Players I’m Going to Miss – Mitch Hildebrandt

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Before the preseason begins, Orange & Blue Press is covering some of the players who have moved away from the squad in efforts to further themselves either on or off the pitch. While some have retired, others have moved to bigger athletic challenges…

When the first Starting XI for FC Cincinnati was announced with Mitch Hildebrandt as the goalkeeper, there were admittedly some big gloves to fill from the onset. However, people that did their homework understood that Mitch had been slowly gaining confidence since turning pro in 2012, playing half the games for Minnesota United in the 2015 season.

Little did people in the Queen City realize that a team-building legend was being born in the process.

While it took a few weeks before the communication between defensive line and keeper stabilized, Hildebrandt became a bedrock for the 2016 FC Cincinnati season and a keystone that bridged the span between team and supporters. Mitch’s double-save effort against Toronto FC II in April 2016 gave FC Cincy its second SportsCenter Top 10 mention in three weeks, and his performances steamrolled from there.

Photos courtesy Ryan MeyerJoe Schmuck, and Joe Craven

Hildebrandt may not have burned down the record books in 2016, but considering he played in every game during the regular season, he put up iron-man numbers, playing the most minutes of any goalkeeper in the USL while giving up only 25 goals in the process (0.86 GPG). While the clean sheets were not as plentiful in 2017, Hildebrandt still played over 2,800 minutes and made 105 saves over 32 games.

Favorite Moments

Call it cliché to focus on the 2017 US Open Cup for most of Mitch’s work, but the other three games of Hildebrandt’s four-game clean-sheet run against Louisville, Columbus, and Miami often go forgotten in comparison to his incredible performance versus the Fire. Surprisingly, all of Hildebrandt’s 10 saves came after halftime. Of course, you all know what came next once PKs had started…

Even if you leave out the heroics from the US Open Cup run, the calls of “Mitch Says No!” were still quite loud from his performances during regular-season penalty kicks. The opposite hand sprawl save vs. Rochester was a defining moment of the 2016 season, while his last-second “three-point save” against Charlotte likely lifted the team into the 2017 playoffs.

The clutch saves from Hildebrandt often led to his celebratory claps with the Bailey after a home win, something that’s going to be hard to replace now that he’s moved down to Atlanta.

The Bad News (and the Good News)

Mitch absorbed a lot of punishment down the stretch in 2017 from a deteriorating defense, and after the crushing playoff exit against Tampa Bay, it appeared that he would have to compete to get his starting spot in net. Perhaps that was the writing on the wall, as Hildebrandt signed with Atlanta soon after the season ended, trading in one mesmerizing fan atmosphere for another.

However, while the cords sometimes get severed when a popular player leaves the squad, Hildebrandt was courteous and humble in his departure. He returned shortly after the announcement to help auction off his gear for charity and worked closely with Listermann Brewing to create a series of beers to honor military veterans and his late father.

There may end up being a complex silver lining in the end. Since the signing, Atlanta has announced their own “United 2” USL team, so if Hildebrandt isn’t able to ascend the ladder to get a place on the MLS squad, there’s an awfully good chance that Mitch will come back to Cincinnati on May 5th to say “No!” once again at Nippert Stadium. (Granted, it will be for the other team, so that’s a bittersweet pill to swallow.)

Who Can Replace Him?

FC Cincinnati finds themselves in a position they were in two years ago, as all three goalkeepers from last season are no longer with the team. This has forced Coach Koch to seek out another batch of net-minders to protect the pipes, and in the process, he’s brought in Jack Stern, FCC’s third goalkeeper coach in three years. Stern’s work with West Bromwich Albion in the English Premier League and Montreal Impact in the MLS could be the kick needed to keep the level of goalkeeper play high despite the turnover.

FC Cincinnati managed to sign three capable keepers who all could likely fill the role left by Hildebrandt. In terms of USL seniority and capacity, Evan Newton is likely the first name to be circled. The 29-year-old Newton took the starting GK role in 2017 at Sacramento and played very admirably, making 73 saves and gathering 7 clean sheets in 26 starts (2,370 minutes). While Hildebrandt’s PK performance against Chicago was impressive, Newton himself was a wall in the 2017 playoffs—facing the #1 seed Real Monarchs in the first round, Newton stymied the Monarchs in PKs, saving two of the four shots he faced. His experience could be the decider for the starting position.

If FCC opts to trust youth and MLS experience, they could put their stock in Spencer Richey, who is on loan from the Vancouver Whitecaps. The 25-year-old Richey played most of the games with the Vancouver USL affiliate over the past three years, meaning that he has worked quite a bit with Koch as his head coach. While his USL numbers (3 clean sheets, 1.29 GPG) have been average, he performed well for the Vancouver MLS side early last season in the Canadian Championship semifinal and CONCACAF Champions League.

The longest shot to start is Mark Village, who also played for Vancouver Whitecaps 2 over the past few years. Unlike Newton and Richey, the 25-year-old Village has only one professional game under his belt, picking up 4 saves in a 1-1 tie against Real Monarchs late last season. (He did get USL October Save of the Month in that one game, denying now-teammate Daniel Haber in the process.)

The other big consideration is the distribution of minutes for all three goalkeepers. Hildebrandt’s star status in Cincinnati meant that he played an incredibly high number of minutes, topping the USL in that category the past two years. An argument could be made that Hildebrandt burned out late last season from overuse, while backups Dallas Jaye and Dan Williams were saved more for US Open Cup and friendly matchups. Coach Koch may have to be flexible with his new three-man squad, and Cincinnati fans will have to think of new chants for their keepers.

Even “Mitch-A-Palooza” Must End

It was quite likely that all of Cincinnati knew Hildebrandt would be in high demand after his USOC performances against Columbus and Chicago. While there may be a low probability Mitch gets the starting nod over Brad Guzan in net, it is wonderful to see him get his shot as the next FCC original to make the step to the MLS.

That doesn’t make the parting that much easier. We owe a lot to Mitch for making our Orange & Blue so much fun to cheer for, and it will be difficult to fill the void when the first big save of 2018 is made. We are gracious for every sprawl, catch, and victory clap you gave us in the Queen City, Mitch—while this isn’t a permanent goodbye, here’s hoping that there are many more times you say “no” in the future.

Thank you.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more coverage of the FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season.

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Author: Geoffrey Tebbetts

Contributor for the Orange & Blue Press for FC Cincinnati coverage.

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