CINCINNATI — Through the first four years of his professional soccer career, Mitch Hildebrandt was told, ‘No,’ pretty often when it came to playing time.
Now, the FC Cincinnati goalkeeper has fans behind him chanting, “Mitch says no!” every time he makes a big save. The phrase is even used as a hashtag on social media and as T-shirt material – one his wife wears proudly.
The chants are becoming more and more frequent, as Hildebrandt has led FCC (6-2-2) to back-to-back shutouts the past two United Soccer League games, consistently making save after big save. The first-year club looks for another clean sheet this weekend when it hosts the Richmond Kickers (4-4-3) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Nippert Stadium. FCC is on a six-game unbeaten streak in league play.
“The more they say it, the more I make saves, so I guess it's not such a bad thing,” Hildebrandt said, after initially shying away from the attention.
The 27-year-old Michigan native came to Cincinnati after a four-year stint as a backup keeper with the North American Soccer League’s Minnesota United FC, where he signed coming out of Oakland University (Mich.) in 2012. He made 15 appearances in four seasons with United, but most of his playing time came when the starters in front of him were injured.
Still, FCC coach John Harkes saw potential, and after making some calls to find out more about Hildebrandt’s character, Harkes knew he wanted him on his club.
“I've always thought he had good feet and good hands,” Harkes said, also noting how mentally strong Hildebrandt has become in such a short time. “He's had a professional attitude. I made some phone calls and found out about his character and who he is and that's the kind of guy you want in your goal. I'm glad things worked out. We have a long way to go, but in terms of the adversity so far, he's been very even-keeled.
“He's in control of his own destiny now.”
A Fresh Start in Cincinnati
That didn’t seem to be the case in Minnesota, Hildebrandt said.
FC Cincinnati gave him an opportunity to start fresh. He was one of the first wave of players to sign and has been the starter since Day 1.
“Everybody here is starting fresh -- the team, the club, all the guys,” Hildebrandt said. “For me, it was a no-brainer when John started talking to me. I had kind of a rough mental stretch in Minnesota, where I wasn't playing and I learned from it. I got really strong mentally and just kind of progressed my game through training as much as I could.”
Hildebrandt has played every minute of every game except the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match against the fourth-tier Indy Eleven NPSL on May 18 when most starters rested. He owns a .750 save percentage and 1.00 goals against average and ranks fifth in the league with 30 saves.
Recently, his saves have been nothing routine, and he seems to be consistently making tougher saves every match. He stopped a well-placed free kick from just outside the box in FCC’s 2-0 win over Harrisburg City last weekend, among other key stops, and he even landed on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the day with a double-save that led to a transition go-ahead goal at the other end in a 2-1 win at Toronto FC II on April 24.
“It's just kind of in the moment,” Hildebrandt said. “I'm not there to win it. That's Sean (Okoli)'s job and Corben (Bone)'s job and Jimmy and the guys up top, but our job is just to keep us in the game if we need to be kept in the game, and the first couple games were kind of letting in goals and we were still learning, but lately we've been really strong."
FCC opened the season 2-2 and hasn’t lost since falling to Louisville City at home April 16 in an especially tough game for Hildebrandt and the defense, which allowed three first-half goals to one player.
No team has managed more than one goal against Hildebrandt since then.
“Having Mitch behind us, he's been solid coming up with unbelievable saves every game, and we have a lot of trust in him,” defender Harrison Delbridge said. “With keepers, when you get your confidence going and make a few big saves, it's huge how it lifts you up.”
The Coach at Home
Hildebrandt’s wife, Amber, has been there since the beginning of his career and is proud to see his growing success, especially after seeing all the hard work he has put in. It’s “much deserved,” she said.
He says she’s been a big part of it.
The two met in college when Amber was a freshman volleyball player, and they endured a long-distance relationship from the time he graduated until this year. She was two years behind him at Oakland and served as a volunteer assistant volleyball coach there in 2014 before spending the 2015 season as an assistant at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
They married in January, but for a while they both worried they would always be chasing their dreams apart. Cincinnati turned out to be a good landing spot for them both. Xavier University hired her as an assistant volleyball coach in April.
“When she got the job, it was the best thing for both worlds,” Mitch said. “I loved it here from the start of preseason and the team wanted me here, and now she's found her niche. I'm just really excited about our future here because she's progressing as a person and so am I.”
Amber even uses some of her coaching knowledge to help Mitch. She just can’t resist sometimes, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“That’s definitely part of the coach in me and the wife in me – I’m always pushing him to be better,” she said. “When he’s watching film, part of me just wants to tease him, but the coach comes out in me and I’ll critique his movement.”
Now being in the same city, Amber also can enjoy witnessing the unique relationship her husband has developed with the fans.
Mitch said he has never had such a supportive showing from the home crowd as when he takes his place in the goal in front of The Bailey section for the most rowdy fans. He hears their chants and feeds off their energy, he said, but unfortunately, he didn’t notice the huge sign a supporter’s group made last weekend with a drawing of Hildebrandt’s head and the word “No” in a conversation bubble.
He saw a picture of it later and said he loved it.
“To have a relationship with the fans like that is something I really treasure,” he said. “It's something that progresses me forward. They are very special. Hopefully I can keep giving them reasons to chant."
Richmond Kickers at FC Cincinnati
When: 7 p.m. June 4
Where: Nippert Stadium
Tickets can be ordered here.