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Professional soccer is growing in Hartford

Hartford City FC has started a new chapter of soccer in Connecticut’s capital.

Ghana v United States Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

As part of an ongoing series, Hudson River Blue will be profiling local soccer teams to offer our readers a better understanding of what goes into producing the next crop of MLS and national team talent, all while helping soccer grow as a sport in the U.S.

Professional soccer did not get off to the roaring start in Hartford that one would expect from a city that hosts the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer teams (USMNT and USWNT) almost every other year. Instead, the start was mired with scandal and controversy.

As discussed previously, the first pro soccer team in Hartford was slated to join the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 2017, after playing the 2015-16 season in the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL). Unfortunately for fans, the Hartford Courant discovered some shady dealings involving Premier Sports Management Group, the company that was hired by the city to demolish and rebuild Hartford’s Dillon Stadium for professional soccer use. This uncovering ultimately led to Hartford City FC never materializing and federal investigators forming a grand jury to examine the issue. Sadly, it looked like Hartford soccer fans would have to wait longer for pro soccer to return to the capital city. (The Connecticut Bicentennials competed in the original NASL from 1975 to 1978)

Enter Aaron Sarwar, a soccer fan and entrepreneur born and raised in West Hartford. He was an initial supporter of the team, but didn’t want to stand idly by when it collapsed. He wanted to see “something more, something on a national level” in the Hartford soccer scene. So, he acquired the brand, logo, and trademark from the previous ownership group and utilized the momentum that had congregated around the brand. He took it and ran with it.

Sarwar also had to win back the community’s trust. One key decision was keeping the logo. The Hartford City FC logo depicts the iconic dome of the Colt Firearms building seen just off of I-91 in vibrant blue and gold. Even though it was created by the previous ownership group, this logo truly represents Hartford, and creates an instant connection for anyone in the surrounding area. This crucial decision helped potential fans connect with the team.

While the previous ownership group was interested in the MASL and NASL, Sarwar opted for the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). Once he started researching the league, he was hooked. NPSL is generally considered a fourth-tier U.S. soccer league, plays in the summer, and primarily features college student athletes. Players aren’t paid in the NPSL, thereby protecting their amateur status with the NCAA. The NPSL, however, is creating a longer season to debut within the next couple of years. All of the excitement and new developments surrounding the league really helped persuade him to join.

Once Sarwar joined the league, he hit the ground running. The supporters group, Agents of Hale, had formed in 2015, and they quickly transitioned over to the new team. In Hartford City FC’s first year, the team had about 400 season ticket holders and averaged nearly 1,000 spectators. The supporters sung loudly, and even did so at away matches as far away as New Hampshire. One of Sarwar’s favorite parts of running the show is the energy that the fans bring to create the atmosphere. He calls the team a grassroots movement. Sure, he might be the owner, but it’s “everybody’s team.”

Sarwar wants to keep growing. His goal for next season is to double the team’s attendance — a big part of which is receiving permission to play at Dillon Stadium. After the aforementioned controversy surrounding the stadium, the city decided to reopen the bidding this past year. Out of the three bidding groups, HCFC is the only one that doesn’t require public funding. In fact, their proposal is very similar to another NPSL team, Detroit City FC, which successfully moved from a high school field to Keyworth Stadium in 2016. Sarwar’s goal from day one was to play in Dillon Stadium, but as of now, he is still waiting.

As for the future, Sarwar envisions that in five years the team will be playing in a 5,000 seat stadium with a growing fan base. “We are going to be Hartford’s soccer team,” Sarwar asserted. “I have no doubt about that.”

But, as Sarwar looks to the future, his coaching staff is focused on the year ahead, already assembling a team with a mix of old and new faces as they look to build on last season’s semifinal playoff run.