CINCINNATI — “Mitch says no! Mitch says no! Mitch says no!”
That chant has echoed off the walls of Nippert Stadium many times the past two years, as the FC Cincinnati faithful show support to their beloved goalie. The saying has been plastered on signs and shirts all around the Queen City, as the keeper has become one of the most popular sports figures in the area.
A product of Oakland University, Mitch Hildebrandt has served as the goalie for the upstart club since its inception last season, backstopping a team that has led the United Soccer League in attendance and is pushing to join the country’s top offering: Major League Soccer.
“It’s a very special relationship that has progressed with the fans and myself. I feel very privileged to have been brought to this club,” Hildebrandt said. “To be a part of the start and progression of this very special project in (Cincinnati) is something I don’t take for granted. All I want to do is go out every day and represent this club, city, the fans and my teammates in the right way and play the best I can to help us get results.”
One of those results was a dramatic victory June 28 over the Chicago Fire in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the oldest ongoing national soccer competition. A MLS powerhouse, Chicago was upset by Cincinnati, highlighted by Hildebrandt’s 10 saves in regulation and stellar performance in the subsequent shootout. Cincinnati won 1-0, hitting three PK shots to Chicago’s 1.
In front of a national audience watching on ESPN, and more than 32,000 at Nippert — the second-largest crowd in U.S. Open Cup history — Hildebrandt made three saves in the penalty kick session.
“The most I will remember about the night was the energy of the stadium and city throughout the game and the correlation in the drive and energy of the guys on the pitch,” Hildebrandt said. “The key to the penalties was how relaxed I felt. I didn’t go into it too tense or with a lot of pressure. I went in very confident and I wanted to do my part and repay the 10 in front of me for the 120 minutes they put in to get us here.”
Hildebrandt, a Livonia native, remarked that in his entire career with the Golden Grizzlies, he never managed to stop three shots in a shootout. Against Chicago, the only goal he conceded was to German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger during the penalties. The win propels FC Cincinnati to face Miami FC in the Cup quarterfinals on Aug. 2.
After earning the title of USL Goalkeeper of the Year last season, Hildebrandt has appeared in 30 games this season for FC Cincinnati, conceding only 25 goals, registering 72 saves and posting a sterling 0.86 goals against average. The 28-year-old credits his time at Livonia Stevenson, his club career with the Michigan Wolves, and his time at Oakland as large reasons for his success.
“My time at Stevenson was very special because I got to play under Lars Richters, who is also a very successful coach with the Wolves,” Hildebrandt said. “At Oakland, coach Eric Pogue turned me into the goalkeeper I am today. Not only were the drills and technique work keys to my success, but it was the work ethic and determination I got while training with Eric that made me drive for success.”
Hildebrandt describes Pogue as much more than a coach, calling him a true friend. Before taking over the OU program in 2009, Pogue worked with the Golden Grizzlies as the goalkeeper coach for seven years. He called Hildebrandt one of the finest players he has ever had the pleasure to train.
“As a former goalkeeper myself, I always pride my teams on being a solid defensive-minded group, and that all starts with good goalkeeping,” Pogue said. “When Mitch was here, he was the anchor of the team, always stepping up in that crucial leadership role. Obviously his play on the field is fantastic, too, and it is great to see him having success in his career.”
While at Oakland, Hildebrandt started in goal for three seasons and was named Summit League Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 and Goalie of the Year twice. He served as team captain each of those three seasons, helping lead the Golden Grizzlies to the league championship each year.
“We’ve created a legacy of great goalkeepers from Oakland University, and that’s kind of an exciting thing, but Mitch is also a self-made man,” Pogue said. “When he was here, I saw the work ethic in him, that he had the desire and passion to go on and do great things. What he has achieved is due to his hard work, perseverance and dedication.”
Hildebrandt said he is quite proud of his small school roots, citing his decision to attend Oakland as one of the best things he has ever done. His wife, Amber, played volleyball at OU and currently serves as an assistant coach at Xavier University, a Big East institution located in downtown Cincinnati.
“Oakland has brought me the biggest joy and the most important part of my life,” Hildebrandt said. “I met Amber there, and I’m so lucky to have her because she is not only an amazing person and perfect for me, but she is an an ex-athlete which helps because she understands what I go through physically and mentally that maybe most wouldn’t. The relationship we share to drive, sacrifice and build to be at the top of our crafts is something amazing and very unique, something I cherish very much and is integral to our success, not only individually, but together as a family.”