Defending, at its core, is about protecting your home. You stand in front of what’s important and keep it safe, putting your body and your wits, your own security, between home and a threat. Every FC Cincinnati player understands this. Each is a lookout. A barrier. A Sentinel. “It’s all eleven guys on the field; it starts up front and goes right through the spine of the team” said Mitch Hildebrandt, goalkeeper and hero of FC Cincinnati’s 2017 fantasy run to the U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinals.
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These ambitious strivers from the second division United Soccer League (USL) are protecting more than a record. They’re doing more than just keeping their Open Cup run alive. They’re standing up for something new and growing, something special and fragile in the city of Cincinnati that’s caught like wildfire. Deep in the heart of American Football Country hides the biggest story in American soccer today. In four Open Cup games – including two against Major League Soccer sides – FC Cincinnati haven’t conceded a single goal. Not one. Including extra-time against Chicago Fire, that’s approximately 400 minutes of consecutive play without anything getting past Hildebrandt and his men. Nothing more hostile than a breeze off the Ohio River has rippled their net. Hell, they’ve only scored three, but that’s all you need when you don’t concede.
“Those games, the ones against top teams, you dream about those as a kid,” said Austin Berry, captain and a Cincinnati native. He’s the man who stands in front of Hildebrandt and tackles like his life depends on it. He shouts and snarls and leaps into the air to send the ball, defiantly and without debate, back where it came from. “As captain, I don’t have to say much to get the guys up for those. There’s not much motivation needed.”
Goalkeeper & Gatekeeper
Hildebrandt hails from Michigan. He played his college soccer there at humble Oakland University. He’s modest to his core and he saved three penalties in the shootout against Chicago. Three. Out of four. The explosion that followed the winning save might have cracked the century-old foundations of Nippert Stadium and was heard throughout the City, never widely known as a soccer hotbed. Last year’s USL goalkeeper of the year, the 28-year-old Hildebrandt passes the credit around. He spent most of his professional life on a bench. He never got his chance when MLS scouts were watching, but he’s found a home in Cincinnati. And he’s desperate to protect it.
Home. Adopted. Family. Movement. Revolution. These are words used around Nippert Stadium without irony, without knowing winks or arrogance. This club – which didn’t exist 21 months ago – is supported with force. Grandmas and granddads come out on gamedays, where the PA announcer implores the fans to throw balls back onto the field if they end up in the stands (“unlike baseball”) and pleads for civility toward refs and opposing players. Those pleas go largely unheeded. Little kids are there too, boys and girls in FC Cincinnati jerseys with the names of their favorites printed on the back. McLaughlin. Berry. König. Walk around town. Stop by some of the bars in the University area and have a beer. Every other person in through the saloon door seems to be wearing orange, blue and white. USL schedules hang in the front windows. You can order a can of FC Cincinnati-themed beer, tinged with blood orange and made special by a local brewer caught up in a moment and a movement. A thousand fans march through the streets 30 minutes before kick-off and grow in volume and mass like a snowball rolling down a hill.
All Hands on Deck
“We’re not just watching sports when we’re here,” said Payne Rankin, president of the Pride, one of six officially recognized supporters groups that sprang up around the team. He’s leaning against the railing of the empty Bailey and describing the way grown men cried when the winning goal went in below him in the north goal against Columbus. He and his fellow fans festoon the Bailey with homemade signs on gameday. One has Hildebrandt’s scowling face on it and a dialogue bubble saying Mitch Says No. It’s a favorite chant of the Bailey when their beloved ‘keeper repels an attack. Another banner has captain and hometown hero Berry staring cold-eyed out under the words: He’s one of us!” Rankin and the fans up there are defending something too. “Whatever stupid thing we can do to help the team, help Mitch and Austin, we’re doing it.”
The defensive spine that Hildebrandt talks about extends farther than he can even imagine. It starts up front with Djiby (pronounced Djee-Bee) Fall, who’s scored three match-winners in four Open Cup games. He’s a 15-year veteran pro from Senegal who’s played in more countries than you can count on one hand and half of the other. But he was moved to tears by the shockwave of enthusiasm that greeted his winning goal against Columbus in the Fourth Round. That spine weaves itself back through the midfield like Kevlar and spreads out at the backline, off the broad shoulders of Berry and the spring-loaded Hildebrandt. It goes up into the Bailey as it bounces and sways and chokes in colored smoke that swirls in the vivid summer sunsets. And from there, that spine extends out in all directions through the city like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It runs over the highways and rusted railway bridges and up through the radio antennas too. It’s everywhere, this pride and belief in something that wasn’t anything 21 months ago.
FC Cincinnati have yet to play an Open Cup game away from home. Nippert has always been there, part of the team. The 12th man. Whatever cliché you like. It’s been part of this Cup run. But that roar won’t be there in Miami on Wednesday in the Quarterfinal. No incessant banging behind Hildebrandt, just the echo of a memory. Some fans will travel. Some are in South Florida already. It means that much to them. But it won’t be the 32,287 souls that turned up for the Chicago Fire game. “My parents booked their flights to Miami about 20 minutes after the last penalty against Chicago,” joked captain Berry, a man who had a moment in MLS, with Chicago Fire coincidentally, before being passed on as surplus to requirements. He’s found home again, right where it always was – in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Not a lot of athletes get the chance to play in their home town,” Berry said, his voice dissipating in the empty stadium, the day before a final home league game against Richmond Kickers. A day before they leave home and go away. Maybe it’s a sign that Richmond, in 2011, became the last non-MLS team to reach an Open Cup Semifinal. Maybe it’s not. “My little cousins and friends I grew up with are up there in the stands and that feeling, seeing their faces, is something so special.”
Everyone’s asking the same question, or they’re thinking it. Can FC Cincinnati win away from home? There’s that word again. Home. Miami FC are a second-division team too, but they have a huge budget and big names and they’ve scored 11 goals so far in their four Open Cup games. That’s a lot for even Cincinnati’s defense to repel. Can they do it without the Bailey and the chaos and the sea of blue and orange and white? Without Nippert?
“It’s a different field and a different surface,” said Berry, who grew up with people wondering why he played soccer and not real football like they do in Ohio. But when he talks about home his face lights up, this gladiator who’d frighten any attacker on any field. You get the sense that stored up in him, and Mitch Hildebrandt and each member of this battling squad, is the essence of Nippert. Of the Bailey. Of Cincinnati, Ohio. Will that be enough home to get them to the Semifinals, to win the day in steamy Miami all that long way away? Impossible to say, but better not bet against it. “We’ll just need to defend,” added the captain with a smile. Maybe it wasn’t just the noonday sun in his eyes – he might have winked. “We’ll have to keep tight and not get stretched. It’s a lot of the stuff we’ve done, and it’s working so far.”