Hartford Athletic produced a huge upset win on the road to take pole position in the race to top Group F as the USL playoff race enters the home straight. Despite losing their previous two games against Pittsburgh by a combined score of 8-0, Hartford produced a strong defensive performance to ensure Ever Guzman’s lone goal was enough to take all three points.
Pittsburgh entered the game with a five point lead at the top of Group F, having played one game more than 2nd place Athletic. Coach Bob Lilley and his team knew that even a draw would see them enter their final regular season game likely needing only a point to confirm first place and a home playoff game.
The Riverhounds entered this game in fine form, having won their last five games while racking up 15 goals without conceding any. A late Albert Dikwa goal had sealed a 1-0 victory over Loudoun United last time out, but the striker dropped to the bench for this game and was replaced by Steevan Dos Santos in the only change for the home team.
Hartford came in after dropping points in a midweek 1-1 home draw with Philadelphia Union where defender Sam Strong netted the only goal. Coach Radhi Jaidi had made several changes for the Philadelphia game, and did so again here with some rested starters returning to the lineup. Defender Matheus Silva was brought back into the backline, while Tyreke Johnson and Idah Cohen were both drafted in at wingback. Aiden Mesias returned to start in central midfield and goal scorer Guzman replaced young striker Alfonso Vazquez.
While Hartford would need a vastly improved defensive performance from their previous two clashes with the Riverhounds, coach Jaidi would also have been well aware of the importance of needing all three points. With a draw here, Pittsburgh would maintain their five point advantage and a draw would leave Pittsburgh needing only a point to win the group unless Hartford could overhaul a 25 goal advantage for the Riverhounds in terms of the goal differential tiebreaker.
It was a relatively uneventful start to the game, a fact that would have been fine with a Hartford team that had fallen behind 2-0 within the first 25 minutes of both encounters so far between the two teams this season.
The first chance came in the 9th minute when Robbie Mertz was released by Jordan Dover and drove forward before curling his shot wide of the target. Pittsburgh won a free kick out wide in the 13th minute when Silva chopped down striker Dos Santos. Silva received a talking to from referee Joshua Encarnacion but avoided his 7th yellow card of the season on the play. Mertz swung in a cross from the free kick only for Silva to head the danger clear.
Mertz received another opportunity to cross from a set play minutes later when Strong fouled Ropapa Mensah. The deep cross was diverted back across goal to Raymond Lee who chipped a ball into the crowd that Johnson headed clear.
The Riverhounds continued their impressive start and carved out another opportunity in the 25th minute when Dover received the ball out wide before bouncing a pass off Danny Griffin on the edge of the penalty area and using the outside of his boot to curl a shot just wide.
The home team came forward again when Ryan James switched play out to Dos Santos who cut inside Cohen before having his shot on goal blocked by Kevin Politz.
Hartford carved out their first chance of the game in the 29th minute, and it would be a golden one as they were awarded a penalty kick. A lengthy spell of possession culminated in Guzman and Mesias working the ball wide to Johnson who squared up Dover 1v1 and drove into the penalty area before being fouled by the Guyana national team wingback.
Veteran striker Guzman stepped up to take the spot kick but his shot down the middle was saved by Danny Vitiello and cleared behind for a corner. Danny Barrera’s corner was headed clear only as far as the edge of the penalty area where Alex Dixon gathered possession before firing a shot that was deflected behind.
Cohen’s corner was headed clear by James before a second cross into the penalty area was stifled as an attacking foul was whistled on Hartford to end a significant spell of pressure.
It did not take Hartford long to come forward again and this time Guzman atoned for his penalty miss by firing the road team into a 36th minute lead.
Justin Haak intercepted a Pittsburgh throwin and found Dixon who launched a high ball forward for Guzman to chase. Riverhound defender Patrick Bunk-Andersen got to the ball first but his poor touch was seized upon by Guzman who took a touch into the penalty area before tucking a good finish beyond Vitiello and into the bottom corner. The goal was Guzman’s first since his brace against Loudoun United on August 3rd, and the striker rushed to celebrate with coach Jaidi before being swarmed by his teammates.
Pittsburgh came forward in response and Dover sent in a deep cross that Mensah hooked back across goal only for Dos Santos to be whistled for a foul on Haak. Mensah came forward again a minute later and sent a ball into the penalty area that cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick. Mertz appealed for a penalty on the play but his calls were waved away by referee Encarnacion.
Mertz was awarded a call when he was fouled by Barrera 25 yards out from goal in the 45th minute. Mertz stepped up to take the free kick himself but his shot hit the Hartford wall before rolling into the arms of Mandanda.
