In competitive sports, winning is the goal. But when starting a team from scratch, building a foundation in a new community takes precedence over the outcome of the initial contests. That’s the task facing the Hartford Athletic, an expansion soccer team in the USL Championship that kicks off its inaugural season on March 9 in Georgia against Atlanta United 2. After eight games on the road, Hartford hosts the Charlotte Independence on May 4 in its home opener at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford — the still-being-renovated, 5,500-seat Dillon Stadium in Hartford will become the Athletic's permanent home when it's ready in mid-June — before concluding its season at home Oct. 19.
“We’ve all got to look at the bigger picture in the organization,” says head coach Jimmy Nielsen, the Major League Soccer Goalkeeper of the Year in 2012 and an MLS Cup champion in 2013 with Sporting Kansas City. “We want to create a good culture at Dillon Stadium, too. We want Saturday night to be a fun night, a party night at the stadium, where we hopefully can win some games and play some good, attractive soccer.”
Nielsen, who is from Denmark, says he came to Hartford despite knowing absolutely nothing about Connecticut in large part because of the vision and ambition of the ownership group. Hartford Sports Group, led by Chairman and CEO Bruce Mandell and his partners, Joe Calafiore and Scott Schooley, was intrigued by Nielsen’s experience of already coaching an expansion team in the USL, a second-tier league under MLS. Nielsen was in charge of OKC Energy FC from 2013-17.
Mandell says bringing a pro soccer team to Hartford would energize the city, bring diverse communities together, resurrect Dillon Stadium and have it available for community use, which was central to his original concept when he decided to try to bring a pro team to Hartford almost four years ago.
Mandell is quick to cross the sports aisle to thank and praise the Yard Goats. He says he’s learned a lot from their ownership group and they’ve been helpful throughout the expansion process. There was even early talk of possibly sharing Dunkin’ Donuts Park, though it was deemed not to be economically feasible. “I joke with them that the best night’s gonna be the night when we overlap on games and both of us are sold out,” Mandell says. “I mean, what’s better than that? You’ll have lights on in the north of Hartford, and lights on in the south. Now we’re talking.”
The easiest part of the process for Mandell was paying tribute to the Whalers with the Athletic’s team colors. When asked if it is state law that new sports teams have to don the familiar green and blue, Mandell says it comes from a higher authority than that.