“I always knew that I was going to go as far as possible. You’re going to have to kick me out before I leave, to be honest. That’s just my mentality when it comes to everything. I’m not going to stop no matter what; you’re going to have to make me stop. That’s how I drive myself to get better.”
When you hear Mitch Hildebrandt’s story and understand the patience involved in being a backup goalkeeper in the lower divisions for multiple years, awaiting his opportunity, his words have weight. They’re real.
Atlanta United announced the signing of the goalkeeper on Dec. 1, a move that may have got lost in the midst of news surrounding Greg Garza’s new multi-year deal or the signing of Argentine defender Franco Escobar. But Hildebrandt’s addition to Gerardo "Tata" Martino’s goalkeeping department is an intriguing one.
The 29-year-old Livonia, Michigan native spent the last two seasons helping launch USL side FC Cincinnati, making 68 appearances during that period and being named USL's 2016 Goalkeeper of the Year. During his time there he became a fan favorite and after his sterling performances, the phrase "Mitch says no" was seen on tifo and t-shirts across town.
As FC Cincinnati wait to hear whether or not they'll become one of the next expansion clubs in MLS, why did Hildebrandt choose this moment to make the move?
“Ultimately you have to look at what will help your career and what’s going to help your family,” Hildebrandt told MLSsoccer.com in an exclusive interview. “I think what’s going to help my career is playing for Atlanta United and helping them in MLS. I think it was the right time for my wife and I to make that jump and go to the next level. I wish Cincinnati nothing but the best, and I hope they accomplish everything they set out to.”
After Atlanta opted out of re-signing back-up goalkeepers Alex Tambakis and Kyle Reynish to new contracts, Hildebrandt fills a void in the depth chart. But he’s also looking to compete with Brad Guzan and Alec Kann.
“[I’m looking forward to] the competition," Hildebrandt said. "Obviously you want to put yourself up against the best and there’s not many teams that have a No. 1 that’s better. With Alec there as well, and with me going there, I think we have the best trio in MLS.”
Playing for the Golden Grizzlies of Oakland University in the NCAA may have contributed to Hildebrandt being overlooked in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft initially. He set out for Minnesota United, before their MLS days, where he was the backup for four years. Along with minimal playing time, he was also away from his wife Amber for most of that time.
But after starting well with FC Cincinnati in their successful inaugural 2016 season, on June 28, 2017 the larger American soccer community was properly introduced to Hildebrandt, when he made three penalty saves to help Cincinnati pip the Chicago Fire in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16. Looking back, the winning 'keeper from that game acknowledges the kismet of the game being televised for a national audience and the hard work he put in to get to that moment.
“Soccer people and especially people that know the game, know it’s not just about the full season. It’s noticing quality. Noticing potential. I think it was just me going out there and playing to my capabilities. Things bounced the right way. If ESPN hadn't picked up that Fire game, who knows who would’ve seen it, but I think I did enough good things in the two years where someone was going to notice the quality, and I couldn’t be happier that it was Atlanta United.”