The 2017 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup was a major coming out party for FC Cincinnati, the latest American soccer success story. The United Soccer League club has gotten the attention of soccer fans around the country by leading the league in attendance and are being talked about as a possible Major League Soccer expansion team.
In just the club’s second year, FC Cincinnati upset two MLS teams en route to an historic run to the Semifinals. One of the main reasons for that accomplishment was the play of goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt. Last year’s USL Goalkeeper of the Year became the first netminder in the Modern Era (1995-present) to earn four shutouts, and he broke the single-tournament shutout streak record by going 464 minutes without allowing a goal. For his performance, the Oakland (Mich.) University product was voted TheCup.us Lower Division Player of the Tournament.
The award is voted on by the staff at TheCup.us and a select panel from the North American Soccer Reporters. Hildebrandt edged out his teammate Djiby Fall, who made history of his own by becoming the first Modern Era player to score four game-winning goals in a single tournament. Also receiving strong support was Christos FC (USASA) goalkeeper Phil Saunders who earned three straight shutouts, including a road upset of the Richmond Kickers (USL).
“It was special,” said Hildebrandt about his team’s run to the Semifinals. “The run through the Open Cup was something very special because that type of run doesn’t happen very often anywhere in the world let alone here in the US. There are club domestic cup competitions all over the world and very rarely does a lower division team make it through that many first division clubs to have a legitimate chance to win.”
Goals were at a premium for FC Cincinnati in the 2017 US Open Cup, leaving a big responsibility to Hildebrandt and his back line. The team needed extra time to escape their opening round game against AFC Cleveland, the defending champion of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). Fall scored the game-winner in the 117th minute as backup goalkeeper Dallas Jaye earned the clean sheet.
Hildebrandt returned to the starting lineup in the next match, a Third Round home game against USL rival Louisville City FC. Fall scored the lone goal early in the second half and Hildebrandt only had to make three saves to earn a second straight 1-0 win.
Round 4 is arguably the most exciting and sought after round in the tournament because Major League Soccer enters the competition. FC Cincinnati was awarded a home game against the Columbus Crew. In front of the biggest crowd to watch a non-Final in the Modern Era (30,160), Fall scored another early second half goal and Hildebrandt made five saves to keep his second straight clean sheet in a 1-0 win.
Hildebrandt had back-to-back shutouts, but it wasn’t until Cincinnati’s Round of 16 home game against the Chicago Fire that he was able to shine on a big stage. The game was broadcast live on ESPN, a rarity for early round Open Cup games, and the FC Cincinnati fans responded by breaking their own record with an announced attendance of 32,287.
Playing against one of the top offensive teams in MLS, Hildebrandt made 10 saves and held the Fire scoreless through 120 minutes. The two teams went to penalty kicks and Mitch saved three of the Fire’s four spot kick attempts to send his club to the Quarterfinals. He was just the ninth goalkeeper in the Modern Era to make three saves in a shootout. For his performance, he was a near-unanimous selection for TheCup.us Player of the Round.
In the Quarterfinals, Hildebrandt faced another top offense in Miami FC, the spring champions of the NASL. For the first time in the 2017 tournament, Cincinnati had to play on the road. Despite having the crowd against them, Fall, Hildebrandt and the defense earned a familiar result. Fall scored an early second half goal and Hildebrandt only had to make three saves to earn another 1-0 victory. One of those three saves came against Player of the Tournament nominee Kwadwo Poku in the final minutes to preserve the win.
In the Semifinals against the New York Red Bulls, FC Cincinnati was back at home at Nippert Stadium in front of another record crowd. With 33,250 fans in the stands, according to TheCup.us records, it marked the second-largest crowd to ever watch a US Open Cup match (the 2011 Final hosted by the Seattle Sounders FC drew 35,615). Djiby Fall had scored all four of Cincinnati’s goals in the tournament but he was suspended due to yellow card accumulation. This led many to speculate that the game would be another defensive battle, but instead of was Cincinnati jumping out to a 2-0 lead with less than 30 minutes remaining. Hildebrandt and the defense kept the Red Bulls off the scoresheet until the 75th minute. Then, in three minutes, Hildebrandt’s record shutout streak, and Cincinnati’s lead were gone. Gonzalo Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips scored back to back goals to tie the game at 2-2. Wright-Phillips would later score the game-winner in the 101st minute of extra time to deny FC Cincinnati a trip to the championship game.
In the end, FC Cincinnati’s run to the final four was one that fans of the tournament won’t soon forget and Hildebrant’s performance was one for the record books. In addition to his single-tournament shutout streak record, he also clocked 543 minutes of scoreless soccer dating back to last year’s tournament to break the individual shutout streak record set by Jon Conway (473 mins.) with the San Jose Earthquakes from 2000-01.
“Credit goes to the entire team,” said Hildebrandt about his record-breaking performance. “Looking back, obviously to the Chicago match, our guys ran and fought for 120 minutes and people tend to forget that and are blinded by just the ending. But the whole tournament our team battled and defended as a group front to back. I had to make saves when called on but most of the time, considering the teams we were playing, they made my job pretty straight forward.”