CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt remembers captain Austin Berry taking him aside for some encouraging words more than a few times early last season when the club was struggling to prevent late goals.
A first-year starting professional goalkeeper at the time, Hildebrandt just needed a little lift to get through the hard times.
Soon enough, the defense came around. FC Cincinnati went on an 11-game unbeaten streak en route to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Hildebrandt, with seven shutouts and many incredible saves, became the United Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year.
Hildebrandt says now he draws back on that experience as a reminder good times are just around the corner. FCC sits at 2-4-3 entering Saturday’s match against Bethlehem Steel FC, a club it has already lost to twice. But the club is not far from being back among the top teams in the division.
“The amount of times Austin had to take me aside and just kind of chill me out was probably more than he wanted to do, but I take that back and get back to work and know our quality is going to shine through when it matters,” Hildebrandt said.
“It's tough when you don't have the start or the results you want or that you expect,” he continued. “It's tough mentally, but I think the group is in a good place. The group comes to work every day and tries to get better."
He said the team is working on correcting what's wrong and thinks they can still peak at the right time.
It’s just tough to swallow some of the struggles the club has experienced given how last year’s fairytale-like inaugural season played out with little adversity for such a new club.
The growing pains didn’t last long in Year 1 and expectations were that those would be far fewer in Year 2, especially with all but one of the starters from last year back for another run at a USL championship. FCC did experience a sudden coaching change right before preseason games began and did add several new pieces that have become mainstays in the lineup.
Still, for the bulk of the team and the fans, the ups and downs so far are a new experience with FCC.
“We've got a lot of guys returning from a group that had a decent first year and there was a feel-good factor for a while and really not much adversity,” FCC coach Alan Koch said. “Now, we're having to play in a far more competitive league against teams that have improved significantly, and we've retained a huge core of the group from last year.
"They didn't have to deal with much adversity, so they're learning that how we deal with adversity is really going to define us. The ones that get through it are the ones that are mentally strong.”
FC Cincinnati’s losses have been unfortunate but far from disastrous.
The season-opening loss at Charleston came on a late penalty kick. The first of the losses at Bethlehem followed an early red card that left FCC down a man the majority of the game, and the second one came on an 87th minute score for a 1-0 defeat, despite outshooting the opponent 21-9.
Last weekend’s 2-0 loss against Orlando City B was in large part a product of a physical battle and stern officiating.
Fans might also have been disappointed to see it took 117 minutes for FC Cincinnati to find the back of the net against a lower-tier AFC Cleveland squad Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup, but 41 shots tells a story of total domination. Finishing chances continues to be a focus.
Berry said as captain, his role is to “keep it positive,” through times like these, but “it’s not like guys are hanging their heads.”
“There are a lot of guys that have played in seasons where sometimes you just don't have games go your way,” Berry said. “A couple of those games we hit the outside of the post instead of the inside. It's a game of inches. The ball hits a different spot and the goal goes in and we win those games and we're not even talking about this type of stuff.”
FCC is 0-2-1 without leading scorer Djiby Fall, who now has served half of his six-game USL suspension following a red card and alleged biting incident in a draw with Louisville City on April 22. Midfield cog Kenney Walker has missed two of those games with a knee contusion, but could be back soon.
In 10 games, including the Open Cup match Wednesday, FCC has used 10 different player combinations in its starting XI. Hildebrandt said while consistency is often ideal, the chemistry hasn’t been affected by shifts in the lineup.
“It's not made on Saturdays," Hildebrandt said. "We all play together all week, and everyone is going to be ready come game day whether you're in the squad or not. I think we're in a good spot and we just need to keep building.”
Koch said the circumstances of injuries, red cards and trying to build the squad he assumed control of so late aren’t excuses, but he hopes FCC’s improvement despite them soon starts showing in the wins column.
FC Cincinnati still has plenty of positives to build on, he said.
“I don't think anyone is down, and they shouldn't be,” Koch said. “We've only played nine games. We still have a long way to go. We see our frustrations in that we've lost a couple games, but we have a good core that steps up to lead the group.”
The club is full of veterans, some with Major League Soccer experience, like Berry, midfielder Corben Bone and forward Andrew Wiedeman. Bone said that while this group hasn’t experienced adversity together before, everyone has been through ups and downs in their career and learned how to get through the bumps.
Just a month ago, FCC was one of the hottest teams in the league coming off a three-game home stand in which the Orange and Blue went 1-0-2 against the top three teams in the Eastern Division at the time. FCC sits in ninth in the table -- the top eight make the playoffs -- and 10 points out of first place but just three points out of the fourth- or fifth-place positions (five from third).
Bethlehem is eighth, also with nine points.
A stretch in friendly confines can only help. Last weekend was the first of five straight home games, including two U.S. Open Cup matches, and six of the next seven matches are at Nippert Stadium.
“We just have to grind it out and in the next couple games get some wins and get everyone's confidence up,” Berry said.