NYCFC Academy Product Makes History In Hartford Debut
The Waterbury, Connecticut native made his first start for Hartford Athletic on Saturday, becoming the youngest play to start a league game in club history.
From New York City FC’s academy to making his professional debut in his home state, 17-year-old Dren Dobruna’s performance in Hartford Athletic’s 2-0 loss to Memphis 901 FC on Saturday gave Hartford fans something to smile about on an otherwise disappointing night.
At 17 years and nine months, Dobruna became the youngest player in Hartford Athletic history to start a match in the USL Championship. In a 45-minute shift, Dobruna completed 61% of passes, sent in three crosses, and notched a clearance. The midfielder looked active on both ends of the ball throughout the first half and was a bright spot in an otherwise stagnant Hartford attack.
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“He did a great job, I honestly couldn’t have asked more from him,” Hartford head coach Tab Ramos said. “I told him at halftime, ‘I wish I would’ve known you would do this well, but unfortunately we have to change the system, and because of the system I have to take you off’… [I’m] really happy for him.”
According to Ramos, the reason for the halftime departure of the midfielder was related to a formation switch rather than a performance-based decision, in an attempt to re-vitalize the team who were trailing 1-0 at the break. The only way Dobruna would have fit into the system was by slotting into the left back role, which Ramos said was a defensive-minded move that would have put Dobruna at a disadvantage.
Although the midfielder only officially found out he had the starting spot on Saturday morning, both Dobruna and Ramos confirmed that he had earned his way into the starting XI throughout training leading up to the match, featuring in the squad’s ‘starting team’ in the days prior.
“It was something that was my dream, ever since I joined the club I’ve been working every single practice, every single training session to try to get to this goal,” Drobuna said after Saturday’s game. “This is just like the first chapter of my career, and now everything from here has to be forward, has to be up. It’s a blessing to make my debut, but it’s also a tough result for us today.”
The midfielder signed a second USL academy contract with Hartford this season, having originally signed with the club in September 2022 after spending time with New York City FC’s youth academy. After featuring for their U15 and U17 programs, Dobruna made three appearances with NYCFC’s MLS Next side in 2022. He was invited to preseason with the first team in back-to-back seasons, and has also appeared in two international friendlies for the Albanian national team.
Dobruna joins Ali Taleb as one of two academy contact players for Hartford in 2022 — Taleb made his professional debut in the closing stages of Hartford’s 3-0 U.S. Open Cup win over Lansdowne Yonkers FC on April 4. The unique structure of the USL academy contract allows for players to play professionally while still maintaining NCAA college eligibility.
“It’s a lot more physical, you’re playing against older guys, men who do this as a job,” Dobruna said. “It’s physical, you gotta deal with it because age doesn't matter in this sport in my opinion. I think if you’re good enough, you could play.”
For Dobruna, making his debut so close to home made the occasion even more special, with friends and family in the stands to support him.
“This is my dream and I want to keep moving forward,” Drobuna said. “Especially doing it in the state I grew up in is also a big plus, I had a lot of family here today to watch me…Everyone, my dad, my mom, grandpa, grandma, cousin, I had everyone out here tonight.”
For Dobruna, a positive 45-minute shift in his professional debut does not mark the end of an academy era — but rather just the beginning of what he hopes will be a successful professional career.