Hartford Athletic Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen is looking forward to seeing 'the support, the passion for the game' when the side hosts its home opener on Saturday. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
HARTFORD, Conn. – Since Hartford Athletic Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen arrived in his new home city last August, the wait for the club’s inaugural home opener has been a long one.
Now, with the club’s home debut at Rentschler Field just a few days away against the Charlotte Independence, the excitement he has felt out in the community over the past nine months is starting to feel realer every day.
“I went to a lot of events, appearances, and I feel the support, the passion for the game here, but I’ve not really been able to feel it physically and see it,” Nielsen told WTIC’s Ray Dunaway and Joe D’Ambrosio on Wednesday. “Now it’s just around the corner and I’m so excited.”
With a five-figure crowd expected at the historic venue that has previously played host to the United States Men’s and Women’s National Teams, the Athletic are certainly in need of some home cooking. A grueling eight-game road trip to start the season – which included contests against six of the current top seven in the Eastern Conference – has left the side still waiting to earn its first point of the campaign.
“I certainly didn’t expect to be here with eight games and 24 points, but I didn’t expect us to be here with eight games and zero points,” Nielsen said. “In my wildest nightmare I couldn’t imagine that.”
There have been some close calls, including narrow defeats against perennial playoff contender the Charleston Battery and two-time defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC. There have also been some showstopping moments, led by Jose Angulo’s incredible Goal of the Week winner during the club’s visit to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, but as the road trip progressed the high-pressure intensity that can be produced by the Eastern Conference’s top teams wore down Hartford’s defense to the tune of 15 goals conceded in the last four games of the trip.
Nielsen shouldered much of the disappointment those recent results have produced, with the high-pressing style of current Eastern Conference leader the New York Red Bulls II and Tampa Bay Rowdies having seen both sides pull away for comfortable victories against his side.
“It’s a very athletic league, and we have a lot of good soccer players, but we might need a little more athleticism here in the group,” said Nielsen. “It’s a fast-paced game here in the Eastern Conference compared to the Western Conference, transition game constantly, defense, attack, defense, attack, and I thought we could play ourselves out of those problems and challenge, but I’ve got to be the first one to admit I was wrong there.”
With a renewed focus on the side’s defensive structure this week ahead of a visit from the Independence, who have also had their own early-season difficulties, Nielsen is hoping Hartford can build a strong base that will give his attacking players more freedom and confidence in the final third. While the attack has struggled to click so far, the pedigree of players like former Championship MVP Jose Angulo and Alex Dixon could easily spark a turnaround as the Athletic enter what appears on paper to be a more manageable sequence of games in May.
“I truly believe to have a great offense you need to have a solid defense,” said Nielsen. “You’re a little more brave going forward when you don’t have to worry too much about what’s behind you. I want us to be brave out on the field, I want the guys to play with their creativity when they come to the final third, but to do that you still need to know there’s a solid rock behind you.”