High-profile U.S. Open Cup games give FC Cincinnati players 'audition' for Major League Soccer teams

CINCINNATI -- As FC Cincinnati continues its run through the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the attention follows and continues to grow.

The second-year United Soccer League club is soaking up the experience, which so far has included wins against Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire SC -- the latter in front of a national audience on ESPN and both in front of crowds of 30,000-plus fans at Nippert Stadium.

RELATED: A recap of FC Cincinnati's four U.S. Open Cup wins so far.

But soccer fans aren’t the only ones watching. With the MLS summer transfer window open as of Monday, a time when several trades and international transfers are made, it’s possible major league scouts have taken notice as well.

“Whenever you're playing on a stage like this, especially when it’s against an MLS team, you've got their coaches' eyes on you and I think everyone in the back of their mind is thinking if you play well you could get a chance,” said midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin, who began his professional career with MLS side Philadelphia Union. “We try to focus on the game and focus on being successful for FC Cincinnati and putting them in the spotlight and showing that FC Cincinnati can beat MLS clubs and is an MLS club in itself. I think there's more eyes on you in those types of games, and it's good exposure.”

FC Cincinnati midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin, left, began his professional career in Major League Soccer. (E.L. Hubbard/WCPO Contributor)

FC Cincinnati meets North American Soccer League spring champion Miami FC in the quarterfinals Wednesday at Florida International University. As the last two remaining lower-division teams in the tournament, the winner will become the first non-MLS side since the Richmond Kickers in 2011 to reach the semifinals.

Though Miami is a second-division team like FC Cincinnati, and thus not as hyped up as the previous two rounds, McLaughlin said Wednesday’s match feels just as important.

Miami, led by the scoring prowess of Brazilian star Stefano Pinho and the all-around play of former New York City FC midfielder Kwadwo Poku, has surged through the Cup with 11 goals in four games. They're coming off a 7-0 slaughter of the NASL’s second-place team, San Francisco, on Saturday to claim the league’s spring title.

“We're under no illusions as to how difficult the task is going and playing Miami at Miami,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “They are almost as good, if not better than the majority of MLS teams this year. We got through Columbus, we got through Chicago, and we know this one is going to be very difficult, … but it's cup soccer and we will gladly embrace the challenge.”

Mitch says no (to audition talk)

Eyes will especially turn to FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt given Miami’s potent attack, which averages 2.0 goals per game in NASL play with nine more goals than any other team through 15 games.

The 2016 USL Goalkeeper of the Year already has made a name for himself this tournament after stopping three penalty kicks to seal the win against Chicago on June 28. He has shutouts in all three of his Cup starts this season.

Still, Hildebrandt said he doesn’t think about who might be watching from the first division.

“I'm not on an audition,” said Hildebrandt, who began his professional career with NASL’s Minnesota United but didn’t earn a starting job until coming to Cincinnati last year. “I'm on a contract with FC Cincinnati and I want to win the game for FC Cincinnati. Playing MLS teams and advancing in this tournament just gives us another game to win. I'm not trying to impress anybody. I'm not trying to go out and go to another team. I just want to help my team that's here and progress as far as we can in this competition.”

FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt celebrates after the game-winning save in a decisive shootout againt Chicago Fire SC. It was the team's fourth U.S. Open Cup win this season. Hildebrandt has had clean sheets in all three of the games he's played in the tournament.

Hildebrandt said he maintains focus, in part, by not distinguishing between the different leagues. He feels the same pressure to perform whether he’s facing a USL, NASL or MLS opponent.

“I don't take much stock in the division system, so when we play MLS teams, I feel like most of our guys are MLS players, and it's just like playing another game to me,” he said. “Yeah, it's cool for the club and cool for the city, but for me, I just want to take care of business and concentrate on what we want to do and what I need to do is keep the ball out of the back of the net.”

He continued, “I think you have to have that tunnel vision. The younger guys maybe feel the MLS stage and this and that, but we're all professional soccer players. We're not part-timers. We're not minor league. It's just how soccer works.”

That is the mentality Koch wants his players to have, but he also believes FC Cincinnati has enough quality players to draw attention regardless of the stage of the games they play.

FC Cincinnati has been drawing national -- and even international -- headlines since its inaugural season when the club smashed all the USL attendance records. It outdrew every MLS game on the day of its friendly with English Premier League’s Crystal Palace last July with a crowd of 35,061.

“Every game we play is an audition for our guys,” Koch said. “It's an audition to show they can do it at this level, and it's an audition to show they can do it at the next level too. As a professional player, if you have the mentality that every game is an audition, you're going to go far in this game because you can't just turn it on and off. You've got to have it all the time.”

That’s how former FC Cincinnati forward Sean Okoli got his call from MLS in the offseason. He had signed with Seattle Sounders FC as a homegrown player in 2014 but didn’t get his chance to showcase his abilities in two MLS seasons with the Sounders and New England Revolution.

Striker Sean Okoli parlayed success with FC Cincinnati into a move to MLS side New York City FC. (WCPO file)

Consistently producing on the pitch for FC Cincinnati last season earned him his ticket back to the top division with New York City FC. He was the USL’s Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner in 2016 when FC Cincinnati won just one game in the U.S. Open Cup.

“You never know who's watching, but you don't want to have that in the back of your mind because it's just another game, another chance to work on what we've been doing all season,” FC Cincinnati defender and captain Austin Berry said. “We don't need to make these games anything more than they are because then we won't be playing our game.”

Team's promotion bigger than players'

Hildebrandt said the Cup has been more important for the club’s MLS ambitions than any of the individual player aspirations.

FC Cincinnati is one of 12 applicants for MLS expansion, which will bring on four more teams by the mid-2020s, including two teams to be announced by the end of the year.

“The extra eyes are on the city, they are on the club and just what we're doing here,” Hildebrandt said. “Obviously, when we're playing MLS teams with the aspirations of the club come the big guys like (MLS commissioner) Don Garber, and our front office takes care of that. Jeff Berding and his team do that, and we'll take care of what we need to do on the field.”

Even if extra eyes are on FC Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup, McLaughlin said it should be nothing new to any of the players. They’ve been playing for scouts since they were kids dreaming of a professional career one day, so it’s no added pressure they aren’t used to already.

“There are people watching every game,” McLaughlin said. “Even from youth soccer and college coaches at academies and stuff -- all of us are used to having scouts and pressure moments every match so it's similar to that because you never know who's watching.”

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