FC Cincinnati goalie Mitch Hildebrandt shines brightly throughout team's U.S. Open Cup success
'Mitch says no' to opponents' attackers
Laurel Pfahler | WCPO Contributor
5:25 PM, Jun 29, 2017
7:14 AM, Jun 30, 2017
CINCINNATI -- After making the game-clinching save, Mitch Hildebrandt exuberantly dashed toward the east sideline of Nippert Stadium and dove feet-first to the pitch, where a swarm of teammates quickly piled on top of him.
The FC Cincinnati goalkeeper had just secured another thrilling upset of a Major League Soccer side in the quest for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, this time a 1-0 (3-1 in penalty kicks) win over Chicago Fire SC in the Round of 16 on Wednesday.
When asked later about his initial thoughts at the time, Hildebrandt, as usual, deflected the attention back to his team and even the crowd of 32,287 that witnessed the victory.
"This city is unbelievable and the team was absolutely unbelievable," Hildebrandt said in the post-game press conference. "The amount of work they put in for 120 minutes, I can't even fathom how they feel right now. That game was just amazing. Everybody in that locker room, not just the ones that play, deserve this and staff and fans and city."
He even explained that his first instinct was to not run too far away, knowing his teammates were chasing him and they have another game to play Saturday at United Soccer League foe Orlando City B. FC Cincinnati (5-5-5) sits in sixth place in the USL Eastern Division, just one point ahead of ninth-place Orlando (5-6-4).
For Hildebrandt, it's always about the team, even after arguably the best performance of his career. The 28-year-old Michigan native finished with 10 saves through 120 brutal minutes of play and then stopped three of the four penalty kicks he saw in the decisive shootout.
That humble attitude, one that defender Harrison Delbridge said isn't an act, is probably why he is able to make the kind of saves he does. Even-keeled after each one, Hildebrandt maintained his focus throughout and the celebrating didn't come until it was over.
"It's his mentality that makes him so impressive," FC Cincinnati goalkeeper coach Dave Schurek said Thursday after a light practice before the team leaves for Florida on Friday. "He just wants to get everything right, and his work rate to get everything right, it showed last night. He comes through. He is hard on himself, but he wants to get it right and he knows he can be better. That's why I love working with him. It's awesome."
Best performance yet
The 6-foot-1-inch, 187-pound goalie had once before stopped two penalty kicks in a shootout when he played Oakland University in Michigan, but never three. Many of his stops in regulation and extra time were impressive enough to warrant stadium-wide "Mitch Says No" chants.
On Thursday, after a restless night allowed him to let things sink in, Hildebrandt was a little more willing to discuss what the game meant for him personally, calling it the pinnacle of his career to this point. Still, it all goes back to what it means for the team.
"It's definitely special, but hopefully I have a long career and I can build off those moments and hopefully I can have more moments like that to help the club," Hildebrandt said. "I don't set out to do that for myself. I want to help this team win trophies, and we're still in it. We still have a chance to win a trophy so that's the special thing about what happened last night."
He wouldn't come right out and say it, but Hildebrandt did perk up slightly when asked about how stopping Nemanja Nikolic's penalty kick -- the first shot for the Fire -- helped energize him for the remainder of the shootout.
Nikolic is on pace to break the MLS goal record this season and had four in-game shots stopped by Hildebrandt on Wednesday, including a left-footed attempt from the center of the box in the 64th minute that Hildebrandt reached with a diving one-handed save.
"We had a battle all game," Hildebrandt said. "I think I had a couple saves off him, and he got into good areas. Guys like that are shifty. We had a terrible time trying to keep tabs on him. He got behind us a couple times and he was able to turn. Smart players like that ... you can't keep them off the score sheet very long. The fact we did that was special, and to save the penalty, it was good. Yeah, it was nice."
Hildebrandt had studied Nikolic and gathered as much intel as possible on the Fire shooters in preparation for the match. However, all the knowledge in the world doesn't always match what he sees on the field in a shootout.
He said he takes the scouting report -- including film from video coordinator Matt Shisler -- and looks for cues from the shooter, then goes with his first instinct on which way to dive. Sometimes he's right, and sometimes he's wrong, but he can usually make a pretty good guess. Then, it's just reacting quickly enough to get to the ball in time for a stop.
"You can always tell the comfortability of a shooter," he said. "I try to be super relaxed in those moments because realistically we are not supposed to save any of these -- (it comes from) 12 yards away and if we save it, it's a bonus. I just go into it, and if I save it, great.."
Hildebrandt said he got lucky on a couple of the saves, but Schurek said it was more than luck.
"That match wasn't like anything I've ever seen," Schurek said. "Not only the penalties, but some of the saves during the game were just unbelievable."
More to prove
In many ways, Hildebrandt is still trying to prove himself. He probably always will, he said.
Last year that was understandably the case when he came into the first-year club and finally earned a starting role that had eluded him while playing for former North American Soccer League side Minnesota United from 2012 to 2015.
Hildebrandt drew the spotlight with a double-save that prevented the go-ahead goal at Toronto FC II on April 24, 2016, and earned him a slot at No. 3 on SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays. The fans soon latched on to his playmaking abilities, beginning the now routine "Mitch Says No" chants, and Hildebrandt only got better going forward.
He finished with 10 shutouts in 30 starts last year and earned recognition as the USL Goalkeeper of the Year.
"He was so consistent last year," Delbridge said. "Every game he would make a big save, and that's what you need from your keeper, but it's just another showing of his consistency. To carry that into another season and perform like he did last night, it's hard to do."
First-year FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said Hildebrandt has gotten better as the season has progressed and seems to be gaining confidence, along with inspiring the same in his teammates.
Hildebrandt owns a 73.1 percent save rate in league play with 38 saves, including two penalties, and four clean sheets in 14 games. He also has three shutouts in as many appearances in the U.S. Open Cup.
But Hildebrandt said he still feels he hasn't proven anything.
"I don't think I'll ever get to where I'm comfortable," Hildebrandt said. "There are certain people that brought me here -- obviously, Jeff (Berding) and Carl (Lindner) and John (Harkes), Ryan (Martin) and the staff last year and now Alan (Koch) -- that I want step on the field every day and prove them right and prove to them why I'm playing and why I'm here. Every game is an opportunity to do that, and I want to prove to my teammates as well that they should have confidence in me because I have confidence in every single one of them that they are going to do their job when they are called upon."
Nothing about Hildebrandt's performance Wednesday surprised Delbridge. Although it was the best he's been in any game with FC Cincinnati, that level of quality has always been there.
And there is still more to come.
"I've seen it in practice a lot," Delbridge said. "We know what kind of quality he has, but I'm just happy for him that he had the chance to show it on sort of the scale he could last night because we all know how good he is."