ANALYSIS: 9 takeaways from FC Cincinnati's biggest win yet over Chicago Fire

CINCINNATI -- Penalty kicks don’t rattle Mitch Hildebrandt. They excite him.

The FC Cincinnati goalkeeper confidently stepped up at crunch time to stop three of four penalty kicks he faced, lifting his second-year United Soccer League squad to a 1-0 win (3-1 in penalty kicks) over Chicago Fire SC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 on Wednesday at Nippert Stadium.

His stunning performance sent the majority of the 32,287 fans in attendance into a deafening frenzy and extends FC Cincinnati’s incredible Open Cup run into the quarterfinals.

PHOTOS: FC Cincinnati beats Chicago 3-1 in Open Cup

“You kind of dream of that moment -- bottom of the ninth and hit a World Series home run, I guess that's the American version of this,” Hildebrandt said. “You just want to be there for your team. I just try not to think of any of the pressure and World Cup winner stands up to take a penalty kick against you, you try to forget who he is and just try to stop the ball so it's exciting.”

Here are the top nine takeaways from the match:

1. Biggest win yet

The 1-0 win over Columbus Crew SC two weeks ago felt like the biggest win in the club’s short history, but this one was even better.

Not only did it come later in the tournament, but the victory came against an even better quality team. Chicago is one of the hottest teams in Major League Soccer right now, sitting at No. 2 in the Eastern Conference standings but riding a 10-game unbeaten streak into Cincinnati on Wednesday.

The Fire boast players like former Bayern Munich and Germany World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger and standout forward Nemanja Nikolic, who is on pace to break the MLS single-season goal record this season. Both started and played the entire match Wednesday.

“It's unreal,” FC Cincinnati’s Jimmy McLaughlin said. “It's the greatest soccer experience of my life, the biggest match I've been a part of, the biggest result I’ve been a part of, so it's something really special I'm going to remember forever. We've worked hard and we deserve this so I'm ecstatic.”

2. Weathering the storm

At times it seemed FC Cincinnati should not have been able to hang with Chicago as long as it did, but the Orange and Blue once again survived.

Much like the Crew game on June 14, FC Cincinnati was on the defensive much of the match, and Chicago put plenty of scares in the home side, but the back line and Hildebrandt put in another stellar performance to maintain the shutout and ultimately give the Orange and Blue a shot at the win.

Lakota West High School graduate and University of Cincinnati alum Matt Bahner had the play of the first half for FC Cincinnati’s defense, sweeping out a goal-line clearance in front of a wide-open net to prevent what looked like a surefire goal in the 16th minute.

Hildebrant finished with 10 saves, including three in 30 minutes of extra time, and sent the home crowd into “Mitch Says No” chants following some especially impressive stops.

“When you play against a team as good as they are, that have players like that -- it's no disrespect to the players we have, our players know they’ve got some big-time stars -- we know we are going to concede possession, but that's where the players' soccer IQ and willingness to work for each other really come in,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “You have to weather a couple moments. Of course they had a couple chances during the course of the game, but we definitely had some great chances too.”

3. Missed opportunities

FC Cincinnati might have been able to end the game in regulation or at least in extra time had a couple calls gone its way.

At the end of regulation during stoppage time, Jimmy McLaughlin torched his defender and sent in a cross that appeared to strike the hand of a Chicago defender, but went uncalled. ESPN’s Taylor Twellman insisted on air that the call should have been made to award FC Cincinnati a penalty kick.

Then, in the second period of extra time, Andrew Wiedeman thought he had the game-winning goal in the 109th minute, sending Corben Bone’s pass into the lower right corner of the goal just after the sideline official lifted his flag to signal offsides. Wiedeman didn’t see the flag and promptly took his shirt off to celebrate and received a yellow card for excessive celebration/delay of game.

Twellman also said in the broadcast he seemed to be onside.

“I would love to see the offside, if it was offside, and the handball,” Koch said. “We could have, with the chances we created, won the game in regular time or extra time, but at the end of the day it doesn't matter. We took care of business in the end and we're all pretty happy right now.”

4. Dominant performance in PKs

FC Cincinnati won the coin toss and elected to kick first in the shootout, in front of the Bailey, but Aodhan Quinn missed the first attempt.

That’s when Hildebrandt stepped up to provide an infusion of confidence, stopping Nikolic’s shot on the Fire’s first attempt. Josu Currais then promptly made his to put FC Cincinnati ahead after Hildebrandt made the next save against Arturo Alvarez. 

Both teams made their shots on the third kick (Harrison Delbridge and Schweinsteiger), and McLaughlin sent his kick into the left corner to put the Fire in a must-make situation. When Hildebrandt saved Juninho’s shot, the dogpile ensued.

“We've been practicing them for a long time,” Koch said. “The guys that took penalty kicks tonight were statistically based on how they performed on tape in kicks in training the last few weeks. I think we got that right, and Mitch obviously got his job right too.” 

