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Oppo Research: 5 Things about Hartford Athletic

The USL Championship club stripped it back to the rafters this offseason — and the rebuild seems to be working.

Can't argue with the game prep of Hartford striker Romario Williams | Courtesy Hartford Athletic

In this edition of Oppo Research, Hudson River Blue spoke with Nathan Robillard of The Blazing Musket to learn more about Hartford Athletic, New York City FC II's opponent in the third round of the US Open Cup on Wednesday. Here is your NYCFC II vs Hartford Athletic preview.

1. Complete club overhaul is working

Hudson River Blue: Hartford finished bottom of the Eastern Conference last season, only picking up four wins and losing 24 games. This season, Hartford has won three of its four games and sits in fourth. What’s leading to the early success?

Nathan Robillard: To put it bluntly, a complete overhaul on every level. From the hiring of former Philadelphia Union executive founder Nick Sackiewicz as CEO, to the acquisition of 2023 US Open Cup winner and former Philadelphia/Colorado Springs man Brendan Burke as head coach and GM, to a completely new roster that saw only four players from the 2023 roster return, Hartford Athletic are unrecognizable from the squad that saw the playoffs only once in their first five seasons as a club.

Backed by what Sackiewicz sees as a passion project rather than a "job," the club has seen investment beyond anything they've ever experienced in the offseason, including the completion of a brand-new, climate-controlled indoor training facility, to a skew of new player amenities at the team offices. On the field, the roster itself has seen a notable upgrade. Building from his time in Colorado Springs that saw him bring a bottom-dwelling Western Conference side to their farthest-ever postseason run, Burke has built his team with an incredible emphasis on depth.

Former Sporting CP goalkeeper Renan Ribeiro headlines a five-deep keeper pool, while league veterans such as Romario Williams, Marcus Epps, and Michee Ngalina bring elite goalscoring experience, with proven goal scorers and young talent giving Burke a plethora of options off the bench. Long-time Birmingham Legion man Anderson Asiedu has been an absolute engine in the midfield, while Deshane Beckford, Marcus Epps, and Kyle Edwards are among the list of USL Championship talent available to Burke in the attack. Additionally, a newfound emphasis on academy and young player development and sustainability had Hartford aiming high heading into the thick of the season. 19-year-old Mamdou Dieng comes to mind here, whose workrate and eye for goal have impressed in his limited minutes in the midst of a loaded Hartford attack. He could very well feature on Tuesday in a squad that will surely see some rotation.

2. Defensive depth, experience lead to success

HRB: It’s still early, but Hartford’s defense has been impressive, as it has only conceded three goals and has earned two clean sheets. How will Hartford look to limit an NYCFC II team that likes to score goals?

NR: Hartford have been tested defensively early in the season, but it's once again their depth, experience, and exhaustive pressing style that have put them in a position to succeed here. With Hartford's big-name signing of Rebeiro sidelined early with a quad injury in preseason, the late acquisition of FC Cincinnati loanee Paul Walters has been exceptional in goal through the club's first four matches, although we're more than likely to see Burke try out one of his other three shot-stoppers on Tuesday. Possibilities include Brooks Thompson, who led newly-promoted North Carolina FC to a penalty-shootout win in the USL League One final last year, or more likely, rookie Greg Monroe, who has made the bench in the last two games.

The back line for Hartford is led by the seasoned leadership of Joe Farrell and Thomas Vancaeyezeele, and supplemented by the return of dynamic players like Triston Hodge. However, Burke's high-octane style employs a relentless press that, when effective, stops teams well before they reach the attacking third. "Defending from the front," if you will, has been a huge point of emphasis for Burke, as has fitness and pace. Look for Hartord's midfielders to track back and cover long distances when needed, and for a high-press from the front to force NYCFC II onto the back foot early, into tough positions when attempting to play out of their own half. 

3. Prince Saydee, Romario Williams lead offense

HRB: Prince Saydee led Hartford with eight goals last season but has since transferred to Rhode Island FC. How has Romario Williams, the team’s new striker, filled the void Saydee left behind?

NR: Saydee was really one of the only bright spots for Hartford Last season, scoring a team-leading 10 goals. However, Romario Williams is a notable upgrade. The Jamaican international recently featured in the Reggae Boyz' extra-time loss to the United States in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals and has represented his country in various youth ranks. A 15-goal season last year with Colorado Springs added to his decorated resume, and followed up a two-year, 25-goal stay with conference frontrunners Charleston Battery. Since joining the USL Championship in 2015, Williams scored 58 of his 67 career goals in 158 appearances. He knows how to score in this league, and would almost certainly feature over Saydee if both were on the roster. Williams scored Hartford's first goal of 2024 just 12 minutes into their opener at El Paso, and has a keen goalscoring eye among the best in the Championship.

4. The X-Factor: High-press, high-intensity

HRB: What’s the X-factor that could decide this game?

NR: To beat Hartford, you have to be incredibly fit, focused, and switched on for 90 minutes. Burke has stressed on multiple occasions an exhaustive, high-pressing style that can quickly overwhelm teams on the attack, and emphasizes perfection in the finer details. We've seen this in action throughout large stretches of Hartford's opening four games of 2024 – namely when they put up 20 shots in 45 minutes against Birmingham – and if Hartford are playing their game, even a five-minute lapse can and will be punished. With that being said, we are much more likely to see a younger and more rotated Hartford squad on Wednesday, so the X-factor for them will lie in whether or not a rotated squad can play with the same intensity and dominance that we've seen in spurts from Burke's preferred 11 early in the season, and whether or not they can sustain it for 90 minutes.

It's still early in the year, and Burke built his team around a system that theoretically has any player fully fit and ready to go at a moment's notice. But it would be ignorant to say they have it down pat, and there's certainly still adapting to be done. We haven't yet seen a perfect 90-minute performance, which is to be expected at this time of year.

5. Predicted Starting XI

HRB: Prediction time: Starting XI? Final score? 

NR: With this being the first Open Cup game and Hartford being only four games into the year with a brand-new squad, it's incredibly difficult to know what extent of rotation we will see from Brendan Burke.

I would expect to see a first professional appearance for Greg Monroe in goal, who seems to be the preferred backup at the moment. Look for young talent that have shown potential in limited minutes this season such as Enoch Mushagulusa and Dieng to get the nod as well. Returning players like Kyle Edwards and Beverly Makangila that have seen much of the bench could also get a run, while I'd also expect to see a healthy mix of veterans, namely in the defensive line, led by Farrell and Vancaeyezeele. There have also been a number of injuries plaguing Hartford early in the year, and their timelines could impact things as well. Throw a veteran goalscorer up top (Williams would be a safe bet), and Burke has himself a pretty solid recipe on Sunday. Look for a front three that centralizes around the striker and sits in front of a midfield that gives them the freedom to roam in the final third.