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Red Bulls Matchday Preview: Hartford Athletic

Bus trip up I-95 offers first competitive match for New York against lower league opposition since 2017

Minnesota United FC v New York Red Bulls
Could Tom Barlow feast on USL defending again like he did in his reserve days?
Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

Two teams, both alike in dignity,

In fair Hartford, where we lay our scene,

From ancient cup, comes a new antipathy

Where civil players makes civil players unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d writers make their previews

The following article is what happens when you cross a writer with a Tom Barlow obsession with another writer who’d rather watch Eleven Sports streams of amateur U.S. sides.

Tactics Board

The magic of the cup returns to America, as the historic Lamar Hunt United States Open Cup is back after a 2-year hiatus due to the pandemic. And on Wednesday the New York Red Bulls take part in the rebirth of stateside cup competition, facing USL Championship club Hartford Athletic. The Connecticut-based side was founded in 2018, and have largely struggled in their very brief existence. Missing the playoffs twice and falling at the first hurdle once in their three years of competing, 2022 looks to be no better for the capital side as they sit dead last in USL’s Eastern Conference, right below Red Bull II. Winless in 5 matches, the squad are tied for the second worst scoring record in the league, finding the net only 4 times. The club is still young, but the Hartford faithful will be itching for a turnaround to their dismal start. And perhaps the cup is a place to start that turnaround. The beauty of the competition is its unpredictability, with the inter-league matchups often providing clear favorites, the competition thrives on the upsets it frequently produces. And for a Red Bull side looking to kickstart some form after repeated disappointments in league play, being favorites is a gift waiting to be unwrapped.

32-year-old Englishman Harry Watling was appointed head coach of Hartford ahead of the 2021 season following stints coaching British academies, and has not been shy when it comes to the professional world. His Hartford plays with flair and risk, employing an expansive 3-5-2 that use the width of the pitch to create opportunities. As if that weren’t enough, Hartford have a habit of playing out of the back, stylistically similar to the modern English coaching background he received. When in possession, Hartford try to play amongst the center backs while midfielders shuffle in order to create space out wide. The ball is then played into one of the wingbacks, who is free to drive forward and play one of the team’s staples, a cross. Cross after cross, the system is methodical but adventurous. While it sounds simple, it’s not easy to defend against as opposing teams have to wait until Hartford actually play the ball wide before closing down on them, as if they cover the wings too early then one of Hartford’s midfielders is in acres of space, free to do as he likes. Teams know this and will let Hartford play out wide, as it’s technically the safer option, but when you’re giving fullbacks trained in the system time and space to drive forward and play a ball, nothing is assured. Red Bulls II know this all too well, having conceded 12 against Hartford in the 2021 USL season, including a famous embarrassment where the Baby Bulls, bolstered by numerous first teamers, fell 7-0 in Conneticut to Watlik’s side.

The risk-riddled system results in attractive soccer when it works, but so far it hasn’t quite come off for Hartford. Their defense is shaky, yet to keep a clean sheet on the year and conceding nearly 2 goals per game. Building out of the back is great when you’re Pep Guardiola, but it goes wrong quite frequently for Watlick’s side, and results in a lot of opportunities for opposing sides. Against a pressing side in Atlanta United 2, the possession game was disastrous as center backs either hung onto the ball too long and lost it near their own area, or were forced into wildly clearing the ball and giving it back to the Georgians. The New York Red Bulls will be salivating at a side like this, a side that hasn’t had much offensive spark as of yet and is worryingly poor in pressure. Motivated by a highly frustrating draw against Dallas, Gerhard Struber and his coaching staff have been merited to place great importance on getting a positive result and not taking the cup lightly. While MLS is the priority, advancing in the cup wouldn’t hurt, and psychologically this could be a turning point for the young Red Bulls squad.

Kit Contemplations

Round 3 is the only competitive game this season against a team not wearing an Adidas kit. I know, it’s scary - but it’s actually a really solid one. Hartford’s first season working with Hummel has distanced the club away from its green home unis. Instead, expect Hartford to be decked in its 2022 dark blue top with green trimming and matching blue shorts. The solid blue near the neck fades into diamond sequencing just past the chest. It’s simple, but Connecticut’s connection to Green and Blue dates back to the Hartford Whalers (RIP). It’s timeless and Hummel took a risk moving away from primary green.

7/10, it’s a Brass Bonanza of a kit.

Hartford Predicted XI

The Rotation Bull

A brief look at those who may see a glimpse of the field for the traditional cup rotation. They probably won’t, but they might.