Pittsburgh won a stoppage time corner when Mensah took on Silva inside the penalty area and the Brazilian defender put in a well timed tackle at the byline. The first cross from Mertz was deflected behind by the defense, before a second corner was headed clear by Politz. Lee pumped the ball back into the penalty area but referee Encarnacion blew his whistle for a foul on Mandanda.
Hartford went down the other end for one last attack but Vitiello gathered Johnson’s cross as the halftime whistle blew.
Although Pittsburgh had dominated possession with 72% of the ball, a strong defensive display by Hartford had set the table for them going into the break with a 1-0 lead courtesy of Guzman’s counter attack goal.
Despite having such a large share of possession, Pittsburgh registered a lower xG rating (0.06) than Hartford (1.06) during the opening period. As an interesting point of comparison, Pittsburgh had registered xG ratings of 1.67 and 0.34 in the previous two games against Hartford this season while having significantly less possession.
A key factor in Hartford’s more solid defensive foundation was the organization and performance of the Haak Barrera and Mesias midfield triangle. The trio cut off passing lanes into the heart of midfield, and forced Pittsburgh to to play negative passes on most occasions when the ball did reach that area. This forced the Riverhounds to start the majority of their attacks in wider, less dangerous positions.
With his team in search of an equalizer, Pittsburgh coach Lilley made one change at the break replacing Dover with Daniel Rovira.
Hartford coach Jaidi will have been well aware of the importance of holding onto the one goal lead, and will have emphasized defense while ensuring his team remained a threat on the counter attack to keep Pittsburgh stretched.
Hartford central defender Silva received a yellow card within two minutes of the restart for a foul from behind on Barrera. It was not a surprise development given Silva had been talked to multiple times by referee Encarnacion during the first half.
Politz became the second member of the Hartford back three to receive a yellow card in the first five minutes of the second half when he went into the referee’s book for a foul on Griffin.
Mertz swung in a cross from the free kick that was headed clear by Strong, before Griffin chipped another ball into the area that Strong turned away. The spell of pressure continued and Mertz whipped in a cross that Mensah headed well off target.
Pittsburgh coach Lilley made further changes in the 52nd minute when he replaced Mensah and Griffin with Dikwa and Anthony Velarde. Dikwa had scored an 81st minute winner for Pittsburgh over Loudoun last time out, and would be hoping for a similar impact here as his team looked to get back into this game.
Hartford coach Jaidi made his first two substitutions of the game in the 60th minute, inserting the fresh legs of Arthur Rogers and Alex Lara in place of Mesias and Politz.
Hartford received their third yellow card of the second half in the 64th minute when Barrera fouled Rovira. A minute later, Jaidi made a change that galvanized his team defensively when he withdrew goal scorer Guzman and sent on powerful ball winning midfielder Conor McGlynn in his place.
Pittsburgh midfielder Mertz was finding space and got on the ball between Hartford lines before attempting a through ball to Dikwa that Mandanda was quick off his line to gather.
With Jaidi strengthening his team defensively, Pittsburgh coach Lilley was his tactical opposite and replaced defender Bunk-Andersen with creative midfielder Kenardo Forbes in the 67th minute. Jamaican national team player Forbes is the USL Championship all-time leader in assists and had registered 7 assists in 9 games before limping off injured in Pittsburgh’s first game against Hartford on August 29th. This was the first time Forbes had returned to competitive action since that injury, and Lilley would be hoping for some of that magic to return quickly as his team looked to break down a stubborn opponent.
Defender Bunk-Andersen had notably pushed forward to contribute to the attack in the second half as Pittsburgh chased an equalizer, and the Riverhounds would have an even more capable playmaker coming out of the backline after this change as midfielder James, scorer of four goals against Hartford so far this season, dropped into the back three.
Pittsburgh won a corner when Mertz took a free kick quickly to Griffin who drove to the byline before his low cross was cleared behind by Silva. Velarde’s corner was headed clear before a second ball into the box sailed into the arms of Mandanda.
The game saw a key flashpoint in the 71st minute when Mandanda charged out to slide for a ball and gather possession as Dos Santos left a foot in on the goalkeeper. Mandanda was incensed by the challenge and threw the ball at Dos Santos before pushing him in the face and being red carded, Riverhounds striker Dos Santos received a yellow card from referee Encarnacion for his part in the fracas.
The red card led to a double switch that saw Jaidi bring off striker Dixon and chief playmaker Barrera, replacing them with Gabriel Torres and Mike Novotny. Backup goalkeeper Novotny was yet to play a minute all season, and would be thrown in at the deep end here as Hartford looked to close out what would be a season defining win.
These substitutions left Hartford without a recognized striker on the pitch, with the highest midfielder serving the role of center forward in each given attack. When defending inside their own half, Hartford settled into a 5-4-0 type shape as they looked to hold onto their slender lead.
Pittsburgh immediately came forward after the changes and a Velarde cross was headed clear by Lara before an overhit Forbes through ball gave Novotny his first touch of the ball.
