"I think it's going to be a great investment, but it's also for the love of the game."
Today's interview is brought to you by MeritFit. MeritFit.co is a Kansas City based fitness and nutrition blog run by one of my good friends and certified Personal Trainer, Dustin Duewel. He played soccer for 12 years, inspiring his passion for fitness and nutrition. Check out his blog for all kinds of useful information to up your game and get ahead of the competition.
Good morning AP acolytes! That might not be the best nickname, but let's roll with it for now. Round 2 of the US Open Cup just finished last night. Currently the UPSL and Bay State have 1 team each left in the competition, with Christos FC also still alive. The PDL had 3 teams advance, and the NPSL has no teams left.
Now, on to Hartford City FC. For those who don't know, this is the second incarnation of Hartford City. The first was an NASL expansion team that came very close to joining before the bid fell apart as a scam. This second version of Hartford City competes in the NPSL, and Rick Ramthun graciously took some time to speak with me about not only this current version of the teams ambition, but also discussed some of the fallout of the failed NASL incarnation of the team, and the fractured state of, well, the state of Connecticut. Check it out.
Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is Hartford City FC.
Originally a cheesehead from Wisconsin, I arrived in Connecticut via the navy while serving on the submarine USS Groton. Prior to coming to the soccer world, my passions were in the sport of hockey where I officiated various levels throughout the state of Connecticut over the past twenty years and was a five-year president of the Southeastern Connecticut Referee Association. Once my son became involved with the sport of soccer, I directed my interests to the sport of soccer. In 2012, I formed the online group Connecticut Pro Soccer with the hopes of bringing a professional soccer team to the state of Connecticut. Through various social connections, I became friends with first Shawn Simao and then Aaron Sarwar.
What really has attracted me to Hartford City is the 'Our City -- Our Team' motto. At the end of the day, we all know that Aaron is the owner, but we all have a vested interest in Hartford City being successful both on the field and in the community. Currently, there is a group of five individuals that are involved in the daily operations of the team.
Aaron Sarwar is a West Hartford native with deep roots in the Hartford community. The Sarwar/Amiri family has owned and operated numerous businesses in Hartford and other Connecticut communities over the past three decades including the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan restaurant since 1988. When not guiding Hartford City, Aaron divides his time between his wife and family, his other business interests and an active officer in the Connecticut Air National Guard.
While Aaron is away on military assignment, another West Hartford native, Shawn Simao oversees the club as team president. Shawn is best known for co-founding The American Outlaws Hartford Chapter Inc. As Treasurer, he was instrumental in turning this chapter into an incorporated 503 non-profit currently with 500+ members. He is also the Executive Producer of Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story which successfully crowd-sourced with Kickstarter for $225K and was seen in over 200 theaters nationally. In addition to his dedication to the growth of soccer in the United States, he has been married for 7 years to his beautiful wife Joy, and their two lovely children, Brianna (age 4) and Landon (age 1).
Continuing the West Hartford connection is Hartford City Head Coach Christian Benjamin. Coach Benjamin has been an assistant coach with the Central Connecticut State University Division 1 Men's Program since 2007. As CCSU Men’s Assistant, Christian was instrumental in the planning of practices, game decisions, and recruiting resulting in a NCAA Sixteen appearance and an NEC championships in 2007, 2011, and 2013. Prior to CCSU, he worked with MIT and Framingham State.
Christian has been a long time fixture of the CJSA Olympic Development Program since 2007 as a staff and goalkeeper coach. He is a featured clinician in the area of youth soccer training and goalkeeper education for regional and national travel as well as premiere organizations. He is USSF and NSCAA licensed. Christian is passionate about soccer and is looking forward to sharing it with Hartford City FC supporters.
