CINCINNATI — Mitch Hildebrandt stood alert on his goal line, waiting.
After two saves in the three previous penalty shootout attempts, Hildebrandt stared at Juninho.
“Honestly, I just try to react,” he said. “Mainly, I try to stand my ground.”
He did, diving to his left, parrying the ball for his third save. And then he made another reaction: a sprint to the corner to celebrate.
Hildebrandt was the hero in FC Cincinnati’s upset win over the Chicago Fire, 3-1 in penalties on Wednesday night at Nippert Stadium, where Cincinnati, a club in only their second season, advanced to the 2017 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals.
“It’s kind of cliché, but you dream of that moment,” the goalkeeper said. “I think I had [two shootout] saves in college, but never three.”
Hildebrandt and FC Cincinnati entered the Round of 16 match, which was televised on ESPN, days removed from their first USL regular season win in a month. In contrast, Chicago arrived 10 matches unbeaten and are arguably the hottest team in MLS right now.
And throughout the match, the talent difference was noticeable from time to time, but the sides were ultimately even. While the Fire certainly had more than a handful of chances to snatch the lead, the Cincinnati backline was flexible, but never bent. Hildebrandt had 10 saves to go along with six blocked shots from his teammates.
“When your keeper makes the saves that Mitch made tonight, not only [does] his confidence grow, but the players around him too,” said FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch. “It’s truly infectious. You ask the goalkeeper just to make the saves they can make, but Mitch went out tonight and did more than that.”
After 120 scoreless minutes, the teams began a shootout that initially went in Chicago’s favor. Cincinnati’s Aodhan Quinn blasted the first attempt over the bar.
But Hildebrandt kept level terms after stopping Nemanja Nikolic’s effort. The Hungarian forward currently leads MLS with 14 league goals.
Cincinnati then took control, though, as Josu, Harrison Delbridge and Jimmy McLaughlin made their penalties. Arturo Alvarez, the Fire’s second taker, also had his attempt blocked. Only Bastian Schweinsteiger converted for the visitors.
“I try not to think about any of the pressure,” Hildebrandt said. “A World Cup winner takes a penalty against you, you try to forget who he is and just try to stop the ball.”
As Hildebrandt made the final save on Juninho's attempt, the atmosphere was delirious, as The Bailey, the club’s supporter’s section, lit blue and orange smoke bombs, banged a drum and fans sang long after the final whistle.
For FC Cincinnati, currently seeking to become a coveted MLS expansion franchise and an official applicant for one of the next four bids, the save and the win before 32,287 fans were not only the biggest moment in the club’s young history, but the city of Cincinnati’s alike. The attendance was the largest for this round of the competition, and the second-highest of any game in the modern era.
“It’s huge,” Koch said. “It’s great for Cincinnati, it’s great for Ohio. It’s great for US soccer. I truly feel what FC Cincinnati is doing is great for the global game. It’s awesome, the passion the fans have and the passion you feel from the city. It’s truly unique.”
With the win Cincinnati advances to the quarterfinals to play Miami FC, the NASL side that beat Atlanta United FC 3-2 on Wednesday night. The match will be July 12. The draw could be breaking very nicely for the Ohio club, but they aren't overlooking their next opponent.
“They’ve got some good quality players,” Hildebrandt said. “Guys I’ve played against, guys I’ve played with. …Obviously we showed we can compete with anybody.”