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How Nick Sakiewicz and Brendan Burke aim to make Hartford Athletic a winner

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 12/12/23, 3:00PM EST


Newly-appointed Head Coach returns home to northeast to team with another major turnaround in mind

Hartford Athletic CEO Nick Sakiewicz and new Head Coach Brendan Burke are aiming to instill an identity within the club and find success at Trinity Health Stadium next season. | Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic

It was a simple question from Hartford Athletic owner Bruce Mandell, but it was music to the ears of his soon-to-be Chief Executive Officer Nick Sakiewicz.

“It was our first lunch before I came up here to look for places to live in August, maybe,” said Sakiewicz this week. “Bruce just happened to say, ‘Hey, do you happen to know Brendan Burke?’”

Did he ever.

On Tuesday lunchtime, Burke was introduced as Hartford’s new Head Coach and General Manager, bringing the Massachusetts native back to the northeast to work alongside one of his longtime allies and supporters at the executive level.

It’s been more than a decade since the paths of Burke and Sakiewicz first crossed. In 2007, Sakiewicz became a co-founder and CEO at the nascent Philadelphia Union. A year later, Burke took his first head coaching position with Reading United AC in USL League Two, bringing him into Sakiewicz’s orbit.

Since then, the two have remained close, so much so that when his lunch with Mandell ended, the first thing Sakiewicz did was give Burke a call.

Burke was immediately receptive.

“I had no idea that he wanted to get back home,” said Sakiewicz. “It all worked really well. We worked together very closely in Philadelphia. Brendan was feeding us a lot of young players from [Reading United], and then when I bought Bethlehem Steel, and we set that team up, I appointed Brendan as the Head Coach. The rest is history.”

Burke’s trajectory since his time at Reading United has made him one of the top young coaches in North America. With Bethlehem Steel FC – now the Philadelphia Union II – he led a group of up-and-comers including current United States internationals Brenden Aaronson, Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie accompanied by some seasoned veterans like James Chambers to the USL Championship Playoffs in consecutive seasons.

After departing the Union organization in 2020 – where he had also served as an assistant coach to current Union manager Jim Curtin – Burke then engineered a remarkable turnaround at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. In 2021 he led the side to the postseason for the first time in five years. In 2022, the Switchbacks reached the Western Conference Final for the first time in club history before falling to eventual title winner San Antonio FC.

Brendan Burke earned nomination for the USL Championship's Coach of the Year award in 2021 after leading Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to a dramatic turnaround. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

This year, Burke was part of another major turnaround after being recruited as Houston Dynamo FC Head Coach Ben Olsen’s first assistant. With a new-look lineup and dynamic style of play that was reminiscent of Burke’s squads in Colorado Springs, the Dynamo won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for the first time since 2018, and not only reached the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2017 but advanced to the Western Conference Final against Los Angeles FC.

But the appeal of the chance to return home with an ambitious – but so-far underachieving – club proved enough to peel Burke away from a job he was enjoying greatly.

“I was enjoying the hell out of life, training the [Dynamo] First Team every day and going into big environments with those guys every weekend. But this is everything for me,” said Burke. “My family and my wife’s family – aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it – everyone’s in this region. So, this is a place I’ve always wanted to work. With Nick here, I knew that things were going to turn, and turn quickly, and that he would work with some urgency that this club, quite frankly, needed for a long time.”

New Hartford Athletic Head Coach Brendan Burke meets the media after his introductory press conference on Tuesday. | Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic

Hartford Athletic has never been shy when it comes to making big swings. After hiring former Dynamo and United States U-20s Head Coach – and U.S. Soccer legend – Tab Ramos late in the 2022 season, the team went out and added notable on-field pieces in the offseason. Two of the new arrivals were winger Antoine Hoppenot, who was coming off winning the USL Championship’s Golden Playmaker award after leading the league in assists with Detroit City FC, while forward Elvis Amoh had put together consecutive seasons with double-digit goals and seemed primed for more.

Neither made a major dent for the Athletic, however, as the side was plagued by defensive challenges and couldn’t find its range in attack consistently. Amoh’s minutes/goal rate sagged to a goal every 381 minutes – easily the lowest single-season mark of his career – while Hoppenot had only six goal contributions, one-third of his 2022 total, as both Ramos and Omid Namazi – who stepped into the Head Coach role after Ramos’ departure in June – were unable to find a clear identity for the side.

