Harttford Athletic stayed on course to top USL Championship Group F in dramatic fashion with a wild 3-2 win over Philadelphia Union II in Pennsylvania. Mads Jorgensen scored from the penalty spot then set up Alex Lara with a corner to tap in his first career goal in the opening 15 minutes to put Hartford in a commanding position. Philadelphia came back to the score with an Idan Cohen own goal forced by a Jack McGlynn corner and a Caden Stafford goal on the hour mark. Mike Novotny saved a penalty to keep Hartford level late on before Danny Barrera won it with a miraculous last minute deflected goal that will have a special place in Hartford history for years to come.
The warning signs of this being a close, entertaining game were there in the recent results of the Union. After drawing 1-1 at Hartford a week earlier, Philadelphia lost 5-4 at New York Red Bulls II in their next game with McGlynn netting a brace. Axel Picazo also scored at New York, but he dropped to the bench here and was replaced by Anges Bohui. In other changes made by coach Marlon LeBlanc, goalkeeper Mitchell Budler was called up to replace Matthew Freese, and Jamoi Topey dropped to the bench in favor of Jack de Vries.
De Vries and Cole Turner would be expected to add some real quality in the central midfield area for LeBlanc and his team, given both had spent time on the field for the Philadelphia Union first team in MLS regular season action earlier this season.
Hartford had revived their hopes of topping Group F last time out with an impressive 1-0 road win at Pittsburgh Riverhounds courtesy of an Ever Guzman goal and stellar defensive performance as a group. An injured Guzman was left out of the squad for this game, with young striker Alfonzo Vazquez earning just his second career start to partner Alex Dixon in attack.
With the games coming thick and fast to end the regular season, Hartford coach Radhi Jaidi made a number of other changes to keep his lineup fresh. Suspended goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda and defender Kevin Politz were replaced by Novotny and Lara respectively, while Gabriel Torres, Arthur Rogers and Jorgensen were recalled in place of Tyreke Johnson, Aiden Mesias and Barrera.
The first sight of goal for Hartford came in the 5th minute when Union left back Anthony Sorenson played a pass back to central defender Brandan Craig who was pressed and turned over by Vazquez. Teenage striker Vazquez squared the ball to Dixon inside the penalty area only for Dante Huckaby to intervene and clear the danger.
Left back Sorenson was soon involved at the attacking end of the field, winning a corner as he drove into the penalty area before having his cross blocked behind by Cohen. Paxten Aaronson took the corner but his inswinging cross was headed away by Matheus Silva.
An end to end start to the game continued as Hartford won a penalty with a sweeping end to end move in the 7th minute. Torres found Cohen with a raking sideline to sideline pass, and the Israeli wingback drove forward before playing a pass into the penalty area where Dixon got to the ball first before being brought down by Budler. Referee Christian Centeno booked goalkeeper Budler for the foul before Jorgensen stepped up to roll the ball home from the spot and give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Full of confidence after his goal, Jorgensen charged forward and won a wide free kick for Hartford when he was fouled by Sorenson. Torres whipped in the free kick and won a corner when his cross was headed behind by Turner.
Hartford’s first corner was punched behind by Budler, but a second corner would be converted to double the road team’s lead. Jorgensen whipped in a good cross that flicked off the head of Justin Haak before Lara bundled the ball home from a yard out for his first career goal. The goal saw Lara become the 15th different Hartford player to score this season, the highest number of different scorers among all teams in the USL Championship.
It was a dream start for Athletic, who looked well on course to control their destiny in terms of topping the group, and with little indication at this point of the drama lying ahead.
Philadelphia responded when Nathan Harriel carried the ball forward and played in Stafford who cut the ball back across goal. McGlynn picked up possession at the back post and dropped a pass to Aaronson who had his shot deflected behind by Lara.
Aaronson sent in a low cross from the corner that fizzed towards Cohen at the near post and the defender sliced the ball into his own goal as he attempted a clearance to bring the score to 2-1 and give the Union some life.
Hartford were immediately back on the offensive and Torres played a pass in behind for Dixon, only for the striker to be whistled for a foul as he tangled with Craig while chasing down the through ball. Dixon received a yellow card from referee Centeno for his heated protests about the decision.
The fullbacks joining the attack are a key part of Union coach Leblanc’s game plan, and a chance was carved out in the 27th minute when McGlynn switched play out to right back Harriel who fired a shot over the bar from 25 yards out. McGlynn was soon on the ball again and chipped a pass forward to Stafford who entered the penalty area before being dispossessed by a strong sliding tackle from Silva.
Hartford consistently showed the ability to attack in quickstrike fashion and a long kick forward from goalkeeper Novotny was helped on by a clever flick from Rogers. Dixon chased down the ball in behind but Union goalkeeper Budler was quick off his line to clear the danger.
Hartford went direct again when Silva released Torres down the left wing and the resulting cross found Dixon who chipped a shot wide under pressure from Budler.