Tom Barlow

Please, hear me out.

The cup is a time for experimentation, a time to visit old friends in other divisions and flex your squad depth as you swat aside underdogs with your fringe players. A cup’s first round is not a place to field a full strength XI, wasting valuable energy from your key players and damaging focus on the prioritized league campaign. Patryk Klimala has been a busy man since arriving at the Red Bulls in 2021, starting in 32 out of 40 matches played since his debut. At the moment, he has 9 goals to show for it, and while his underlying numbers remain promising, criticism has been directed towards him for his alleged lack of finishing touch. After losing the starting job to newer signing Ashley Fletcher against FC Dallas, it’s likely that Struber is looking at alternative options to starting Klimala as a sole striker. In a match against Hartford where rotation is expected, changes are likely to be made at a position that has yet to be secured. With Fletcher coming off his first start days prior, Barlow would be the man to step up in place of Klimala. The Missourian has had his critics in his time with the squad, but he remains an intriguing figure that has shown promise to be a system player in the pressing Red Bulls organization. Hartford will be a chance for players to prove themselves, and no one has more to prove than the oft maligned Barlow.

Zach Ryan

A member of the Red Bull’s batch of attacking Homegrowns signed last offseason, the 23-year-old has enjoyed an unorthodox career so far. Playing at the Red Bulls academy since 2013, Ryan opted for a D1 collegiate career at Stanford after graduating high school in 2018, rather than continue with the organization. The choice turned out to be merited in hindsight, with the striker enjoying a prolific 31-goal career at the school, earning two Pac-12 championships along the way. I don’t watch college soccer, but that sounds good. The scouting department agreed, bringing Ryan back to the club in a move that largely went under the radar. The senior team experience has yet to start for the former Stanford captain, staying on the bench throughout the season, his most notable contribution being an amusing episode where he earned a yellow card without seeing the field against CF Montreal. While Barlow is the preferred option to replace Klimala up top, if Struber employs a two-striker setup then Ryan is an option to partner with the Missourian, having played alongside Joseph Abedayo-Smith in his forays with Red Bulls II. Soccer is a game of second chances, and like everyone on this list Ryan will be looking to find a chance against USL opposition.

Lucas Monzon

Remember him? The young Uruguayan center back remains an elusive figure in the Red Bulls first team, signed on loan from his native country halfway through 2021 and playing 23 minutes thus far. The singular game footage video found online, complete with a… mixed soundtrack, shows a promising defender, someone able to intelligently read the game and attackers movements. He is also fast. Very fast. But these qualities seem to have not convinced Struber, with Sean Nealis, Andres Reyes, and even converted right back Tom Edwards being preferred to the loanee. Reports of hotheadedness from a player who earned 8 yellow cards and 1 red in his 18 senior starts in Uruguay may play a role, but it remains a mystery regardless. Nonetheless, center back is currently a thin spot on the roster, a long-term injury to Andres Reyes leaving Aaron Long and Sean Nealis as the only natural players at the position. With the pair having played every minute of the season so far, at least one of them should be rested against lower opponents. Monzon would be expected to step in, and will certainly be relishing the opportunity to make a statement to the coaching staff that he deserves more playing time, and perhaps eventually a more permanent contract.

Daniel Edelman

The young Homegrown was promoted to mild fanfare in the offseason, but has been unable to fully break into Struber’s plans as of yet. A regular in 2021 with RBII, the academy product has shined in every level he’s played at, representing the United States at the U16 and U20 level. A defensive midfielder by trade, the Warren native played everywhere for the Baby Bulls last season, as the thin squad was anchored by the highly touted prospect despite an ultimately disappointing year. Comfortable on the ball and highly willing to progress with it, comparisons to fellow academy alum Tyler Adams are certainly not far fetched. However his rapid rise to the professional setup has seen an expected halt at the MLS level, consistently making the bench for first team matches but receiving stoppage time minutes at best. The rise of Frankie Amaya at defensive midfield has largely factored into his lack of playing time, but even when the Californian was suspended against CF Montreal, the coaching staff elected to select the more experienced Cristian Cásseres in his place. But against Hartford Athletic, the club Edelman coincidentally also made his RBII debut against, a full debut is to be expected for the teenager. Barring a Sean Davis-like run, it’s unlikely Amaya plays every game. Edelman seems to be a natural successor at the defensive midfield role, so Hartford will be a crucial game for him as he looks to continue his integration into the first team picture.

