Mitch Hildebrandt has been having a US Open Cup run for the ages, culminating with his performance against the Chicago Fire in which he made 10 saves and stopped three out of four penalty kick attempts to lift FC Cincinnati into the Quarterfinals. The game finished scoreless and Cincinnati won the shootout 3-1. Hildebrandt has yet to allow a goal in the tournament despite having two games go to overtime, which is approaching a pair of Modern Era records.
His performance against the Fire made him a near-unanimous winner of TheCup.us Player of the Round award. He received first place votes on every ballot except for two. The player that earned those stray first place votes was the other contestant of what was essentially a two-horse race: Kwadwo Poku of Miami FC (NASL). Poku assisted on the opening goal and scored a dramatic game-winner for Miami FC in the club’s 3-2 upset of Atlanta United (MLS). The award is voted on by the staff at TheCup.us and a select panel from the North American Soccer Reporters.
After his stellar netminding, the Livonia, Mich. native talked about what it was like to have so much pressure on his shoulders.
“The team was absolutely unbelievable. The amount of work they put in for 120 minutes…I can’t even fathom how they feel right now,” Hildebrandt said, “You dream of moment. Bottom of the ninth hitting a home run in the world series, that’s the American version of this. You just want to be there for your team. You try not to think about any of the pressure. A World Cup winner stands up to take a penalty against you you try to forget who he is and try to stop the ball. It’s exciting.”
His performance drew national attention, as the game was featured on ESPN. This was the first time a US Open Cup game that wasn’t a Final or a Semifinal was aired on an ESPN channel.
“I was getting calls and texts from family and friends back home and across the country. It was special because there’s not a lot of times they can see our games, especially in the Open Cup,” Hildebrandt said, “to have it on ESPN and an audience be able to tune in that maybe wouldn’t be able to was special. For that moment to happen, to share it here at home where my wife and family and friends are was special.”
Hildebrandt did not have an easy road to becoming a professional goal keeper. After a strong career in college with the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, he moved on to join the Michigan Bucks in the Premier Development League (coincidentally, he backed up former Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark in both locations before starting himself). His head coach at Oakland, Eric Pogue, has developed a reputation for recruiting and developing some top goalkeepers, a position that Pogue excelled at during his playing days. In fact, like Hildebrandt, Pogue also made some US Open Cup history by upsetting a MLS team. In 2000, Pogue was the goalkeeper for the Michigan Bucks that shutout the New England Revolution 1-0 in Foxborough.
After two years and 32 appearances with the Bucks, Hildebrandt joined Minnesota United of the NASL. Despite spending four years with Minnesota, he only made 15 appearances.
“I spent four years in Minnesota, all four as a backup. I paid my dues and bide my time. It was frustrating obviously. I was away from my wife for four years, not getting games, wondering what was going on. It’s tough mentally and straining, but when you look back on it it helped me form a career and get better and get me to the stage where I want to be,” Hildebrandt said,” I went through a difficult time and now I’m in a spot where I can rise.”
Hildebradnt latched on right away in Cincinnati, making the USL All-League Team and being named Goalkeeper of the Year in 2016.
“The city has taken to this club and it’s been a very very special thing that has happened here. To be a part of it and to be one of the original players here, I take it to heart. You’re helping build something here…for the staff to believe in me when I wasn’t having regular games in Minnesota…I still to this day try to step on the pitch and prove them right,” Hildebrandt said.
After four straight clean sheets in this tournament, Hildebrandt is 154 minutes of scoreless soccer away from breaking the Modern Era’s single-tournament record for a shutout streak (Chris Eylander, Seattle Sounders – 453 minutes). Hildebrandt is also on the verge of another record with his personal Open Cup shutout streak of 379 minutes which is fast approaching Jon Conway’s record of 473 minutes that was set with the San Jose Earthquakes between the 2000 and 2001 tournaments.
FC Cincinnati will play recently-crowned NASL Spring champions Miami FC on July 12 for a spot in the Semifinals. Despite being underdogs on paper in nearly every Open Cup match this year, Hildebrandt doesn’t see the team as such.
“I think we’ve proven that we have a good a chance as anybody. If you look at our roster, I don’t think that we are an underdog. If you look at the size of our club, I don’t think that we are an underdog. The only thing that made us an underdog in the last two games was the league, second division versus first division,” Hildebrandt said, “Going down to Miami, they’re flying high, but we’re right there with them … it’s a one-game competition and everyone is feeling really good and really believing in each other right now.”
2017 TheCup.us Player of the Round winners
Round 1: Pete Caringi III (Christos FC, USASA)
Round 2: Phil Saunders (Christos FC, USASA)
Round 3: Fabian Cerda (Tulsa Roughnecks, USL)
Round 4: Stefano Pinho (Miami FC, NASL)
Round 5: Mitch Hildebrandt (FC Cincinnati, USL)