At the heart of Hartford City is its distinctive logo created by Dorian Tanasi. On the south side of Hartford remains the unique blue onion dome of the old Colt Armory. Samuel Colt's legacy is seen daily by drivers on Interstate 91 as they drive to and from the city every day. Tanasi embedded that Colt dome within the Hartford City logo. Tanasi has used his artistic abilities to create the City image that universally used between all online and social platforms. When not creating graphic artwork for the team, Tanasi is a passionate supporter of UCONN athletics and the US National soccer teams as the current vice-president of the Hartford chapter of the American Outlaws.
What's the story behind the creation of Hartford City FC?
The team came about because Sarwar saw an opportunity out of the previous failed attempt to bring NASL soccer to the city of Hartford. Choosing to build the game and the Hartford City brand, Sarwar chose to join the NPSL instead of a full-season professional league. Upon announcing the purchase of Hartford City, Sarwar stated in the Hartford Courant that his passion for soccer is part of his motivation, "I think it's going to be a great investment," Sarwar said. "But it's also for the love of the game."
One of my next questions was going to be about the connection between Hartford City NPSL and Hartford City NASL, but it was going to be more about how the team secured that brand. Your answer has me thinking of a different question along similar lines, though. When the Hartford City NASL bid collapsed, what kind of impact did that have on the soccer scene, and has it been difficult to rebuild trust and repair some of the damaged relationships?
Great question. When Aaron Sarwar decided to bring an NPSL team to Connecticut, there was no doubt where he wanted the team to play. The previous ownership was not wrong about wanting to bring soccer to Dillon Stadium in Hartford. Clearly, mistakes were made (probably criminal mistakes) in the NASL bid, but that does not change the fact that Dillon Stadium is an ideal location to start a team. In the shadows of the historic Colt factory, the original 'Colt' logo was a perfect connection between the city and the team. As a result, Sarwar decided to continue with the Hartford City name.
Hartford did not have one, but rather two stadium fiascos at the same time. In actuality, most people know very little about the failed NASL bid because their attention was on the new AA baseball stadium on the north end of the city. First, there was the back-door deal with Hartford's previous Mayor to bring the Rock Cats a mere 15 miles north from New Britain to Hartford that initially soured people on this venture. Then a $50 million stadium somehow became a $71 million stadium and missed playing in Hartford for the entire 2016 season. So although the Dillon story was out there, most people only know about Dunkin Donut Park.
Needless to say, Connecticut fans are excited but tentative. They have seen their sports hearts broken many times before. In '97, the beloved Whalers left town. In '98, Robert Kraft had signed a deal to bring the Patriots to a Hartford football stadium right on the Connecticut River only to back out of the deal three months later. Various minor-league sports have come and gone since that time.
But behind all the negativity is a region that is clamoring for a team to call their own. With the exception of the NHL, the professional loyalties are tied to the New York and Boston markets. One exception is in the sport of soccer. Technically, Connecticut is part of New England's MLS market. Don Garber has gone as far to say that Connecticut will never have a professional soccer team. Let us not forget who owns the New England Revolution: Robert Kraft.
There is a reason that the US Men and Women's National Team routinely play at Rentschler Field. On July 1, USMNT will play their World Cup rivals Ghana in a friendly just prior to the summer round of World Cup Qualifiers. The Hartford region supports the sport of soccer in attendance, on television and throughout the various colleges in New England including a perennial top-ten attendance leaders for both men and women's soccer at UCONN for the past twenty years. Once the people regain their trust in the Hartford City name, we will have no difficulty finding support for Our Team.
I forgot all about the Dunkin Donuts Park deal, and was reading about the Whalers earlier this week. Hartford has just had some crappy luck with sports teams. How has that affected people's attitudes when it comes to supporting a sports team in town, regardless of what sport it is?
If it's not UCONN...they are very tentative. Even support for UCONN football (< 27,000 per game last season) has seen a dramatic loss, but being in the poor Amercian Athletic Conference has a lot to do with that. It seems as though they will come out for the 'big game', but getting the game-to-game support has become difficult.
