The familiar sound of banging drums and synchronized chants rang in the southeast corner of Dillon Stadium on Monday night, as something that had become commonplace in the city last summer, and now a foreign sight in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, was underway.
For the first time since coronavirus paused the world of sports in mid-March, a Connecticut-based professional sports team returned to the field. So did its raucous fans.
The Hartford Athletic beat Loudoun United FC 3-1 in their home opener to move to 2-0-0 in its second season in the United Soccer League. Kevin Politz, Harry Swartz and Tyreke Johnson scored in the victory.
The win was commanding, as Hartford scored the game’s first three goals to effectively put it away just after halftime. It did so with fans in the stands, too, as the USL became the country’s first professional sports league to allow fans into stadiums when it restarted on July 11. Monday’s game in Hartford was the state’s first professional sporting event with live fans since the Hartford Wolfpack of the AHL hosted the Providence Bruins on March 11.
There were 1,375 fans in attendance, as the team allowed in 25% of the stadium’s usual capacity, with priority given to season ticket holders. Spectators were spaced out through the bleachers, with at least six feet in between each party, with masks required at all times.
Unlike Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League, which have both prohibited fans from games, the USL is allowing fans into its games, though not all teams have chosen to do so. Hartford is one of eight teams across the league to allow live fans.
Players on both sides kneeled for the national anthem, some with fists raised in the air. Hartford Athletic players wore black armbands with “BLM” for Black Lives Matter on their sleeves. A 15-second moment of silence, dubbed “united against racism” was held prior to kickoff.
Hartford struck first, as Politz scored just four minutes into the game to give the Athletic a 1-0 lead. Swartz, one of the several returners from last year’s team, scored in the 45th minute to give Hartford a 2-0 lead headed into halftime.
Johnson, who subbed in for forward Ever Guzman at halftime, scored in the 55th minute to extend Hartford’s lead to 3-0. A penalty kick was awarded to Loudoun in the 58th minute, and Elvis Amoh converted the opportunity to cut the Hartford lead to 3-1.
Hartford opened its season on Friday with a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls II. The USL season was slated to begin on March 6, but was postponed to July 11.
It took Hartford 14 games in 2019 to win its second game, finishing the year 8-5-21, second from the bottom in the Eastern Conference. Head coach Jimmy Nielsen and the team “mutually parted ways” following the end of the season. Hartford hired Radhi Jaidi in November, formerly the U-23 coach for Southampton in the English Premier League, and a former member of the Tunisian national team. Jaidi played 19 years professionally.
Now just four days into its 2020 season, Hartford is 2-0-0. Due to COVID-19, the Eastern Conference has been broken into four geographic groups, with Hartford in Group F with Loudoun, Pittsburgh, New York and Philadelphia. Hartford is tied with Pittsburgh for first place, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the playoffs.
The Athletic will host the Philadelphia Union II on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Shawn McFarland can be reached at [email protected]
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