeered a parking garage next to the stadium to cheer the team on raucously throughout the game.
New York coach Wolyniec will have been disappointed to finish in third place, but will also know that crucial minutes have been invested into the development of players throughout the season. One success story for New York is midfielder Caden Clark, who played in the first three games against Hartford this season but is now rostered and set for action with the Red Bulls first team in Major League Soccer. Young players like Sowe, Tolkin and LaCava have impressed in spells this season and could well be next on the conveyor belt to first team action.
65’ HAR Tyreke Johnson (Ever Guzman) 0-1
75’ HAR Conor McGlynn (Tyreke Johnson) 0-2
MAN OF THE MATCH
#88 LM Tyreke Johnson (Hartford Athletic) – Impressive performance on the left flank from Johnson who scored the opening goal before providing the assist as McGlynn sealed the win.
New York Red Bulls II
3: CF Sebastian Elney – Captain Elney found space between lines to pick up possession and stretch Hartford, getting off shots and linking with his wingers to cause problems consistently.
2: ACM Omar Sowe – Sowe was another player who Hartford could not quite pin down, finding space and driving forward as the Red Bulls put significant pressure on the visiting team for long spells.
1: GK Luca Lewis – Promising performance from the young goalkeeper, who denied Dixon with a sharp save while also commanding his area well.
3: LM Tyreke Johnson – Man of the Match.
2: GK Parfait Mandanda – Mandanda stood strong in his return from suspension, making some good saves that kept the game scoreless before Hartford’s two second half strikes claimed all three points.
1: CD Sam Strong – The powerful center back came up big time and again with a series of blocks and clearances as Hartford kept their fourth clean sheet of the season.
NY: Lewis (Dalton), Tolkin, Fala, Zalinsky, Cummins (Rito), Hot, Bounthong, Sowe, Toure (Dieye), LaCava (Corfe), Elney (Ngoma).
HAR: Mandanda, Politz, Lara, Strong, Johnson (Torres), Barrera, Haak, Mesias (McGlynn), Cohen (Rogers), Guzman (Vazquez), Dixon (Deas).
Full highlights on the game can be found on the USL Championship YouTube page here.