OH, WHAT A NIGHT! Hartford wins 1-1.
On a gorgeous spring evening, 11,346 fans packed Rentschler Field to witness Hartford History. For the first time in over three decades professional soccer returned to the cit of Hartford, and boy did it not disappoint.
We were live on the scene for this historic night, and before the match even kicked off the atmosphere was electric. From the fan fest set up by the team, to the countless kids playing pick up games, to the impromptu tailgates throughout the parking lots, people were genuinely FIRED UP for this one. Here's just a little taste of what the 2nd and 19th regiments were cooking up pre-game (FWIW they killed a whole ton of jello shots too):
Aside from the pregame festivities, the epic march into the stadium, and the countless boozy drinks, these 100 or so die-hards played a pivotal role last night. They demanded the best out of the fans, and gave their best to the players. It was AWESOME. Bravo to all the supporters.
Alas, there was indeed a soccer match to be played. Longtime Whalers' legend Tony Harrington provided a special moment with a beautiful rendition of our Nation's anthem, but in no time the ball was kicked and we were off. The fun did not last. In fact, in what has become all too customary for Athletic, our opponents scored first and fast. Less than three minutes into the game, a mistake by center back Sem de Wit allowed Charlotte to break behind our lines and score an easy 2v1 tap in goal. It was a nightmare, and for 60 seconds I contemplated every decision I had ever made in my entire life leading up to this point... but then, I looked up, and something amazing was happening: We were kicking Charlotte's ass.
Buoyed by the home support, and probably pissed off from the start, Athletic absolutely dominated the final 40 minutes of the first half. In short, the boys in blue and green were TAKING IT TO THEM. Outside backs Ray Lee and Harry "new kid" Swartz were fantastic, both giving the team width and speed out on the flanks. Lee in particular shined during the first 45 causing fits for Charlotte up and down the left sideline. His ability to consistently combine beautifully with forwards Seb Daalgard and Alex Dixon really created chances on a level we hadn't seen yet this season. But, it was Lee's brilliant combo with another forward that lead to the moment of the match. In the 11th minute, Lee played a beautiful ball into the center of 18 yard box to target man "Big" Mac Steeves who corralled the cross and fearlessly tapped the ball over a charging Charlotte keeper. GOALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL....
While Lee's ping was nothing short of legendary, Steeves ability to take the ball down coupled with his courage to keep pushing through the oncoming keeper should not be overlooked. This was a classic play where lesser forwards bow out or lose the ball out of fear of injury. Not Big Mac. He's big and he's strong and he wants to hear our F'n song. And so, Brass Bonanza bellowed out on CT soil once more and euphoria took hold.
After the Hartford goal it became clear that the field was titled and we were running downhill. Athletic kept coming at Charlotte, creating chances and holding possession of long periods. To the visitors' credit they stood up to the challenge, and handled some sketchy situations with poise. Still, the first 45 ended with a flurry of chances from Athletic, in particular from Alex Dixon who was perhaps the most menacing player on the night.
After halftime, the momentum shifted a bit. As the sugar high of the first home match wore off for Athletic, so too did their energy and pace. Charlotte capitalized on a stuttering home side and started to control the game for much of the second half. From minutes 50-80 Charlotte had the better of the play and possession, while certainly generating the best chances. It was the rock-solid play of central midfielders Nicky Downs and Collin Martin along with the defensive back 4 (which last night included captain and midfielder-by-trade Phil Rasmussen) that kept Hartford afloat. On Downs, man that kid puts in a shift. I mean, he was up and down the field box to box all night long. He's Hartford's James Milner, but hopefully with more personality, less sad faces, and a less mockable demeanor.
Anyway, between the 75th and 80th minutes, Jimmy Nielsen made some changes bringing on Giuseppe Gentile, Woj, and Jose Angulo while taking off Big Mac, Dixon, and workhorse Swartz. At first I questioned the moves by Nielsen, as wingers Johnny Brown and Daalgard both seemed to be having cramping issues, but damnit that's why the Dane is on the sideline and I write a blog for 25 people to read. The three attack-minded players who came on provided just the spark Athletic needed, and the final 10 minutes proved to be another flurry of home team chances. Woj in particular was able to take advantage of some ping-pong stuff and get a few clear opportunities and corners to go Athletic's way. In the end however, the game was simply a stalemate...just don't tell any of the 11,346 that.
As the final whistle sounded, "Holiday" by Green Day, the supporter-selected match-winning tune, blared on the Rent's loudspeaker and fans were saluted by players and couches from the green and blue. One moment in particular that perhaps encapsulated the entire night was when manager Jimmy Nielsen finally made his way over to the drum-beating section 119. The White Puma, as the viking-warrior Nielsen is aptly called, saluted his team's raucous fans by pointing out to the masses, nodding his head, and thumping his chest.
One point, one team, one hartbeat.
FINAL: Hartford 1 Charlotte 1