Pittsburgh won a free kick on the edge of the penalty area in the 82nd minute when Dikwa was fouled by Rogers. Velarde sent a cross to the back post from the set play where Thomas Vancaeyezeele headed well wide.
The Riverhounds came forward again less than a minute later and a James cross was headed off target by Dos Santos as the home team continued to knock on the door.
As expected, James was pushing forward from his defensive position and entered the penalty area before having a cross cleared behind by Lara. Novotny punched away the corner and his defense cleared the ball behind, before a second corner from Mertz floated into the hands of Novotny.
Riverhounds coach Lilley was in all out attack mode as the game entered the final five minutes, replacing defender Skylar Thomas with striker Mark Forrest.
Forrest almost made an immediate impact when he latched onto a James knockdown and fired past Novotny only for an offside flag to disallow the goal.
Mertz came forward down the left flank and sent in a cross that Novotny claimed. The pressure continued and Vancaeyezeele strode forward in possession before sending in a cross that Strong headed behind. Velarde sent a deep corner to the back post where Forrest headed wide of the target.
The Riverhounds continued to knock on the door and Rovira pumped a ball into the penalty area that was again turned away by a resolute Hartford defense that had stood strong time and again during the second half.
Novotny received a yellow card in the 89th minute for taking too long over a goal kick as Hartford looked to close out a crucial result.
The game entered stoppage time and Vancaeyezeele sent a cross to the back post where James headed it back across goal for Torres who was whistled for a foul on Novotny to end the threat.
The two wide central defenders in the Pittsburgh back three were now effectively wing backs as they chased a goal, and James sent over a cross that was cleared behind by Strong. Mertz sent in an underhit corner that was punted clear by Torres as the clock ticked into stoppage time.
The onslaught of pressure continued from the home team and Rovira floated in a cross that Forrest headed into the hands of Novotny.
Hartford midfielder Haak received a yellow card in the fifth minute of added time for fouling Mertz as the midfielder cut inside off the wing. Velarde took the free kick and his cross was deflected behind by Silva.
Velarde sent the corner to the back post where James headed it back across goal and Novotny punched it clear before the ball was worked to Vancaeyezeele who rolled a shot wide.
There was time to create one more chance for the Riverhounds and James found Dikwa with a cross only for the striker to fire his shot wide as time expired and Hartford celebrated a season defining three points.
It is no exaggeration to say that this result has a significant place in the history of Hartford Athletic. Heading for their first ever playoff appearance, Hartford produced this huge upset to go into the final two games of the season in control of their destiny when it comes to topping Group F. To do so after losing their previous two games against this opponent by a combined 8-0 scoreline is a truly phenomenal turnaround for Jaidi and his men.
Such is the way in professional sports, reality will soon hit again and Hartford will realize they must win their next game at Philadelphia Union II to take top spot and do so without stalwart goalkeeper Mandanda. His red card here will leave him suspended and Novotny will be set for his first career start in another must win game.
While still in the playoff race, Pittsburgh will now need Hartford to drop points in either of their two remaining games to finish first should they win their remaining fixture against Philadelphia Union II at home next weekend. Coach Lilley will be hoping that star playmaker Forbes can return to form as the Riverhounds embark on their playoff run.
36’ HAR Ever Guzman (Alex Dixon) 0-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
#80 CM Justin Haak (Hartford Athletic) – The central midfield was a key area where Hartford won this game, and New York City FC loanee Haak was at the heart of matters on both ends of the ball. Haak won tackles, blocked passing lanes and recycled possession all game for the visitors.
3: CM Robbie Mertz – All action Mertz was the heart of Pittsburgh’s attacks consistently as the home team probed for an opening.
2: CF Steevan Dos Santos – The towering striker showed a soft first touch and linked play well while spearheading the home attack.
1: CD Thomas Vancaeyezeele – Strong defensive display from the Frenchman who also contributed in the attack as Pittsburgh pushed forward in the second half.
3: CM Justin Haak – Man of the Match.
2: CD Matheis Silva – Tough tackling display from the Brazilian defender as Hartford withstood waves of pressure to hold onto a crucial result.
1: CF Ever Guzman – Crucial goal from the veteran striker to take all three points and hand Hartford pole position in the race to top Group F.
Pit: Vitiello, Bunk-Andersen (Forbes), Vancaeyezeele, Thomas (Forrest), Lee (Velarde), Griffin, James, Mertz, Dover (Rovira), Mensah (Dikwa), Dos Santos.
Har: Mandanda, Silva, Politz (Lara), Strong, Johnson, Barrera (Torres), Haak, Mesias (Rogers), Cohen, Dixon (Novotny), Guzman (McGlynn).
Full highlights can be seen on the USL Championship YouTube page here.