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First, a public service announcement of sorts.

By now most readers will be aware of the etymology of “Hell is Real,” the name given by fans to the in-state rivalry between FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew, coined by the large roadside sign with that message built by God-fearing real-estate developer Jimmy Harston in 2004 on property belonging to Bob and Nancy Hall along Interstate 71 between the two cities.

Anyone traveling that route for Saturday’s Eastern Conference Final between the two clubs (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) – the winner of which is guaranteed to host MLS Cup on Dec. 9 – is urged NOT to attempt to visit the landmark this weekend.

“Right now, it's not really possible – well, you can if you're stupid,” longtime Crew fan and communications director for the Nordecke supporters group Chris LaMacchia told MLSsoccer.com this week. “It's in the middle of a construction zone right now. So you can't stop and take a selfie this year, but in previous years, there have been a lot of people who have stopped and taken pictures with the sign.”

Setting the tone

The billboard makes for a pretty unconventional origin story to this matchup, albeit a fitting one. Because there’s a great deal of regional flavor and intertwined history between two sides who’ve only been playing one another for a few years, one of them a founding member of Major League Soccer and the other an ambitious upstart founded in 2015 (four years before their MLS debut).

“My experience is that this rivalry is more centered on fun. The name of the rivalry being based on a freeway landmark that everyone laughs at just kind of sets the tone,” said Steve Sirk, a journalist who covered the Crew for many years and wrote three books about the club, including “A Massive Season,” which chronicles their 2008 MLS Cup title run.

“Although it should be noted that, as fair warning, the Hell is Real sign faces those driving toward Cincinnati.”

FCC first took the field in 2016 as a member of USL, and from the jump, made no secret of their intention to someday join MLS. But our tale begins in earnest the following season, when then-coach Alan Koch led the Orange & Blue on a Cinderella run to the US Open Cup semifinals, much of it playing out in front of surprisingly huge crowds at Nippert Stadium, their first home on the University of Cincinnati campus.

It was a head-turning introduction to a national audience, and Cincy’s first upset victim along the way was none other than the Crew, who at the time were coached by future US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter, little more than a year on from a run to the 2015 MLS Cup final.

“That might be one of the most impactful sporting events I've ever been to in my life,” recalled Max Ellerbe, vice president of The Pride supporters’ group, “and I've been to the Theatre of Dreams [Manchester United’s Old Trafford]. It meant so much at that time.”

CIn goal celebration

A Cupset for the ages

Defending deep, and often desperately, for long stretches, FCC rode a quirky 64th-minute goal from Senegalese striker Djiby Fall, who’d been recruited from FC Irtysh Pavlodar in distant Kazakhstan, to a 1-0 “Cupset” before a feverish crowd of more than 32,000 gleeful fans on June 14, 2017.

“It was transformative, and you really felt in the stands in that moment: We're going to MLS,” continued Ellerbe. “You can't ignore what's happening here, with 32,000 people on a Wednesday to see a guy found in the far reaches of Eastern Europe put a ball in the back of the net against one of the original [MLS] teams, coached by not a nobody, somebody still significant in US Soccer. It was a fairy-tale moment in a fairy-tale year. I'll never forget it.”

The attendance numbers were so big, and the atmosphere so spirited, that ESPN moved Cincy’s Open Cup matches from their streaming platform to linear cable broadcast. The Knifey Lions went on to knock off Bastian Schweinsteiger and the Chicago Fire via penalty shootout in the next round before falling 3-2 to Jesse Marsch’s New York Red Bulls in the semis, a heartbreaking result for the underdogs given they were leading 2-0 until the 75th minute. But a lasting impression had been made, across Ohio and beyond.

“The Open Cup game at Nippert, I watched on TV consumed with the dreadful thought: ‘It would be so embarrassing to lose to them and they will be so annoying about it.’ And the Crew lost to them and they were annoying about it, and deservedly so,” said Sirk.

“What a great moment for them to get that huge win in front of a huge crowd on national TV. It definitely put them on the map outside of Cincinnati, but they were already doing great things in Cincinnati. Beating the Crew just enabled them to show the rest of the country and perhaps accelerated their quest for MLS.”

CLB goal celebration

"Something we could call our own"

Ty Phillips was in attendance that night as a member of Columbus’ traveling support, and even through the sting of a humbling defeat, saw something noteworthy for the entire state.

