CINCINNATI -- Harrison Delbridge gets a reminder of home every time he runs out of the FC Cincinnati locker room to “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chants directed by the lower east corner of The Bailey supporters’ section on game days.
The 25-year-old defender hasn’t lived in his native Australia since moving to the States as a small child, but Delbridge embraces his heritage and takes pride in representing his homeland. He cooks Australian steaks and barbecue for his roommates and makes them watch his country’s national team games on television in return, and he’s still got the accent to back up his roots.
“The guys up in the Bailey that sit in the corner right next to me have all the Aussie flags and the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ chant that I appreciate,” Delbridge said. “It's awesome, so it's fun to walk out of the locker room every game and hear that. It's a nice reminder. (Australia) is something that's close to me. My whole extended family is back there, so it's a nice reminder where I come from when I see the Aussie flags.”
Driven by his past and goals for an even brighter future, Delbridge has become a key cog in FC Cincinnati’s rise from an unknown as a United Soccer League expansion club last year to U.S. Open Cup spoiler.
The 6-foot-4 center back -- a dominant presence on the back line -- has helped FC Cincinnati to a sixth-place standing in the USL this season and a Cinderella run to the Cup quarterfinals, where the Orange and Blue meet Miami FC on Wednesday at Florida International University. The winner hosts Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls in the semifinals -- Aug. 9 if Miami wins; Aug. 15 if FC Cincinnati wins. Either way, it will be the first lower division club to make the final four since 2011.
“Harry really does it all,” said FC Cincinnati forward Jimmy McLaughlin, who is one of Delbridge’s roommates. “He's a massive piece for this team and for this club. It's obvious. You see his incredible, last-ditch tackles and incredible defensive plays throughout the game, but he's just as important on the offensive side too. He's the guy that starts the attack. He's usually making the first pass to break the lines, and that's something I don't think many people notice as much as his defensive attributes. He's the full package.”
A vital weapon
FC Cincinnati originally was set to play Miami on July 12, but the match never began because of storms and ended up postponed. The delay proved beneficial for Delbridge and his club, as he was not available at that time because of an abdominal strain that sidelined him for two weeks.
Delbridge makes the trip to Miami this time, healthy and anxious to contribute against a high-scoring Miami squad that won the North American Soccer League spring championship and has outscored its four Cup opponents 11-5.
“I hate having to sit out and watch, so I'm happy to be healthy and hopefully we can get down there and give them a game and make it to another round because we would love to play at home,” Delbridge said.
FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said he was confident in the lineup he planned to trot out three weeks ago, even though defenders Austin Berry and Justin Hoyte also were not available. However, it’s comforting as a coach to have all his weapons available.
Delbridge’s absence was felt while he was out, particularly in a 2-0 loss at Tampa Bay on July 6. He leads the Orange and Blue with 80 clearances, 69 interceptions, 120 duels won (on 183 chances) and is second on the team with three assists in 18 league matches and fourth in goals with two in 18 league matches.
“He's an absolute competitor,” Koch said. “Harrison is one who is going to go out and give everything he's got every single game, and obviously he had injury for a little while and you could tell we missed him. That's why we really have to manage him, too. We sometimes have to pull him back in because he's chomping at the bit to go out every single day in training and he's like that in every single game he plays. He has that winning mentality you have to have as a big-time athlete.”
A chance to shine
Delbridge didn’t always have the opportunity to contribute like he has with FC Cincinnati.
As a rookie with the Sacramento Republic in 2014, the former Appalachian State University captain played just 1,202 minutes through 16 appearances in 28 possible games for the USL champions. He saw a little more time the next year with Portland Timbers 2, making 18 starts, but didn’t become a true impact player until arriving in Cincinnati last year.
Even while missing two games to injury, Delbridge is third on the team in minutes with 1,617 through 21 possible appearances this season. He was second last year with 2,427 minutes over 29 appearances.
“I've been given opportunities to progress here in Cincinnati that maybe I didn't get other places, but I think that's part of a career," Delbridge said. "Sometimes when you're younger, you have to get in battle to try to get playing time and you don't always get the same amount of opportunities you want or feel like you deserve. Coming here and being shown the respect and being given the opportunity, it's been an opportunity I wanted to make the most of, and hopefully the coaches I play for see that I'm doing everything I can to make the most of the time they give me.”
After bouncing from team to team his first three years as a professional, Delbridge said he has become more focused as a player in Cincinnati.
Part of that has been just learning how to work hard in training and in games but also balancing that with relaxation off the field. His laid-back personality away from the pitch comes naturally as a trait common among Australians; however, it took some realizing to understand to turn that on and off during the season.
“I'm a pretty chill, easygoing person,” said Delbridge, who enjoys daily surfing with his dad in California during the offseason and helps his brother, Quinn Lewis, with artwork for his music. “Away from the game, I like to relax and hang out with the team, play some golf and grab a bite to eat, but it’s business time once I’m on the field. That's another thing I've had to learn in my career is learning to bring that focus when you have to train and then being able to relax when you're away from the game.”
Developing as a leader
Delbridge’s goal this season was just to become more consistent and more of a leader his teammates could count on.
As a center back, he’s done exactly that, while also being able to utilize some of the skills he learned as a forward growing up. Delbridge didn’t switch to defense until his freshman year of college when he started to grow to his 6-foot-4 height. He had always been the smallest player on the field until the age of 18.
His finishing skills came in handy in the last round of the U.S. Open Cup when he stepped up to the penalty mark and buried his shot to help FC Cincinnati beat MLS side Chicago Fire 3-1 in penalty kicks.
“I've learned from some great people and I think growing up playing the different positions I did has helped me with footwork as a center back being a taller guy,” Delbridge said. “I was 18 when I actually grew so before that, I was the smallest guy on every team I played on, so I had to experience a lot of different stuff and get better with my feet and be able to finish and stuff like that. Everything that has happened in my career, I look back on and am grateful for.”
Delbridge still hopes to one day get a chance to play for his country’s national team but in the meantime, he’s soaking up every minute of his career and determined to enjoy success with his club.
“You never know what's going to happen,” he said. “You're under a contract for so many years and if you don't show them, just like in any business, there's not going to be people that are interested in having you around. You need to have the goods and perform. Sometimes young players don't realize that and end up flat-lining, and I definitely don't want that to happen so I want to take every opportunity I can to take a step forward in my game and learn from the players and coaches I have around me.”