But on the flip-side, it UCONN were to join the ACC or Big Ten, their numbers would be sold out overnight. That really is the market that we are in. It's all about the tipping point.
Since you guys really seem to have a finger on the pulse of Hartford when it comes to supporting sports, how do you plan to reach a tipping point with Hartford City FC, and what do you think that tipping point will be?
Our first goal was to establish a solid relationship with local colleges in Connecticut. UCONN has already said that it is looking forward to additional friendlies between our teams. In our immediate area, we can play the following D1 teams: UCONN, Hartford, CCSU, Quinnipiac, Yale, and SCSU. If we extend things a bit, there is Sacred Heart and Fairfield with Marist right across the New York state line. We would also love to play area PDL teams such as Western Mass and AC Connecticut. Our goal is to create traditions that people can look forward to year-in-and-year-out. This includes local youth soccer programs. We are working very hard to attract the attention of local youth soccer clubs by creating collaborations that work for both parties.
At what point will we hit the tipping point? Clearly the million dollar question that all minor league clubs are in search of. And to be honest, a vast majority will fall short. We have a motto: Our City -- Our Team. We are selling a shared journey from the very beginning. Something that is completely different from a forced journey that other local teams are selling. Yard Goats have been around for a few years (in concept) and only have 11,000 Facebook likes. They have all the local media on board day in and day out. We have had very little local media attention and are already at over 3,000 Facebook likes. Of all the new NPSL teams (23), we are second only behind FC Arizona which started last July. We can not take anything for granted...ever. #StartSmallDreamBig
I like that, not taking anything for granted. You guys already have a supporters group, too, The Sons of Hale. How has that relationship helped the team gain traction and attention?
Agents of Hale -- We expect that they will bring the noise to our home games. Unfortunately, each section of the stands are somewhat isolated from the next section at CCSU soccer field...so we are not entirely certain how that will play out on game day. This is a learning curve for all. What we do know is that the Agents will be actively involved in the fan layout when we finally make the move to Dillon Stadium. Currently, we are guests at Central and have to play by their rules. When Aaron did the walk-thru with CCSU, Agents sent representation so that everyone was on the same page as far as what can and can't be done at the University campus. From my understanding, the meeting went very well and the Agents seemed pleased to find that all of their questions were addressed ahead of time with little obstacles. Our hope is that the Agents feel comfortable...to have a good time...to be as organic as possible. We want to work with them, but not run their show.
The Agents have taken the time to create their own group...have leadership...come up with a cool name...tied to Connecticut history...and have already started messing with Elm City's supporters. I think we will be just fine.
Nothing like starting the ribbing early. How excited are you to have an in-state rival right off the bat in the NPSL?
Connecticut is very different from other states I have lived in the past. Almost like the old Greek city-states rather than one state...which is very surprising to people who are not from this area. I believe it's an extension of the old Boston vs New York rivalry. Somewhere on I-91...right around where route 9 intersects the highway, there is an invisible border. To the north is the home of Red Sox, Bruins, Celtic, Patriots, and UCONN. To the south, Yankees, Rangers, Knicks, and Giants. There is the occasional odd person who admits to liking the Met, Jets, and Islanders...Long Island transplants in southern Connecticut. Knowing that...yeah, a Hartford-New Haven rivalry is natural. They're like that cousin in the family that always thinks they are better than you. You know you are family, but you want to knock his socks off. Having a team is great, but having a team to loathe is the next best thing. Those two matches are going to be something special.
I'm looking forward to seeing how the games with Elm City turn out. Hopefully you can get some good crowds. I seem to recall you guys will be making some basic upgrades to Dillon Stadium. Am I remembering that correctly, and if so, what are you going to fixing?
Not exactly. We are still waiting on the city of Hartford. Aaron has made proposals, but all attention is currently on DD Park and the XL Center.
