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Coach Jimmy Nielsen says Hartford Athletic has leadership problem

After eight straight losses, the coach wondered aloud if his team needs “new blood.”

June 13, 2017 - Then coaching with the OKC Energy, Jimmy Nielsen calls out in the first half of a U.S. Open Cup match against the Colorado Rapids at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. (Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)

CARY, N.C. — It would be a massive understatement to say that things are off to a rough start for Hartford Athletic, an expansion side in the USL Championship this season.

The Athletic are the only club in the 36-team league without a single point thus far. They have eight losses, no wins and no draws. They have scored only four goals and have posted a goal differential of minus-18.

Things are far from fine. And after suffering a 4-1 defeat on Saturday at the hands of North Carolina FC, Hartford head coach Jimmy Nielsen was not happy.

“We have a problem. We had a guy – who hadn’t played a single minute all year – come in and be the dominant guy on our team,” Nielsen said, tapping his finger on the table, ensuring he had everyone’s attention. “We got to wake up now as a group and as a team. Nicky Downs, his first minute of the whole season, coming in and being the dominant player on our team. I don’t expect him to lead this team here. We have a big problem with our leadership group on this team here… Overall, very disappointed.

“I’ve tried to fix (the leadership problem) in the first seven games and that didn’t work out. I don’t know if we need new blood.”

So, Nicky Downs: keep up the good work.

Everyone else: maybe don’t buy a house in Hartford.

North Carolina FC dominated Saturday’s match in Cary, North Carolina. From the fourth minute on, where Marios Lomis struck the back of the net on a counter attack, the result of the game was never in question. Sam Brotherton scored in the 45th minute on a set piece, Steven Miller put one past Hartford’s keeper in the 47th minute, and Robert Kristo finished things off in the 81st minute off an assist from Manny Perez.

Hartford did score once in the 58th minute, with Alex Dixon finishing off a feed from Mac Steeves, but it hardly put a dent into NCFC’s lead. Still, it was a tiny bright spot on an otherwise dreadful day for Hartford.

“I think it was very simple. And sometimes, soccer should be played simple, but sometimes we like to over-complicate things,” Nielsen said. “It was a direct ball up to Max Steeves, laid it off for Alex, came up and smacked it in first time. Great finish. Very simple.”

Dave Sarachan’s side controlled 62% of the possession, put 10 shots on-frame and were accurate on 81% of their passes. Aside from Dixon’s strike, NCFC made Hartford look like a team from a lower league.

To add insult to injury, the anthem of the former NHL team Hartford Whalers — “Brass Bonanza” — played over the loudspeakers at WakeMed Soccer Park following NCFC goals. In 1997, the Whalers were no more after they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina and became the Hurricanes.

It’s unclear if Hartford players noticed the dig. If they were aware of the salt NCFC was pouring into their wounds, there was little the Athletic did about it.

“We’re soft defensively. We don’t execute offensively,” Nielsen said. “I thought we had two or three decent opportunities in the first half, but didn’t have the killer instinct to finish it. I think defensively, we’re not taking pride in our individual battles and not taking pride in doing the right things. We’re there, but we’re not there. It’s a big, big disappointment. And it’s not only the back line, it’s us, as a group.”

Nielsen, 41, had a lengthy and decorated career as a player, featuring for clubs in England and Denmark before finishing with Sporting Kansas City in MLS. At most stops along the way for him as a player, not only did he win, but he captured trophies. He won the Danish Superliga in 1999, the U.S. Open Cup in 2012 and the MLS Cup in 2013. He was twice the Danish Goalkeeper of the Year and twice an MLS All-Star.

Hartford is his second stop as a head coach. Previously, he led the OKC Energy, also of the USL Championship, from 2014 through 2017 where he complied a 54-38-44 record and three playoff appearances, twice advancing to the Western Conference finals. Nielsen knows what it takes to win — in this league and others — and he knows it isn’t easy.

He also accepts some of the blame for Hartford’s poor start.

“At the end of the day, it all falls back on me. I built this team here and recruited those guys here. It’s on me. Every single second that I’m awake, I’m doing everything to get it fixed,” Nielsen said. “I still have faith in them.”

In building the team, Nielsen brought on a handful of players that took the field for him in OKC. Hartford has also taken on a few loaners from MLS clubs, most recently bringing in Collin Martin from Minnesota United. The roster has talent and experience, it just isn’t combining to generate a high-flying offense or a stout defense. Currently, it’s a club without an identity.

Perhaps seeing it as an excuse, Nielsen never brought up the fact that Hartford has yet to take the pitch in front of its home fans this season.

That will change on Saturday, when the Athletic host the Charlotte Independence at Rentschler Field, a stadium that seats more than 38,000 and is primarily used for UConn football. Eventually, the club will play its games at a renovated Dillon Stadium, a 5,500-seat facility built in 1935.

For Hartford Athletic, it seems the only way to go is up. Nielsen is hoping the club takes its first step in that direction on Saturday, but he knows that an early deficit could be tough to overcome.

“It’s tough going into halftime being down two-nil and having the history we have of seven losses with us,” Nielsen said. “It’s like climbing Mount Everest right now, with no tools.”

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