Hartford Athletic chief executive Bruce Mandell had dreamed that the team’s inaugural home game would come at its newly renovated Dillon Stadium in the city’s south end following a successful opening road trip.
Instead, Connecticut’s newest sports franchise played Saturday at Rentschler Field in nearby East Hartford, coming off an 0-8 start in the USL Championship.
But that didn’t seem to matter to the fans who showed up for the team’s game against Charlotte.
“It’s not about today, it’s really about the impact we can have over a significant period of time,” Mandell said. “We’re a patient group. We understand how complex it is to get a stadium done, to build an expansion team. We’re all in. And our supporters get what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Myke Furhman, 34, of New Fairfield showed up on Saturday wearing the team’s green and blue colors, a tip of the hat to the Hartford Whalers, the city’s former NHL team.
Furhman is a member of one of several supporter groups who formed just after the team became official last summer. They spent a couple hours in the parking lot before the game, eating, drinking, banging drums, singing songs and chanting “Let’s go Hartford.” Furhman brought a coronet and was playing the old Whaler’s theme song, “Brass Bonanza.”
“Why not?” he said. “I’m a Connecticut guy and this is our first and only pro soccer team. I’m all in.”
Mandell said the team hopes to play its first game in Dillon Stadium on July 13. The 5,500-seat facility, with its artificial turf, is undergoing $14 million in renovations and is being built for use not only by Hartford Athletic, but by college, high school teams and recreational teams, lacrosse and rugby clubs and host American football games as well.
“It’s going to be a great catalyst for the city and the south part of Hartford,” he said. “We want to finish the stadium and then make some concrete plans. There will be some amazing events at Dillon Stadium. It’s going to be a stadium that will get tremendous community and athletic use.”
Mandell spent the past several weeks in England, touring clubs such as Crystal Palace and Southampton to see how their operations are run.
Hartford Athletic, he said, already has been in talks with European and South American clubs who are interested in playing an exhibition game in Hartford and perhaps sending a few of their prospects to the city on loan.
He is hopeful for an international game in August and more as time goes on.
The soccer team also has developed a relationship with the city’s AA baseball team, the Yard Goats and will be doing some cross-promotion, Mandell said. Rather than seeing each other as competitors for the city’s entertainment dollar, Mandell said the two franchises believe that can work together to bring more people into the city.
“We’re collaborating on times we can play,” he said. “Should we stack some games, playing a soccer game at 4 p.m. and a baseball game at 7, or maybe we should schedule some games at the same time to show the world that Hartford can have two major events going on in the same night and electrify the city.”
Jason Bonvisuto, 33, of Bristol, said he’s hopeful the team will eventually rise from Tier II to Major League Soccer.
“I’m hoping the MLS eventually adopts the European model of relegation and promotion, dropping down the losing teams to Tier II and promoting the top Tier II teams,” he said. “We don’t have the Whalers anymore and they aren’t coming back. This is the closest to a major pro franchise we’re going to get.”