Before Mitch Hildebrandt joined FC Cincinnati, he wasn’t aware of how much of a soccer hotbed the Ohio city was.
Each and every time Hildebrandt puts on the blue and orange of the USL club, he’s captivated by the support the team has generated. And now, the nation has been captivated as well by the large crowds the club has produced for its U.S. Open Cup and league home matches.
“I’ve said that ever since I got here the city was hurting for a soccer team. I didn’t know that Cincinnati was such a soccer hotspot, but it really is,” Hildebrandt told SBI. “The following that this club has and support it has from the city, not just the fans, but the local government, the businesses in town, everything, it’s been a very special place and I feel honored to put that badge on everyday.”
“There’s nothing like it. We rival Portland and Seattle for probably the best atmosphere in the country,” Hildebrandt said. “Here it’s so special because the entire city is behind us. You see blue and orange walking down the streets of Cincinnati and everybody knows everybody’s name if you play every minute or haven’t played a single minute. Our fans know who the players are, and they’re so nice, you can just sit down and have a conversation with them. They’re super knowledgeable about the game.”
Tuesday’s night semifinal against the New York Red Bulls is the most important match in franchise history to date. The last remaining lower league side in the Open Cup has a chance to become the first team from outside MLS to qualify for final since the Charleston Battery in 2008.
They will have the chance to do so with a boisterous sellout crowd at Nippert Stadium behind them as they take on the New York Red Bulls, who themselves are looking for a return to the final for the first time since 2003.
“Bringing the semifinal back to the city and our fans and have them be a part of it is something special,” Hildebrandt said. “We had 200 or 300 fans that traveled all the way down to Miami the second time. It just shows the support this club has from the city and for us to have them for the game against the Red Bulls, who is a great team and is flying right now, to have them cheering for us, it’s going to be a special night.”
Hildebrandt has been the hero of the Open Cup run for Cincinnati, as he’s posted five consecutive shutouts, and he came up huge in the shootout win at home over the Chicago Fire in the fifth round of the competition. But Hildebrandt is quick to credit the other players on the field for the success as well.
“I think all credit goes to the 10 guys in front of me and it’s been different every time we played,” Hildebrandt said. “From up and down throughout our team, everybody deserves those shutouts, not just me. Yeah, I was there to make a couple saves to go on, but you look at the Chicago match those guys are busting their butts for 120 minutes and same thing 90 minutes against Columbus and they played their hearts out every single game.”
While Tuesday’s match might only be for a spot in the Open Cup final, one has to think it’s also a test for the city to show off its tremendous support on a big stage with the MLS expansion process in full gear.
“I think it would be the best atmosphere in the league 100 percent,” Hildebrandt said. “You look at our fan base and we were probably averaging 14-15,000 and now we’re averaging 20,000 so it’s only getting bigger and it’s only going to grow from here. And with the MLS bid, you’d have the regional rivalry with Columbus, Kansas City and Minnesota. I think it’d be great for the league, but I don’t make those decisions.
“Don Garber has some decisions to make and I’m sure he’ll do what’s best for the league, but my job right now is to help us win soccer games,” Hildebrandt said. “All I can do is control what I do on the field and we have an amazing staff in the front office led by Jeff Berding, our GM, that’s concentrating on the future plans of the clubs. My job is to come in every Saturday and help us win on the field.”
While most didn’t expect to see Cincinnati get more showcase games for its home fans during the Open Cup, the players believed in themselves all along, which is something they’ll have to hold on to while taking on the powerhouse that is the Red Bulls on Tuesday night.
“It’s very special for us making history being the last lower division team in, but I think with our roster, we were perfectly capable of doing this the entire time,” Hildebrandt said.