Hildebrandt said he has stopped two penalty kicks before in college, while at Oakland University in Michigan, but never three.

“Honestly, I just try to react; I try to get my cues,” Hildebrandt said. “Obviously, we have people that watch penalties and give me some info, but mainly I just try to stay my ground and react. Credit to the staff, they gave us good direction and I went out and executed.”

5. Different approach

There were several top players from FC Cincinnati’s roster that did not start Wednesday, leaving the impression the club was satisfied with the win over the Crew two weeks prior.

That didn’t turn out to be the case.

The back line of Austin Berry, Justin Hoyte (replacing Paul Nicholson from recent games as center back) and Delbridge was top-shelf, and Konig’s presence maintained a strong scoring threat; however, 2016 team MVP Bone, fellow standout midfielder Kenney Walker and forward/midfielders McLaughlin and Wiedeman were four big names left off the starting lineup.

Koch brought Bone and McLaughlin into the game in the second half and Wiedeman eventually replaced Konig in the first period of extra time. Not coincidentally, the action seemed to pick up with the insertion of those players off the bench.

FC Cincinnati also was playing without standout forward Djiby Fall, who provided the game-winning goals in all three of the previous Cup matches – a trio of 1-0 wins over AFC Cleveland, Louisville City FC and Columbus Crew SC. Fall was warming up and jogging three hours before game-time, but an hour before kickoff, the club announced he would not suit up because of an ankle injury suffered in the St. Louis game Saturday.

6. More aggressive second half

Chicago had possession 70.2 percent of the match, including 78 percent for the first half and finished with 777 passes and 18 corner kicks compared to FC Cincinnati’s 320 passes and seven corners.

However, FC Cincinnati seemed to grow more aggressive in the second half and finally started to get a few more opportunities, especially as the club brought on its subs.

Perhaps that was the plan: Hold on defense, then bring an infusion of talent from the bench. McLaughlin especially played well in the 54 minutes of action he saw off the bench, leading the team with five shots, three on target, and three chances created.

“I'm proud of our team,” Koch said. “It was awesome. It was a lot of fun. There were some moments against a very good team packed with a lot of big-time stars. I think the match, the little moments grew as the game went along. We threw ourselves into it, started creating opportunities and I think we could have gotten something in extra time and unfortunately didn't, but people stepped up in penalty kicks and here we are, on to the next round.”

7. Another step for #MLS2CINCY movement

FC Cincinnati twice now has shown what it looks like when Major League Soccer comes to the Queen City, and even more than usual, the fans have delivered both times.

A crowd of 30,160 fans turned out for the fourth-round game against Columbus Crew SC on June 14, and the throng of 32,287 fans at Wednesday’s game surpassed the second largest attendance in Open Cup history (31,311) that Seattle Sounders FC drew for the 2010 final against the Crew. Seattle holds the all-time record at 35,615 for the 2011 final.

“I was very proud of the team, but I'm equally as proud of the club,” Koch said. “The work in what this club does to market and promote this team and ticket sales and getting everyone here. For our president and owners to have a vision to put this in place is absolutely first class. The players and myself are benefactors.” 

MLS commissioner Don Garber was not in attendance Wednesday but the expansion committee already has been taking note of FC Cincinnati’s stunning United Soccer League crowds and certainly cannot ignore the thirst displayed these last two rounds for big-time soccer in this city.

FC Cincinnati is one of 12 cities vying for the four remaining spots in MLS expansion plans, which call for two clubs to be announced by the end of the year. It seems even clearer now the only hang-up for Cincinnati could be figuring out the public-private financing for a $200 million soccer-specific stadium.

8. More attendance records

The tarps covering the upper deck – to make the stadium seem smaller than the massive college football atmosphere provides – were removed to allow for general admission overflow, and even that filled up.

So, it was no surprise when the attendance eclipsed the fourth-round match that so many thought was driven by the intrastate rivalry.

Wednesday’s attendance now sits as the club’s all-time record for a competitive match, surpassing the crowd of 30,187 that attended FC Cincinnati’s USL playoff game Oct. 2, 2016. Out of 30 matches total at Nippert Stadium, this game ranks No. 2 behind only the 35,061 mark set at the friendly against Crystal Palace last July.

“That passion, you don't get that at many places,” Koch said. “There's a lot of passion in our sports across the world, but that was pretty unique tonight. The energy out there was absolutely fantastic.”

9. What’s next?

The Orange and Blue advance to the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals July 12 when it travels to play North American Soccer League’s Miami FC at Florida International University’s Riccardo Silva Stadium. The two clubs are the last remaining lower-division teams in the tournament, after USL side Sacramento Republic lost 2-0 to L.A. Galaxy on Wednesday, and both should receive $15,000 in prize money for being the last teams in their league to exit.

But before the Cup run continues, FC Cincinnati returns to league play Saturday at Orlando City B, then heads to Tampa Bay on July 6. The club makes its way back to Nippert against Richmond on July 9.

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