From Sakiewicz’s perspective, the challenge for Hartford has been an inconsistency in the on-field vision. With six Head Coaches in the club’s first five years – including Ray Reid’s stint as interim in 2022 before Ramos’ appointment – a long-term vision for the club’s culture and on-field style has failed to materialize.

Hartford Athletic Chief Executive Officer Nick Sakiewicz previously worked with Head Coach Brendan Burke when both were part of the Philadelphia Union's organization. | Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic

That’s where Burke figures to make a difference. Having led the turnaround of the Switchbacks in 2021 before his work with the Dynamo this year, the 41-year-old has a proven track record of building successful on-field products in short order, and an aligned vision with Sakiewicz for the Athletic’s future.

“Having a clear identity in all the environments I’ve been in helps,” said Burke. “I think it clarifies things for the players, helps people in general – coaches, and assistant coaches. … I think it's really important to have an identity, and then to within that detail your intentions.”

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that the relationship between the coach and manager and a CEO of a club is really vital for the success of the club,” added Sakiewicz. “Where you see a lot of dysfunction is when a CEO and a manager don’t get along, or don’t see the culture of the club the same way, or don’t see the playing style or identity of the team the same way. Brendan and I, he says things that I’m thinking about before I’m even able to say them, and I hope the opposite is true as well. But we see the game the same way we see building the identity of this club.”

Both also have the support of Mandell and Hartford’s ownership group, with between 16 to 20 new players set to arrive at Trinity Health Stadium this offseason. Burke gives major credit the Dynamo’s turnaround to owner Ted Segal’s investment not only on the field in acquisitions like Mexican star Hector Herrera and Panamanian international Coco Carrasquilla, but also into the staff that allowed the coaches to dig into granular details from games and training sessions and provide the players what they needed to succeed on the field.

Now, as he did in Colorado Springs, Burke’s aim is to establish the Athletic as a club that achieves both on-field success and provides opportunity to push players to higher levels in their careers.

“We want to be an athletic group,” said Burke. “We want to be an aesthetically pleasing group. We’re trying to accomplish many things all at once because we don’t just intend to win here. We intend to be a place that other clubs – both in MLS, but also globally – look to when they want to find the next best player. … We’ve already signed a few under-20 players and international players that I think are going to be big hits.”

Brendan Burke led Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to its first trip to the Western Conference Final of the USL Championship Playoffs in 2022 before joining Houston Dynamo FC. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

Of course, there’s a lot of work ahead to get where Hartford wants to be. For inspiration, the Athletic might look at the Charleston Battery’s 2023 campaign. Just over a year ago, the Charleston Battery appointed Ben Pirmann as their new Head Coach, joining club President Lee Cohen, who had joined the club earlier in the year. The Battery’s turnaround from the worst season in the club’s lengthy history in 2022 to winning the Championship’s Eastern Conference this year before narrowly falling in a penalty shootout in the USL Championship Final showed how quickly things can change.

“I’ve known Lee for many years, because I’m a part of the Tampa Bay Rowdies alumni group,” said Sakiewicz, who was a goalkeeper for the Rowdies in 1990 before beginning his executive pathway.

“I saw him at the Board of Governors meeting on Friday, and we were talking exactly about this subject, about the relationship between CEO and Head Coach being important and then the importance of bringing people in. It’s not a secret why they did so well, and in a league like this … you’re able to shift the roster. We’ve signed 15 players in the last 30 days, so you can really transform a roster pretty quickly if you get the right players and have the right people managing them.”

One consistent bright spot the Athletic over the club’s first five years? Its fanbase. Despite many more downs than ups, the support at Trinity Health Stadium has barely wavered. The club’s final game of the 2023 campaign against FC Tulsa – with the playoffs an afterthought –was sold out long before the gates opened.

Sakiewicz’s aim is to eventually expand capacity at the venue from its current 5,500 capacity, allowing that atmosphere to grow. This year, though, Burke wants to give the fans that have stuck beside the club the on-field product they have been clamoring for.

“At a bare minimum [the goal is to be] in the playoffs,” said Burke. “[The fans] deserve a team that has hope in November. I said to someone a few weeks ago, if you’re playing soccer in late November and December, you’re doing your job right. And if you’re not, then you need to reevaluate your process and how you’re doing things.

“I know it doesn't happen for everyone every year – there can be injuries, we don't want to overpromise. But what I can promise is that anyone I bring through this door is going to work their socks off and do their best to deliver to a fan base – like Nick said – that’s just quite frankly incredible. We want to give them exactly what they’ve paid for, what they’ve showed up for, what they’ve supported over the last couple of years.

“It’s long overdue.”

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