CINCINNATI -- Mitch Hildebrandt hears it constantly. It follows him to FC Cincinnati practices, to his leisure time pursuits and most frequently to home soccer matches.
It is the "Mitch Says No" catchphrase.
The Orange and Blue’s goalkeeper loves the unique connection to fans and their homage to his defensive chops, and the latter is no more pertinent than 7:30 p.m. Saturday when the team faces the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a United Soccer League Eastern Conference quarterfinal in Florida.
Hildebrandt enters the pivotal postseason clash with a league-best 100 saves in addition to seven clean sheets. Sixth-seeded FC Cincinnati (12-10-10) has allowed seven goals in the last two matches, so hunkering down defensively against the third-seeded Rowdies (14-7-11) is imperative for postseason advancement.
"We're playing good football right now and we’re trending upwards so I think we just go concentrate on ourselves and take care of business," Hildebrandt said.
But back to "Mitch Says No." How did it even start?
Hildebrandt traced the roots back to the franchise’s first preseason game at Xavier. The 6-foot-1 keeper said he made a routine save and a fan yelled, “Mitch says no!” The phrase rifled through The Bailey at Nippert Stadium from the first match onward.
"It was something that happened out of the blue, pretty organically," Hildebrandt said. "It's a cool thing to be associated with for our club and the fans. When I first signed here, I didn't know all this was going to happen. So that ‘Mitch says no!' thing kind of correlates with that. It’s a pretty cool story."
It’s unique in the USL, too. Hildebrandt is the lone goalkeeper with his own tagline, a mantra that has expanded to T-shirt logos and advertising fodder. He reinforced its meaning through multiple inspired performances, like his penalty kick saves in a July upset of the Chicago Fire in the U.S. Open Cup.
Hildebrandt hears “Mitch Says No” off the pitch in a regular basis. He has been saluted as such by University of Cincinnati students while he’s walking to practice at Gettler Stadium. Fans have approached him when he’s dining in public, too.
"I'll be at a restaurant with my wife and they'll notice us and come up and ask a question where they know I'll say no. Or they’ll ask one where I'll say yes and say, 'I thought Mitch only said no!' So it's a cool thing," Hildebrandt said.
The flip side is when an opponent scores on Hildebrandt. Some foes' fans of have taken great joy in flipping the phrase to "Mitch Says Yes" both in a match and on social media. The chatter on Twitter just "comes with the territory," Hildebrandt said.
FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch hasn't been surprised by the prevalence of Hildebrandt's brand by virtue of his position and skill.
"Fans do have appreciation for goalkeepers because it's the one position in our sport where there's a moment that the game that stops. Not completely, but it stops. The keeper makes a save or he has to take a goal kick or he's holding the ball for six seconds," Koch said. "It's a moment that fans can actually come up with something, and I think that’s probably why our fans came up with something too."
Some Orange and Blue fans are expected to travel to Florida this weekend to see FC Cincinnati tangle with their USL newcomer foe. The Orange and Blue have never beaten the Rowdies. After playing to a 1-1 draw at Nippert in April, the Rowdies won the rematch (2-0) in Florida in July.
Tampa Bay enters the USL Quarterfinals on a seven-match unbeaten streak and has not lost since Sept. 2, a 4-2 decision against the New York Red Bulls II in Florida.
Because FC Cincinnati has persevered in some big matches on grand stages -- like the Open Cup win at Miami FC on Aug. 2 -- Koch has confidence that players have what it takes to excel again in the spotlight.
Hildebrandt likes this team's resilience, most recently exhibited in the come-from-behind victory against Toronto FC II. FC Cincinnati rallied from an early deficit to clinch the win and better playoff positioning, and now has a chance to work its way through the USL playoffs.
Is the season close to being over? Mitch says no.
"I have four more games to play my best soccer, which is really exciting for me. I feel great, I feel really confident and I feel confident in all 26 players on our team," Hildebrandt said.