Dom Amore: Despite passionate fanbase, Hartford Athletic still looking for a winning formula

HARTFORD – The rain was coming down hard, but that doesn’t stop soccer players and it doesn’t stop fans from coming to Trinity Health Stadium.

Lightning is another matter, and when the bolts got clear and close enough to be dangerous, Hartford Athletic had to stop its game against Rio Grande Valley Saturday and ask the fans to go to their cars and await resumption of play.

The resumption never came, and it was just one more thing that has gone askew in this tumultuous season for the city’s pro soccer franchise.

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“It’s been a difficult season,” coach Omid Namazi said. “We had the rough start and it sort of carried through. It doesn’t seem the team, at any time, has been able to sustain some sort of rhythm and success in games. The confidence is low, but at the same time I still feel the vibe is still very positive. If you came to one of our practices you would never know this is a team sitting in last place.”

A year ago, hopes were high for new era after the hiring of Tab Ramos, an accomplished player and coach, with highly respected soccer mind. He overhauled the team in the offseason, but things just didn’t work out. Hartford Athletic has four wins, four draws and 19 losses, has allowed 60 goals and scored 33, which has them in 12th place, far behind 11th-place Loudon in United in the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference.

“I think we’ve competed, but we’ve constantly shot ourselves in the foot,” said technical director, or GM, Ray Reid, the former SCSU and UConn head coach.

Athletic, it seems, stumbles upon new and excruciating ways to lose. They’ve allowed 18 goals at the 75-minute mark or later in games. They rallied from three goals down to tie Pittsburgh Aug. 23, then lost on a goal by former Athletic player Juan Carlos Obregon. When the league compelled Hartford to play at Tampa on Sept. 2 despite a COVID outbreak that left them with 12 healthy players, another former teammate, Ariel Martinez, scored the goal to beat them.

“There were a few games, more than a handful, where we’d get beat by a (odd) goal, or something a player may be able to perform once in his lifetime,” Namazi said, “but it happened against us. You have to deal, though, with those things. You have to be able to overcome those things and create your own opportunities.”

Since coming into existence, Hartford Athletic has won only 45 of 143 matches, making the playoffs once, during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But, never mind practices, you wouldn’t guess that from the enthusiasm of its fans, with several booster clubs. Joe D’Ambrosio, the voice of Connecticut sports, was hired to do play by play, working with ESPN’s Mark Donaldson on telecasts, another off-the-pitch coup. They have so many content producers, there is no room for the press in the press box.

So you might call Hartford Athletic a mania in search of a team, and a team in search of stability. Namazi is the sixth coach since 2019.

“We do a good job on the commercial side,” Reid said. “Our partnerships do a good job. We have 5,000-6,000 people a game. We’ve got to do a better job on the technical side, have to get the right players here and grow the facilities.”

Reid, 63, who won national championships at both SCSU and UConn, was hired out of retirement to reorganize the franchise in May 2022. Coach Harry Watling resigned abruptly a few weeks later, and Reid took over as coach until he convinced Ramos to come to Hartford.

Namazi, 58, who was Ramos’ top assistant, took over for him on June 26 and he, too, has a long, impressive resume as player, coach and talent evaluator.

“We all have to look in the mirror and see where things have gone wrong,” Namazi said. “Defensively, giving up so many goals, shows we lack the cohesiveness, sometimes we lack the toughness to be able to defend. That’s where the starting point needs to be. It’s my job to make sure we bring in the right players. We need to do a better job of recruiting the right kind of players, who will work tirelessly and defend.”

There are seven games left, if the game against Rio Grande Valley is rescheduled. Athletic next plays Memphis at home on Saturday.

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Then another off-season overhaul is in the offing.

“Right now, we’re just trying to evaluate who we want in the locker room next year,” Reid said. “Who can help us win games, who’s got the right mentality. I have a better handle now. A lot of players are flawed, or else they’d be in MLS. We need players who want to win as much as they want to breathe. I’m not saying we don’t have players like that here, but we’ve got to fill the locker room with these guys. Look, I think we can get good here, I really do believe this. I have a better idea what I’m doing than a year ago.”

Whether Namazi stays as coach will be an ownership-level decision, though Reid believes he is right for the job. And when this season is in the books, Hartford Athletic will again start over, in search of the right formula to bring winning soccer to a successful operation.

“I can’t say enough about the hunger from the fans and the supporters for a winning team,” Namazi said. “And I can say that we’re ready to make the changes we need to and turn this thing around.”