By any measure, FC Cincinnati’s season was one of the biggest successes in North American soccer in 2016.
As a debut club, FCC averaged over 17,000 people per match with a third-division USL side. (To wit, that’s more than five MLS clubs did this season and neck-and-neck with a sixth; also, that’s over twice as much as any NASL club did.) On the field, coach John Harkes led a freshly-cobbled roster into the postseason.
The club also succeeded in bringing competitive individual talents into the league. None of these soared higher with the extra minutes than goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt.
In four years with Minnesota United, Hildebrandt started fifteen matches. He had come out of college and signed with the then-Minnesota Stars. Serving as the primary backup to Matt VanOekel and Sammy Ndjock from 2012-2015, Hildebrandt used the opportunity to train with the club and work on refining his game.
Hildebrandt wasn’t the only former Loon to start every match for FC Cincinnati in 2016. Left back Tyler Polak took the most of his chances. This is the story of his progression.
“I believe that I had success in Minnesota,” Hildebrandt reflected. “We got to the playoffs when we were there. That said, I wasn’t a big part of the team aside from in training.
“I think a big thing when I signed with Cincy was having John Harkes as a coach. I had a few conversations with him and they were really interested in me. I wanted an opportunity to prove myself. I found a team that wanted me to come in and help the organization, and that was a big draw. Building out of the back fits my game, and we have guys like Kenney Walker, Austin Berry, and Corben Bone around me. With the experience of John, it all felt good.”
One of the biggest challenges Hildebrandt found with the new club was creating a cohesion with an equally-new backline. The club didn’t keep a clean sheet for nearly two months. However, he was able to work with the defense and the coaches to create a game plan that allowed the full backs to alternate their attacking runs and not leave the center backs isolated.
During this early part of the season, the fans took a liking to Hildebrandt, too. Eventually, the affection took on a three word slogan: Mitch Says No.
“I don’t know how it really started,” Hildebrandt admits. “Our supporters section started shouting “Mitch Says No” after a few saves. It really took off from there, all across the city. There’s t-shirts that say it around the city, the younger kids want me to sign their shirts with an autograph and the quote. We did a driving drunk commercial about safety and they wanted me to say “Mitch says no” to that, too. The way that I see it, the more times they say it, the more times I’m doing my job. If you’re not yelling it, then I’m not doing something right.”
All told, Hildebrandt made 72 saves across 30 matches. He carried a 0.86 goals allowed average (GAA) while starting every match for FC Cincinnati, boasting a 74.2% save percentage as well. He was named to the USL Best XI after the season, and on October 31st he was announced as the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year (as voted on by team management and a media panel from every USL market.
There’s a tradition in sports that comes with winning major awards. When players win MVP trophies or similar plaudits, they’ll often give gifts to teammates that helped them along the way. Football quarterbacks usually focus on the offensive line, while Real Madrid winger Cristiano Ronaldo gave his teammate $10,000 watches (with ‘CR7’ engraved into them, of course). So with these accolades in his possession, what did Hildebrandt treat his backline to?
“If I was making as much money as Sam Bradford does, I’d certainly buy my backline some watches,” Hildebrandt jokes, acknowledging the pay gap between US soccer leagues and the NFL. “There’s definitely a connection with the guys here, especially with me and Tyler having played together in Minnesota. I brought in donuts for the boys after the win during a regeneration session. I try to do what I can, but maybe in a couple years (if) we’re MLS, we’ll do something more.”
The MLS question is one that’s hanging in the balance for Cincinnati and other markets. As Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United gear up to join MLS in 2017, there was an expectation that two more teams would follow suit in 2018. LAFC has been confirmed for over a year and has been actively working to get ready for this date. Their supposed partner (David Beckham’s Miami club) has been much less successful, suffering hiccups between financial backing and a lack of a stadium plan.
This has left two markets in the mix for 2018 entry: FC Cincinnati and fellow USL darlings Sacramento Republic FC. While any idea of a second expansion side that year is entirely speculative at this point, Cincy looks to be making all of the right moves in this direction. MLS commissioner Don Garber will be in Cincinnati for a town hall meeting on November 29th. Meanwhile, President and General Manager Jeff Berding is off to Europe to “plant seeds” in England and Amsterdam this coming month.
Whatever the end result for both the club and Hildebrandt, 2016 will always be looked at as a launching point for the rest of their respective tenures.