CINCINNATI -- In 20 years, if Cincinnati is still soccer crazy, 100,000 people will say they were among the 32,000 at Nippert Stadium when Mitch Hildebrandt saved the day against Chicago Fire SC.
Also in 2037 another 100,000 people – many of whom probably part of the previous 100,000 – will claim they were among the 18,000 at Great American Ball Park on June 6 when Scooter Gennett belted four home runs and drove in 10 RBI against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Within one glorious month Cincinnati has had not one, but two individual performances that will go down in legend. And the men behind them are both becoming folk heroes among Cincinnati sports fans.
We’ve had two all-time legendary performances, so which was the more impressive? Let’s look at evidence.
Hildebrandt making 10 saves against a Major League Soccer side in a match that went 120 minutes was in itself brilliant. To then turn away three of four penalty kicks to seal the game was other-worldly.
A soccer goalie has one of the most unenviable tasks in sports trying to stop penalty kicks. At just 12 yards away, the shooter has a massive advantage and the goalie has three tactics it can use: do homework on the opponents’ tendencies ahead of time, use instincts, pray that they guess correctly. Hildebrandt managing it three times was world class.
His saves during the game were stunning as well, particularly against Chicago, which boasts MLS leading goal-scorer Nemanja Nikolic and No. 4 goal-scorer David Accam.
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) June 29, 2017
While some may argue saving penalty kicks is the hardest thing to do in sports, they’d get a lot of resistance from those who say merely hitting a baseball is the hardest. To successfully hit it five times in one Major League game and have four of them be home runs is unheard of.
Add 10 runs batted in and what Scooter Gennett did was not only amazing, it was historic. It’s arguably the greatest single-game hitting performance in the history of baseball.
Strictly talking about the feats themselves, the level of difficulty and place in the all-time record books gives Gennett the edge.
OK, so even if hitting a baseball is the hardest thing in sports to do and even if Scooter did it better than anyone, the pressure on Gennett and Hildebrandt was very different.
The stakes might have been higher than normal for Gennett since the Reds were playing their bitter rival St. Louis Cardinals. But it wasn’t on national TV, it was only a crowd of 18,000 and both teams were under .500. So the biggest things the Reds had to worry about were Yadier Molina starting a fight or mayflies attacking.
Conversely, all the pressure was on Hildebrandt. FC Cincinnati was playing its second straight MLS side in the U.S. Open Cup and doing it on ESPN in front of 32,000 fans. Not only were they trying to advance but FC Cincinnati also had the onus of essentially auditioning for a future MLS spot with all eyes upon them.
They passed that audition with flying colors, beating Chicago 1-0 (3-1 on penalty kicks). While there were plenty of heroes for FC Cincinnati, Hildebrandt was the top star. Winning the game on saves in a shootout is about as high-pressure as it can get. And for the record, there might have been mayflies there too.
While backstories and fan favoritism didn’t necessarily play factors in either amazing performance, they do play into the folk hero status of these two.
Gennett is a Cincinnati native who moved away as a kid but got to return as a waiver wire pickup in the offseason. Viewed as a utility player, he accepted his role and became a top teammate in the clubhouse and on the field. But he’s played way above expectations and has won over the fans with his attitude, versatility and clutch performances.
Hildebrandt isn’t some former European star picking up a paycheck in the golden years of his career. The 28-year-old toiled in the North American Soccer League for years before finding his place here. He’s taken full advantage, earning United Soccer League goalkeeper of the year honors in 2016 and becoming a fan favorite. The “Mitch Says No” chants have become a battle cry for the FC Cincinnati faithful and he’s a big reason for their rapid rise to prominence.
It’s tough to decide who had the more legendary performance. One thing’s for sure, both Scooter Gennett and Mitch Hildebrandt will live in the pantheon of Cincinnati sports folk legends. That’s not a place for superstars like Johnny Bench, Oscar Robertson or Boomer Esiason, but rather for those who hustled, were colorful and/or did things that are burned in this town’s memory like Ickey Woods with his famous touchdown dance, Todd Frazier and his legendary home run derby effort or Ryan Freel and his reckless abandon on the field.
My choice is Hildebrandt, simply because of the ramifications of the effort. Gennett’s feat was more rare and more difficult, but Hildebrandt’s saves could have been the thing that made MLS realize it needs FC Cincinnati. The record books will always show what Scooter did, but Mitch’s feat could shape FC Cincinnati’s future forever.
Dave Niinemets is a Digital Enterprise Editor at WCPO.com and oversees sports content for the digital team.