Silva was placed under minimal pressure from the Union strike pair of Stafford and Bohui when in possession, and showcased his long range passing throughout the game taking advantage of the time he was allowed on the ball. The defender launched another attack with a raking pass out wide right in the 38th minute. Wingback Cohen settled the ball and sent in a deep cross that Craig sliced over his own crossbar for a Hartford corner. Jorgensen chipped in the corner but his cross was headed clear at the near post by Harriel.
Union left back Sorenson received a yellow card in the 42nd minute for cutting down Cohen with a tackle from behind on the halfway line. Sorenson was involved in a more positive fashion soon after when he passed to McGlynn who sent in a low cross that was cleared by Silva. The clearance went only as far as Harriel who fired a shot from the edge of the penalty area that was deflected wide by Torres.
McGlynn’s resulting corner was cleared by Strong and the Union recycled the attack before Turner fired a shot over the crossbar.
Philadelphia won a free kick out wide when striker Stafford was fouled by Lara. McGlynn chipped the free kick into the penalty area but Haak cleared before a second cross into the penalty area was headed away by Silva.
The whistle blew for halftime and Hartford went into the break with a narrow lead in what was a must win game in terms of staying on track to win Group F.
Knowing what was at stake, Hartford started the second half fast and created a chance within a minute of the restart. Sam Strong launched a ball forward to Cohen who advanced into the penalty area before blazing a shot across the face of goal.
The Union’s first chance of the second half came in the 52nd minute when McGlynn teed up Turner to crash a shot against the crossbar from 25 yards out.
Hartford defender Strong received a yellow card in the 55th minute for a foul from behind on striker Bohui.
Athletic coach Jaidi made his first change of the game two minutes later with a double substitution that saw Jorgensen and Cohen replaced with Conor McGlynn and Mesias.
Central midfielder Mesias did not take long to get involved, winning his team a wide free kick when he dribbled forward and had his shirt pulled by De Vries. Torres swung in a cross from the free kick that was cleared by Craig, before a second cross into the penalty area was tipped behind by Budler.
The corner from Rogers was cleared by Turner, before a second ball into the penalty area cleared everybody on the way out for a goal kick.
Philadelphia equalized in the 60th minute with a quickstrike attack of their own. Right back Harriel launched a long ball forward to release Stafford in behind and the young striker tipped a nice finish round an advancing Novotny and into the empty net.
The goal exposed some disorganization in the Hartford backline. As the screenshot above displays, Lara was setting the offside line with Strong and Silva in much higher positions and unable to recover goalside.
Direct balls in behind have been an Achilles heel for Hartford this season, and they have conceded multiple goals as a result of disorganization in their defensive line. This is something coach Jaidi will be hoping to show significant improvement in when the playoffs come around and they will face a stronger level of opposition.
In this game, Hartford now faced some pressure with the score tied at 2-2 going into the last half hour. Anything less than three points here for Athletic would allow the Pittsburgh Riverhounds to seal first place and a home playoff game with a win over Philadelphia in their final regular season game this weekend.
Philadelphia almost cranked up the pressure even more just minutes later when McGlynn chipped in a good cross to Stafford only for an offside flag to render the strikers header against the goalpost meaningless.
Union coach LeBlanc made his first substitution in the 64th minute, replacing De Vries with Issa Rayyan.
Hartford stretched the Union backline when Rogers pumped a pass forward to Dixon who settled the ball well before Huckaby stepped across to clear the danger.
The visitors came forward again when Siva switched play out to the right flank, and Rogers drove at McGlynn before his cross was deflected behind for a corner. Torres sent in a low corner that was cleared by Harriel at the near post, before Hartford recycled the attack and Silva fired a shot over the crossbar.
With his team needing a goal, Hartford coach Jaidi made an attacking double substitution in the 67th minute. Striker Markus Naglestad and Southampton loanee Johnson were introduced in place of Vazquez and Torres.
McGlynn was the heartbeat of Philadelphia on the offensive end, and carved open the Hartford defensive line again with a good through ball. Striker Stafford chased down the pass but was denied by Novotny who was quick off his line to stifle the danger.
Philadelphia made a triple substitution during the second half hydration break with the game poised on a knife edge. Coach LeBlanc took off Turner, Aaronson and Bohui and replaced them with Luis Flores, Zach Zandi and Picazo.
Zandi was involved immediately and picked up the ball before releasing fellow substitute Rayyan who drove into the penalty area and was fouled by Silva to win a penalty kick. Brazilian defender Silva received a yellow card for the foul as Rayyan stepped up to take the spot kick.
With Hartford’s hopes of finishing in first place of Group F on the line, Novotny dived to his right and blocked the penalty to keep the game locked at 2-2.
Rayyan continued to be a thorn in Hartford’s side and was in behind again soon after sending in a low cross that Lara cleared behind to concede a corner.
Hartford coach Jaidi made his final roll of the dice, and what would prove to be a season defining substitution in the 81st minute, replacing defender Silva with playmaker Barrera.
