Hartford Athletic sealed their first playoff appearance in franchise history with a resounding 3-0 road win against Philadelphia Union II. Two goals from team leading goal scorer Alex Dixon and a Jamoi Topey own goal completed the scoring while goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda posted the teams first shutout since opening day in a historic win for Hartford.
Radhi Jaidi’s Hartford team had responded to a heavy defeat at Group F leaders Pittsburgh with a 3-1 midweek win over New York Red Bulls II coming into this game. Jaidi mostly kept faith in that lineup, making only one change for this game by replacing Gabriel Torres with Tyreke Johnson.
Philadelphia had also played strongly in midweek, beating Loudoun United 4-0 for just their second win of the season. Coach Marlon LeBlanc named an unchanged lineup as he looked to both gain more league points and give more valuable professional experience to some of Philadelphia’s more high profile academy prospects.
Hartford showcased their attacking threat as early as the 2nd minute when Aiden Mesias won a tackle and quickly chipped a pass in behind the Philadelphia backline. Dixon stripped Topey for pace but his low cross was just out of reach for strike partner Ever Guzman.
Mesias was soon involved again minutes later when he used his strength to roll Brandan Craig and play in Dixon who was this time flagged offside.
Hartford took the lead in the 8th minute, and it was the vulnerability of Philadelphia’s backline to pace in behind that played a key role. Center back Matheus Silva intercepted a stray Union pass and lifted a ball forward down the left touchline for Guzman to chase. Guzman gathered possession and sent over a pinpoint cross to Dixon who beat Union goalkeeper Matthew Freese with a neat one touch finish.
A nightmare start for the home team continued when Hartford doubled their lead in the 13th minute courtesy of a Topey own goal. Jamaican international defender Topey started the trouble by trying to force a pass into a crowded area that was intercepted by Dixon. Striker Dixon played in Guzman who took a touch and was preparing to shoot when Topey stabbed at the ball and could only watch as it rolled over the goal line despite the attempts of a sliding Anthony Sorenson to clear.
Seeing the win that would seal the first playoff spot in club history, a rampant Hartford did not ease up and Danny Barrera exchanged passes with Idan Cohen wide on the right before cutting inside to drive a shot straight at Freese.
The Union tried to hit back and created their first opening of the game when Nathan Harriel passed forward to Jack McGlynn who released Paxten Aaronson with a clever backheel pass. Aaronson sent a low cross into the penalty area that was gathered by Mandanda with sharp play at the feet of striker Anges Bohui.
McGlynn and Aaronson combined again in the 22nd minute when McGlynn dropped deep and played a searching ball over the top. Aaronson chased the pass down but Mandanda was quick off his line to clear the danger.
Aaronson capitalized on a heavy touch from Mesias less than a minute later to win possession before firing a shot wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Philadelphia were suddenly finding a foothold in the game and left back Sorenson drove forward and sent over a cross that Bohui diverted wide from inside the 6-yard box.
Union right back Harriel got in on the act soon after, splitting the Hartford defense with a driven ball forward that Axel Picazo latched onto before dragging his shot wide of the target.
The shaky Philadelphia backline soon revealed itself again when Cohen released Dixon down the right flank. A low cross from Dixon was missed by goalkeeper Freese and found its way to Guzman. Defender Topey stifled Guzman’s shooting opportunity before the striker teed up Mesias who blazed a golden chance wide from just a few yards out.
Hartford won a wide free kick in the 35th minute when goalkeeper Mandanda released Guzman with a long punt and the striker was fouled by Dante Huckaby. Young defender Huckaby received a yellow card for the foul from referee Luis Arroyo.
Johnson took the free kick and his cross was deflected behind by Harriel, Johnson sent in another cross from the resulting corner but his effort sailed into the hands of Freese.
Hartford were soon behind the Union defense again when Barrera lifted a ball over the top for Dixon who raced into the penalty area before being tackled by Topey.
The play illustrated an interesting aspect of developing defenders with high end speed and athletic talents. Topey was high and disconnected from the offside line, allowing Dixon the room to get behind in the first place. His pace allowed him to recover and make the play, but do defenders with such physical gifts sometimes rely on their pace to resolve situations and not learn positional lessons the same way as a defender who must read the game better and cannot recover if found a couple of yards too high?
Hartford came down the right flank and Barrera found Cohen who chipped a cross to the back post where Johnson directed a header straight at Freese.
Philadelphia had a chance to get back into the game during first half stoppage time when McGlynn floated in off the right wing and chipped a pass forward. Bohui collected the pass and advanced into the penalty area before having his shot saved by Mandanda.
The final chance of the half came for Hartford when Barrera played a ball forward to Guzman who cut inside Topey before firing his shot wide.
It was a rough opening half for Topey, and he was replaced at the interval by Luis Flores. Caden Stafford was also subbed on at halftime in place of Bohui.
Hartford coach Jaidi made no substitutions at the half, but will doubtless have reminded his team of the importance of a playoff sealing three points should they close out the win.
Flores made an immediate impact when he was fouled out wide by Johnson to win his team a free kick deep in Hartford’s half. McGlynn swung the free kick towards the back post but his cross was collected comfortably by Mandanda.
Johnson was on the right end of referee Arroyo’s whistle minutes later when he dribbled down the left flank and was fouled by Steve Kingue. Cohen took the free kick but his cross cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
Johnson came forward again in the 53rd minute and easily beat Harriel before sending over a deep cross that Craig headed behind for a corner. The first corner was attacked by Silva and his header was deflected behind, before a second corner by Cohen was headed clear by Harriel.
Philadelphia counter attacked and won a corner of their own when Aaronson chased down a Flores pass into the penalty area, only to be dispossessed by a Mesias tackle. Aaronson took the corner and his deep cross was attacked by Kingue on its way out for a goal kick.
