Rivalry Week

Hell is Real "bragging rights" enter new territory for Columbus Crew, FC Cincinnati

Need any perspective on how big Sunday’s Hell is Real match is? Just ask Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter, whose team will welcome FC Cincinnati to Lower.com Field as part of Heineken Rivalry Week (7:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

The Ohio-based rivals enter Week 21 only one point apart in the Eastern Conference standings, with Columbus (26 points; eighth place) capable of leapfrogging Cincinnati (27 points; sixth place) with a win. A seven-game MLS Saturday could change the specifics before kickoff, but Porter’s broader message remains.

“For me, this is the biggest game of the season,” Porter said before 2022's first derby. “This is the one you highlight on the calendar. It’s obviously a derby between two teams that are fighting for playoff position. We have a chance to kind of go over the top of them in the standings or obviously, they have a chance to go further away from us.

“On the pitch, just past midseason, pivotal match for the table but way more than that, it’s a fight between two cities, for bragging rights. And that’s why they call it Hell is Real because whoever is on the wrong end of the result, you feel like you’re in hell. It’s that simple.”

That dispirited feeling has usually befallen Cincinnati in past MLS meetings between these clubs, with Columbus holding a 4W-1L-3D record in league encounters. While the Crew won MLS Cup 2020, the Orange & Blue begrudgingly captured three straight Wooden Spoons (bottom of the league table) upon starting their expansion club journey in 2019.

Fortunes have turned upstream for Cincinnati under first-year head coach Pat Noonan, though they’ll be without 2022 MLS All-Star midfielder and club captain Luciano Acosta after the MLS Disciplinary Committee handed him a two-game suspension. That absence puts extra focus on forwards Brandon Vazquez and Brenner, the other two heads of their attacking nexus, to grab a road result and reach seven games unbeaten. Cincy are amid a 1W-0L-5D stretch.

“What I know is that from [past rivalry] experiences and understanding the importance of having the right mentality, that a lot of times supersedes the X's and O's of that particular game,” Noonan said before his first Hell is Real match. “You have to be ready to compete and show in every moment that we understand the importance of this game. So I'm excited to see our guys go out and compete. We know we have a very difficult opponent, and it'll be a great environment.”

Columbus could hand new striker Cucho Hernandez his first start after he’s scored three goals in 73 minutes worth of two substitute appearances, form that earned the club-record signing consecutive MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi spots. The Colombian international joined this summer for a reported $10 million fee from Watford after they got relegated from the English Premier League, and is starting to form a strong connection with midfielder Lucas Zelarayan.

The game will certainly mark Cucho’s home debut barring any unexpected changes, and it’ll be a chance for Columbus to reach eight games unbeaten following a 3W-0L-4D stretch.

“You can see with the addition of Hernandez, how improved immediately they are with just somebody that can take over games,” Noonan said of the Young Designated Player. “So we've got to see that over the last two games, the importance of making sure we understand his movements and how he combines with another very talented player with Zelarayan.”

With all the storylines developing and quality across the pitch, there are heightened expectations around what’s brewing. That’s readily apparent to Crew center back Josh Williams, who observed how Cincinnati’s newfound success only adds to the rivalry atmosphere that awaits Sunday.

“No disrespect at all to Cincinnati, but finally,” Williams, an Ohio native, said. “You get where they have a solid team. I’ve been watching them all year and they’ve been impressive, so it’s good for us, it’s good for them, it’s good for fans of the league. It’s just good for soccer in Ohio in general.

“ … It feels like something bigger than it has in the past.”