The substitution gave Hartford an extra attacking player and could have also been influenced by Silva struggling to keep pace down the right flank with Rayyan on a couple of occasions before the change.
Philadelphia kept pressing and Stafford teed up left back Sorenson on the edge of the penalty area before Novotny tipped the resulting shot behind for a corner. Just as in the recent 1-1 draw at Hartford, the young Union fullback duo were a big threat on the offensive end pushing forward and creating chances for themselves and the front three all game.
Zandi whipped in the corner but his inswinging cross was headed away by Strong and the game entered the final stages on a knife edge.
Philadelphia made a change at center forward in the 89th minute when LeBlanc replaced goal scorer Stafford with fellow academy product Quinn Sullivan.
The Union carved out a chance to take all three points in the 90th minute when Rayyan raced down the right flank before crossing to the back post where McGlynn side-footed a shot wide. Midfielder McGlynn then played in Rayyan yet again before Novotny came off his line to claim the ball and launch what would be a decisive counter attack.
Novotny quickly threw the ball out to Johnson who dribbled down the left flank before sending a cross into the penalty area that was claimed by Budler. With the threat seemingly over, Budler committed a calamitous error as he rushed to get the ball back into play. The keeper’s throw ricocheted off the heel of Barrera and looped into the air before bouncing into the goal and giving Hartford a 3-2 lead as the clock ticked into stoppage time.
CLIP OF GOAL: https://twitter.com/hfdathletic/status/1322191532900974594?s=20
Now defending a precious lead, Hartford possessed well during added time and won a corner when Naglestad was tackled by Sorenson at the byline. Naglestad and Johnson took the corner short and more seconds ticked away when Johnson won a free kick for being barged over by Rayyan.
Union launched one last attack in search of an equalizer but a combination of Haak and Barrera ended the threat before launching a counter that ended in Dixon having his shot blocked by Sorenson before the final whistle blew.
Barrera’s miraculous winner will hold a special place in the history of Hartford Athletic, given its timing and the fact it keeps Hartford on course to host their first ever playoff game should they win at New York Red Bulls II this weekend. Hartford will also seal first place with a draw if Pittsburgh draws at home against Philadelphia a day earlier, and will seal first place before kicking off if the Riverhounds should lose.
Coach Jaidi has shuffled his starting lineup a lot in recent games and will likely start the fresh legs of game winning hero Barrera at New York, while hoping for a return to full health from veteran striker Guzman. Suspended goalkeeper Parfait Mandana will also be eligible to return against the Red Bulls, with Novotny likely to make way despite making some important saves in his absence to keep Hartford’s season on track.
The Union are now on a four game losing streak and will be looking to improve their form with a tough trip to face Pittsburgh this weekend with the Riverhounds’ hopes of winning Group F on the line. Such pressure environments are an important part of the development of coach LeBlanc’s young group, and many players have put in strong performances this season on their path to potential first team action.
8’ HAR Mads Jorgensen PK (Alex Dixon) 0-1
15’ HAR Alex Lara (Justin Haak) 0-2
22’ PHI Own Goal (Paxten Aaronson) 1-2
60’ PHI Caden Stafford (Nathan Harriel) 2-2
90’ HAR Danny Barrera 2-3
MAN OF THE MATCH
#11 CF Alex DIxon (Hartford Athletic) – Hard working forward Dixon led the line all game displaying pace, penetration and a quality first touch. Did not grab a goal, but won the penalty that opened the scoring for his team with one of many runs in behind the Union defense.
Philadelphia Union II
3: CM Jack McGlynn – The fulcrum of Philadelphia’s attack, McGlynn displayed quality on the ball, good passing range and was also a consistent threat from set plays.
2: CF Caden Stafford – Hard running forward who tied the game up on the hour mark with a good goal and was a threat in behind all game.
1: CM Paxten Aaronson – Kept possession well for his team in the midfield area and showed the ability to connect passes up to the front three consistently as the Union looked for goals.
3: CF Alex Dixon – Man of the Match.
2: CM Justin Haak – Yet another quality performance from the NYC FC loanee, showing presence in defense and quality on the ball. Proved an aerial threat by flicking on the corner to create Lara’s goal.
1: CM Mads Jorgensen – The Danish midfielder was subbed off after 57 minutes but was producing one of his best performances of the season to that point. All over the field in the early stages, Jorgensen scored the first goal before sending in the corner that Hartford doubled their lead from in the first half.
PHI: Budler, Sorenson, Craig, Huckaby, Harriel, J McGlynn, Turner (Flores), De Vries (Rayyan), Aaronson (Zandi), Stafford (Sullivan), Bohui (Picazo).
HAR: Novotny, Silva (Barrera), Lara, Strong, Torres (Johnson), Rogers, Haak, Jorgensen (Mesias), Cohen (C McGlynn), Vazquez (Naglestad), Dixon.
Full highlights of the game can be seen on USL Championship YoutTube page here.