Hartford wingback Johnson had started the second half strongly and won another wide free kick, this time being fouled by Harriel. Johnson ran over the ball and Cohen attempted to play him in but the pass was over hit and ran out for a goal kick.
The end to end nature of the second half continued and Philadelphia won a corner when Sorenson pushed forward and sent in a cross that Kevin Poilitz deflected behind for a corner. The initial cross cleared everybody and Flores gathered possession before dropping a pass to Harriel who whipped a cross to the back post where Stafford directed a header well off target.
From the next attack, Hartford took a giant step towards sealing playoff qualification when Dixon fired them into a 3-0 lead in the 58th minute.
Silva launched a long ball forward and Guzman cut in front of his defender to release Dixon with a headed pass. Dixon advanced into the penalty area and attempted a pass to Cohen that was intercepted by Kingue. A stumble by Kingue saw him dispossessed by Dixon before the striker took a touch around Freese and calmly slotted the ball home.
Union coach LeBlanc made two more substitutions in the 63rd minute as his team looked for a way back into the game, replacing Picazo and Kingue with Quinn Sullivan and David Rabadan.
The two new arrivals combined within minutes of coming on when Sullivan dropped a pass to Rabadan who skipped inside Mesias before releasing a long range shot that was comfortably saved by Mandanda.
With a comfortable lead, and congested schedule ahead to close out the regular season of 4 games in 12 days, Hartford coach Jaidi began to introduce fresh legs in the 67th minute. Cohen, Mesias and Sam Strong were withdrawn and replaced by Arthur Rogers, Mads Jorgensen and Alex Lara.
Philadelphia continued to fight and Harriel intercepted a Silva pass before feeding Aaronson to drive forward towards the penalty area and let a shot go that sailed wide of the target.
Philadelphia won a corner when Harriel dribbled into the penalty area before being tackled by Politz. McGlynn sent in the corner but his deep cross was headed clear by Silva.
McGlynn chipped a pass over the top to Stafford and the Union won another corner when Lara intervened to knock the ball behind. McGlynn’s corner found Craig who had his close range volley saved by Mandanda.
Hartford coach Jaidi made his final substitutions on the game in the 75th minute when Barrera and Guzman were replaced by Nicky Downs and Markus Naglestad.
The Union won a shooting range free kick when Flores pushed forward and was fouled by Downs on the edge of the penalty area. McGlynn stepped up to take the free kick but drove his shot into the wall before the followup shot was blocked by Justin Haak.
Union academy prospect Aaronson was a bright spot throughout for the Union, and he carved out a chance when he exchanged passes with Flores and lifted a shot over the crossbar.
Flores was involved again when he drew a foul from Johnson that saw the Southampton loanee go into referee Arroyo’s book. Flores had made a good impact as a second half substitute and had time for one more contribution as he picked up the ball between Hartford lines and teed up Harriel who lifted his shot over the bar.
The final whistle blew and Hartford celebrated a historic moment by clinching the first playoff spot in club history.
Hartford will head into a congested end to the regular season with the playoffs confirmed and the possibility of a first place finish and playoff home game still alive. After this result, Hartford were 6 points behind group leaders Pittsburgh Riverhounds with two games in hand and a road game at Pittsburgh looming on the schedule next weekend.
Before that, Hartford will host Philadelphia in midweek for an immediate rematch of this fixture, to make up the early season games that were postponed when the Union had players test positive for COVID-19.
Jaidi will face a tough balance of rotating his squad midweek to keep fresh legs for the trip to Pittsburgh, while also collecting the 3 points required to stay in the race to top Group F.
Philadelphia will also face a congested end to the regular season schedule, with two upcoming games against Hartford sandwiched between a trip to face New York Red Bulls II. Coach LeBlanc will be looking to collect wins and climb away from the foot of the table while continuing the development of his young team.
It is an interesting reflection of Union II that LeBlanc is coaching a starting lineup with a younger average age in this role than he did in his last job as head coach of West Virginia University.
8’ HAR Alex Dixon (Ever Guzman) 0-1
13’ HAR Own Goal (Ever Guzman) 0-2
58’ HAR Alex Dixon 0-3
MAN OF THE MATCH
#11 CF Alex DIxon (Hartford Athletic) – Two goals for Dixon moved him into pole position as the team’s leading goal scorer and his pace in behind was a constant threat for the Union defense. Dixon has put together a string of consistently good displays this campaign and will be a key factor in Hartford’s late season games.
Philadelphia Union II
3: CM Paxten Aaronson – The young attacking central midfielder linked well with the center forward and his movement saw him penetrate the Hartford backline time and again. Forced a number of saves from Hartford goalkeeper Mandanda.
2: RM Jack McGlynn – The skilled midfielder showed the ability to provide crosses and also float central to generate attacking threat for the Union, also displayed quality set play delivery.
1: M Luis Flores – The second half substitute left his footprint on the game and showed energy and spark driving forward after his introduction.
3: CF Alex Dixon – Man of the Match.
2: CF Ever Guzman – Guzman returned to form showing good movement and quality on the ball, assisting Dixon’s opener with a pinpoint cross and forcing the own goal from Topey.
1: CM Justin Haak – The New York City FC loanee has bolstered the Hartford midfield since his arrival and put in another strong performance here.
PHI: Freese, Sorenson, Topey (Flores), Huckaby, Harriel, Kingue (Rabadan), Craig, Aaronson, Picazo (Sullivan), McGlynn, Bohui (Stafford)..
HAR: Mandanda, Silva, Politz, Strong (Lara), Johnson, Mesias (Jorgensen), Haak, Barrera (Downs), Cohen (Rogers), Guzman (Naglestad), Dixon.
Full highlights of the game can be found on YouTube here.