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Assessing The 90: Hartford Blown Out in Front of Record Crowd in 2023 Finale
A nightmare start ultimately sealed Hartford's fate inside 17 minutes -- and put an ugly season out of it's misery.
Down three goals inside 17 minutes in front of the largest home crowd in club history, Hartford Athletic’s final game of the 2023 season epitomized the year as a whole — one to forget.
A 5-2 loss to FC Tulsa officially closed the curtain on what was the worst season in the club’s five-year lifespan by a longshot. The Green and Blue finished the season buried in the depths of the USL Championship on only 18 points and a mere four wins — their staggering 24 losses fell only two short of the league record.
A season that started with so much positivity took a sour turn early and just never got on track, and not even one of the most well-known names in American soccer could right the ship early on. While the team’s offense, led by Prince Saydee’s 10 goals on the year, produced playoff quality numbers, the squad’s abysmal defensive numbers plagued them all season — they gave up a league-high 74 goals on the year, 10 more than the second-worst Las Vegas Lights. The story was no different from the jump on Saturday, and Hartford found themselves trailing just minutes into the contest, as they had so many times before.
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Omid Namazi’s final starting XI of 2023 was one that was relatively close to full strength. The 3-4-3 setup featured Joe Rice between the sticks, fronted by a three-man backline of Luke Merrill, Conor McGlynn and Beverly Makangila.
Elsewhere, Hartford’s four-man midfield was comprised of Danny Barrera (C), Juan Pablo Torres, Andre Lewis and Kembo Kibato. A rare, full-strength attack featured Prince Saydee (right) and Antoine Hoppenot (left) down the wings, while Elvis Amoh led the line up from for the Green and Blue.
As has been the case all season, it did not take long for Hartford to find themselves on the back foot. The first real chance of the game came the way of the Green and Blue when Amoh found the ball at his feet at the top of the box just four minutes in, but he tripped over his first touch and could not get the shot off before Tulsa sprung down the other way on the counter, winning a corner.
Unable to clear the initial corner after Rice pushed a header out of danger, Hartford conceded less than a minute later. Tulsa took advantage of the recycled opportunity as Thomas McCabe pouched on a miscued pass, floating a ball over the top of the Hartford defensive line and straight to the feet of an unmarked Marcus Epps on the left side of the box.
With time and space to operate, the midfielder took a pair of touches out of the air before calmly flicking the ball past Rice with his left foot to give the visitors the 1-0 lead.
Tulsa continued to keep their foot on the gas in the opening stages, doubling their lead before Hartford could recover from the first. Tulsa’s second goal came on yet another counter attack just three minutes later, when a long ball from just outside their own box found the feet of Epps on a tear down the left flank.
Benefitting from the 3-on-2 chance, Epps further stretched the Hartford defense with a perfectly-weighted low cross in behind, where Blaine Ferri lost his marker with ease before tucking home the left-footed finished past a motionless Rice, who could do nothing to stop the close-range effort.
A nightmarish start to proceedings would go from bad to worse for Hartford just before the 17th minute, when Tulsa took once again took full advantage of the time and space given to them in the box. Epps once again found himself completely unmarked on the end of a cross at the far post, completing a hat trick of goal involvements inside 17 minutes by squaring a pass to Moses Dyer, who tapped in the third goal from close range without a green shirt in sight.
With all tactics out the window and nothing to play for before the halfway point of the first 45 minutes had even come and gone, Namazi looked to his bench as early as the 29th minute, bringing on a pair of fresh legs in both midfield and defense. Robin Lapert replaced Juan Pablo Torres, while Edgardo Rito came on in place of Luke Merrill.
The changes would go on to fuel Hartford, who began to turn their fortunes around as the first half wore down. One of the bright spots in the attack on the night came from leading goalscorer Prince Saydee, who would eventually see his efforts pay off just before the half-hour mark.
Receiving the pass at the top of the box from Kembo Kibato, who stripped the ball of of a miscued pass from Tulsa goalkeeper Austin Wormell, Saydee curled a left-footed effort past the keeper and into the bottom left corner to give Hartford a lifeline with over an hour to play — his tenth goal of the year, and fourteenth in green and blue to make it a 3-1 game.
From here, Hartford would turn the game around, limiting Tulsa to very little in their attacking third following the three-goal spurt, while turning up the pressure in their own offensive end. Despite quick footwork down the wing from Saydee, a number of hopeful crosses and a shot total that ended up favoring Hartford 11-7 after 45 minutes, the Green and Blue struggled to direct shots goalward and could only muster up half-chances at best, finding the target four times and forcing only a single save from Wormell. Despite a more positive showing in the late stages of the half, the early explosion kept them buried in a hole as the two sides ultimately went into the break at 3-1.
Hartford kicked off the second half in an almost identical fashion to the end of the first — high-powered offensive energy that put Tulsa on the back foot early. However, the visitors remained resolute — despite being outshot 23-12 through 90 minutes, Wormell’s eight saves on the night — seven of which were in the second half — kept the distance between the two sides, and Hartford were unable to get their elusive second goal before it was too late. The keeper was forced into a pair of sharp saves just minutes into the second half, and prevented Hartford from getting the momentum they so desperately needed to orchestrate a comeback.
Despite the momentum, Hartford’s defensive shortcomings would once again come back to haunt them just past the hour mark. On what was Tulsa’s first real attack of the entire second half following the sustained period of Hartford attacking pressure, Dyer once again found himself on the end of a cross at the far post following a quick break down the right side.
In similar fashion to the third goal, the forward elected to nod the ball back across the face of goal, where an onrushing Angel Bernal slid in to poke the ball home from inside the six to make it a 4-1 game to all but end any hope of a Hartford comeback. It was once again a case of Hartford’s sparse defending losing track of runners in the box too early and too easily — gifting Tulsa wide open space in the danger zone which they gladly took.
From here, the game’s pace began to settle as the result became apparent. Tulsa came close to the fifth on a pair of opportunities, even brushing the outside of the post and a shot from the top of the box, and they eventually did plant the dagger with just nine minutes to play.
Overloading Beverly Makangila on the left wing with a two-man press, Patrick Seagrist ultimately won the ball in dangerous territory, finding the feet of a completely unmarked Nathan Worth at the penalty spot. His side-footed finish beat Rice to the far post to complete a dominant night in the offensive third for the visitors, who managed to put five past Hartford despite having half the amount of shots on the final scoresheet.
With their season all but in the books with just minutes to play, Hartford fans can at least say they finished on a high — They managed to pull a consolation goal back with just under two minutes of regulation to play.
Two substitutes combined on the play — It started with 17-year-old academy product Dren Drobuna sending a deep in swinging cross into the mixer, where Lapert leapt above everyone and poked a header into the bottom right corner and past an outstretched Wormell. The assist was the first of Drobuna’s professional career, and the goal was the first tally for Lapert in Hartford colors.
Ultimately, the game would end in disappointment for Hartford, who fell 5-2 in front of the biggest home crowd the club had ever seen. In a game that meant nothing in the grand scheme of things between two clubs who were already eliminated from postseason contention, the result highlighted a number of major, glaring problems for Hartford in 2023, but it was nothing new.
For Hartford fans, the final whistle almost felt like a sigh of relief. A long, painful season was finally over, and a much-needed offseason under the direction of a newly-hired, very experienced CEO is underway.
It certainly seems that nothing short of a complete overhaul is needed to change the fortunes of this club heading into 2024. After a historically bad year, and a new low, what will such a rebuild look like? How much of this squad sticks around next season? What next?
Only time will tell. Onto 2024!