Hartford Hero Hopefuls

Danny Barrera

It’s nice to see a journeyman player finally find his place. For Danny Barrera, his place is wearing the captains armband for Hartford Athletic and turning this group into contenders. The captain, who leads Hartford’s all-time leader in both goals and assists, is coming off a career season in 2021. Eight goals and a league high 12 assists helped him make history as the first Athletic player to ever be named to the USL Championship’s All-League First Team.

This season Barrera has been splitting time in two key areas; the right wing and as a central attacking midfielder. As an assist assassin it’s natural that his key roles include either crossing into the box to find a waiting head, like main striker Juan Carlos Obregón Jr., or as someone to pass through into a waiting play. The other threat from him though means he could just as well take a targeted shot on net through half of a team’s waiting defense and still force the keeper to make a save. That’s his biggest attribute; accuracy. Whether it be passing to teammates or shooting on net.

Expect to find him to fall into the right side to battle John Tolkin for possession. Interestly, or painfully if you’re the right age, Tolkin was ten years old the first time Barrera had an “cupset” win over an MLS team. As a member of Cal FC in 2012, Barrera scored four goals in his team’s tournament run that included a 1-0 extra time win over the Portland Timbers - the first time an amateur team beat an MLS side without penalty kicks.

James Slayton/Austin Pack

Combining these two together since it’s unclear which one will actually start between the posts. The smart money says James Pack since he’s started a majority of the team’s regular season games. On the other hand, James Slayton started in Round 2 against Oyster Bay United FC and last weekend against The Miami FC.

It’s not easy replacing goalkeeper of the year nominee Jeff Caldwell following his move to Colorado Springs Switchbacks in the offseason. The former NYCFC draft pick was a major factor in getting Hartford to the playoffs for the first time in their history. In his stead neither Slayton nor Pack have had stellar starts in both their first season with Athletic.

The less likely option of the two is Connecticut native Slayton. Coming off a 2-0 loss to Miami he looked out of sorts early. He was out of net when Miami’s Kyle Murphy burst past him near the top of the box in the 16th minute, giving the Miami player a near open net to score on. While he did score within striking distance for nearly the rest of the match he never looked confident. The 90th minute game sealer was just an insurance policy for The Miami. Pack on the other hand is seemingly the team’s first choice but the rough start to 2022 might be putting that in question. The team has yet to win a game to start the USL season with Pack remaining a major question mark. Dropping points to Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Tampa Bay Rowdies can be understood, especially with the former being the defending regular season champion and playoff finalist. However a 2-1 loss to lowly Atlanta United 2 at home in early April raised red flags. Yes, the defense is also at fault for some of this bad form and in turn head coach Harry Watling has tinkered with it. But… It’s Atlanta United 2 and they don’t even feel like a real team half the time.

As neither player has recorded a clean sheet in a competitive game this season, both are far from sturdy net minders. No matter which of the two players start in goal they’re worth watching — it’s a mix of playing for a job and trying to find a rhythm.

Ariel Martínez (!?)

Just announced on Tuesday morning, Hartford signed the former Cuban national team player for the remainder of 2022. As a Miami FC fan, I’m so annoyed I have to root against my other team’s former captain.

The all-time leader in goals and appearances for The Miami FC, Martínez has been a scoring threat at each level he played at. Whether that was in the NASL, during both of Miami’s NPSL national championship campaigns (amateur division), or during the team’s return to professional status in both NISA & the USL Championship. Despite nearing 36, Martínez is the type of player who can slot into offenses and make them work. Either as a focal striker, with slower speed than he used to have, or as a cross-up player who can pass off or distract. That’s why he finished with a respectable six goals in 2021, the third most on Miami. The two players ahead of him were often getting assisted by the Cuban.

It’s hard seeing coach Watling starting him against New York so soon after being signed. However, some of Martínez’s best play last season came as a second half substitute in south beach. He is the definition of a player to watch.


Michael: Hartford has a shaky defense that can be scored on, especially early. The fact Oyster Bay United made it competitive last round should speak to that. While they had the stamina and fitness to take control of that game late, that won’t work against New York. Expect a 2-1 Red Bulls win with the home side getting a second half score to make it competitive.

Gregory: Hartford’s habit of playing out of the back is a very risky one against a high pressing Red Bulls, and a team motivated by continued frustrating results in the league should thrive on the ensuing opportunities. Hartford won’t go down without a fight, but a 3-0 win is in order.