Okay, I couldn't remember right off the top of my head. What's one thing you're run into since starting the team that was more difficult than you expected, and one thing that has been easier than anticipated?
Difficult: Not being able to play at either Dillon Stadium or another Hartford city stadium our first year.
Easier: The out pour of support has been tremendous. From ticket sales to the Agents of Hale...local soccer teams to random people just asking if there is something they can do to help out the team. A day does not go by that we realize just how fortunate we are. That energy or passion...or whatever you want to call it, makes it that much easier to put your energy and support in on our end. Everyone wants to be a part of something special.
Nice. For people who will be reading this that live in Connecticut, where will the team be playing in it's first year?
We will be playing at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. (About 10 miles to the southwest of Hartford at the CCSU Soccer Field).
How soon do you hope to be playing in Dillon Stadium?
Tomorrow. In all seriousness, we are in constant communication with various city departments, but next season is a realistic expectation. I'm not sure if the city truly grasped what we were all about (initially), especially in light of the NASL group going by the same name.
Club Captain Hami Kara and President Shawn Simao enjoy a game with Joy Simao and Brittany Boucher
For sure. Let's get into the 'short' questions to start wrapping things up. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
That's easy...any league or team that has my son...will always be my favorite. Nothing better or more nerve racking than watching your son (or daughter) play a sport.
Outside of that, Hartford City already has a special place in my heart. I always liked the New England Revolution players (spent the last four seasons as a season ticket holder), but I never felt this vested as I do for Hartford City. It's the closest thing to watching your own kid play.
Favorite players, one past, one present.
Past: Michael Ballack
Ironically, both players may be remembered more for the games they did not win vs the games they did win...
Let's hope that doesn't become a theme for Hartford City. Do you have two books or podcasts, they don't need to be soccer related, that you would recommend to readers?
I'm all over the place on books...but I do tend to like a strong male characters that tend to do the right thing but are clearly have flaws...Michael Connelly...Tom Clancy...Steve Barry -- Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan and Cotton Malone.
I use to love the Soccer Morning podcast with Jason Davis. I know he's made the transition to satellite radio, but I just never made the transition.
If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be and why?
Tough question...I guess the easy answer would be someone like Pele, but honestly, I would like to sit down and have a pint with one of the five guys who played for both Celtic and the Rangers. To be on both sides of the 'Old Firm'...that has to be a very unusual experience.
Oh for sure. And Pele has been almost everyone's answer, so I'm glad yours is different. Where can people find more about yourself and Hartford City online?
Closing question. What would you say to someone reading this asking why they should get out there and support their local team, like Hartford City FC?
Soccer in America is still in it's infancy. There are great teams out there that for whatever reason did not have the opportunity to be part of MLS 1.0 or even 2.0. Some of the strongest MLS franchises have entered the league in the past ten years (Portland, Seattle and Orlando). There may be other markets, that if given the chance, have great potential -- Sacramento, Detroit, Louisville, Cincinnati and Phoenix come to mind. But probably more importantly is the connection between the community and the team. Local soccer is your soccer. The teams that develop that connection between team and community will also be the most stable. Take a look at our sporting brothers on the baseball diamond. The Cubs and Red Sox went decades without winning -- even revered as 'lovable losers' and yet, they found a way to be embedded in their communities. Soccer is no different. We want the fans in Connecticut to look forward to the warmth of spring each year. To look forward to tailgating...marching into the game...cheering on their team. Where season tickets are affordable for a complete family...where players look forward to giving autographs...where our fans look forward to rooting on their team against a local team in New Haven, Providence or Boston. That is something that only happens with local soccer.
Thank you again for your time Rick, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the weekly content coming out on AP you can Follow AP on Twitter, or Like AP on Facebook. And if you want make sure you never miss an interview, and want to read articles before everyone else, click here and sign up for the Newsletter. You'll be the first to know when articles are released and learn about other exciting content down the road.
Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. AP can't accomplish the goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.