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Hildebrandt ‘Says No’ Campaign Prospers

By CHARLIE CORR -, 10/31/16, 1:31PM EDT


2016 USL Goalkeeper of the Year takes Cincinnati by storm

Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati

When FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt made one of his first saves during preseason action against Xavier, it sparked a chant that blossomed throughout the club’s first USL season: “Mitch Says No.”

“I had one save – a roller – and somebody said it out of nowhere,” Hildebrandt said. “There were only a couple thousand fans there, but it picked up in our first home game with 17,000. Then afterwards, it started throughout the entire stadium.”

Hildebrandt’s play in the back was a defining element during Cincinnati’s action-packed campaign, and for his efforts the 27-year-old goalkeeper was honored as the 2016 USL Goalkeeper of the Year.

The connection between Hildebrandt and the FCC fans – and in particular The Bailey section on the north end of Nippert Stadium – was an organic relationship within one of the most vocally pronounced and well-attended venues in North American soccer. The embrace was felt within the resounding chant and the signage and memorabilia that spawned from it.

“I never saw it, but there was a big Tifo of my face of a picture they took after the Charleston game where I had a gash to the eye. It took up the entire Bailey, had my face and a bubble that said ‘No,’” Hildebrandt said. “That was a good one. I’ve seen some other signs at the club level that say ‘Just Say No.’ My wife showed me some pumpkins out there that say ‘Mitch Says No.’ A lot of the young fans who ask for an autograph want me to write ‘Say No.’ It’s a cool thing to be a part of.”

Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati

Hildebrandt was one of FCC’s original signings back in December of 2015, and as a new organization there were some hurdles to overcome in the early stages. For starters, it took Hildebrandt and Co. nine games to come up with the club’s first clean sheet.

“It was tough the first half of the season getting on the same page,” Hildebrandt said. “It was really tough defensively. We had Sean [Okoli] up top scoring goals, but we couldn’t buy a clean sheet. We’d have 2-1 games, 3-1 games, and the goals we gave up were in the 85th minute or sometime late on, so it was discouraging. It was kind of my first season as a starter and that made it really tough for me mentally. We’d go into training and figure out how to fix it, but it was nothing we were doing wrong. They were situations we hadn’t seen before.”

Cincinnati’s defense improved immensely as the season progressed to the tune of four consecutive clean sheets to close out the regular season. Though FCC would bow out in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the USL Cup Playoffs, the opening campaign was a rousing success collectively, and Hildebrandt and the back line played a big role overall.

“Obviously it’s a great honor when you’re given this reputation, but as a goalkeeper there are a lot of things to be grateful for, and one thing is my back line,” Hildebrandt said. “Those guys were solid, and they made the game easy for me a lot of the times. It’s nice to receive the recognition, and I’m striving to get better.”

One in-season adjustment the back line battled through was playing within its home confines. As beneficial as the Nippert Stadium crowd was in backing FCC, Hildebrandt noted that it took some doing to communicate within that noisy setting, so much so that at times he wasn’t audible even if one of his defenders was standing at the edge of the 18-yard box.

“None of us were used to playing in front of 20,000 fans every game,” Hildebrandt said. “Learning how to deal with that, especially as an organization, was something to get used to. In training, I would try to get the guys to look at me. I wouldn’t necessarily talk. I’d use signals. They need to look at me, and I’ll remind them that when we’re at home, look at me, and that paid off. The crowd altered the way we played, and for opposing teams, they’re not used to that at all and it can affect them.”

Hildebrandt led all USL goalkeepers with 2,608 regular-season minutes while also posting nine clean sheets. Along the way, he added a number of highlight reel saves (72 total), including double-save during a victory against Toronto FC II that earned the No. 3 spot on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10.

For as strong as Hildebrandt’s season was, the Michigan native continues to forge ahead knowing he can reach another level in his game.

“I have a long list of things to try and improve,” Hildebrandt said. “I’m not sure if I’m a perfectionist, but I’m never satisfied and always want to be better. I’m not sure if that’s a fault, but that’s always the way I’ve been. I have a long list goalkeeping-wise to work on. Mainly I just want to continue to build my sharpness.

“I don’t think I’ve hit my peak, which is exciting for me.” 

Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati

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