“As a pure fan at the time, it was really neat to see soccer culture outside of the Crew in Ohio, because growing up, that's all I had and all I knew,” said Phillips, who now works at the club as their manager of fan culture and development. “It was a really unique atmosphere that I felt was for Cincy, by Cincy. And it was just fun, to be honest. It was fun to experience an actual in-state rivalry. I knew we had historical rivalries with Chicago and D.C. back in the day, but it felt good to have something that we could call our own.”

Dan McNally owns the proud distinction of being FCC’s first-ever employee, recruited away from UC’s men’s soccer program by club president Jeff Berding to help launch the club, initially in a cramped office space underneath The Bailey supporters section at Nippert. He remembers a sense of relief that flooded through him when Columbus fired a last-gasp chance high of the goal just before the final whistle.

“The stadium was was really intense. It was our first big moment, really, as a club in terms of a big game against an MLS team,” said McNally, who today works as Cincy’s VP of soccer operations. “We felt a lot of pressure internally, because we came out the gate and talked a big game at FC Cincinnati, ‘we're gonna do this.’ But then all of a sudden, you're faced with a 30,000-packed crowd against a real MLS team.

“At first we just really wanted to perform and give a good show of ourselves in the game, that we deserved to be there. But then as the game went on, I remember thinking minute by minute, minute by minute, hey, we're in the game here. Our players really stepped up and my number-one memory is just Djiby, our center forward at the time, it seemed like time stood still when the ball went through the air and he headed the ball in the back of the net. Nippert Stadium just erupted.”

CLB fans

"It just means more"

The significance of Fall’s winner was not lost on the home faithful. Matt Broo was in the stands that day and served as president of The Pride over the past year, in addition to hosting the Cincy PostCast podcast about FCC.

“We were debating on the last episode where Yerson Mosquera’s goal [vs. Philadelphia last week] ranks in the history of goals scored by FC Cincinnati, and to a person, the three of us that did the show we were all like, it's great,” Broo told MLSsoccer.com this week, “but until this team reaches MLS Cup, no one's knocking that goal by Djiby Fall against Crew in the US Open Cup. No one's knocking that off a pedestal as the most important goal scored by this club. And it's Columbus. It just means more.”

Conversely, that game turned out to be the prelude to the most difficult phase in the Crew’s existence. A few months later, right as Columbus’ playoff campaign was getting underway, news suddenly broke that then-owner Anthony Precourt desired to transplant the franchise to Austin, Texas, citing an aging stadium and subpar business metrics.

Fans almost immediately launched Save the Crew, a fierce grassroots movement to keep their beloved club in town, and most of their Cincy counterparts expressed solidarity and support. Yet for some, it felt like more than just a coincidence when Cincy were awarded an MLS expansion slot for 2019 the following May.

“There were some conspiracy theories regarding the timing of all of that,” said LaMacchia. “The Anthony Precourt relocation announcement, and then Cincinnati joins the league and, are they supposed to replace us as Ohio's team? All of that came about. So there's a lot of undertones to the rivalry that I don't think a lot of people expected back in those early days.”

As Save the Crew mobilized a groundswell of popular and governmental support, a happy ending took shape by the end of 2018. The Haslam family and Dr. Pete Edwards, the club’s former orthopedic surgeon, headed up a group that bought the club and later built Lower.com Field, their glittering new downtown home ground, while Precourt was awarded an expansion slot for what would become Austin FC.

CIN fans

Mutual respect

For what it’s worth, some Cincinnati partisans insist it all played out differently from where they stand – regardless of the bulletin-board material they might be providing to their rivals.

“Let me set the record straight,” declared Broo, an attorney by trade. “Columbus didn't save the Crew. The Crew were saved by Ohio Revised Code Section 9.67, otherwise known as Modell’s Law. Modell’s Law was passed in the wake of the Cleveland Browns relocating to Baltimore, and it was passed to stop sports teams from moving from the state of Ohio. It states that any team owner of a sports team that uses publicly funded funds for their stadium, receives financial assistance from a state or local municipality, must give six months’ notice of their intention to move and offer the club for sale locally prior to relocating to another city. The Crew fans had nothing to do with Columbus not leaving.

“If it wasn't for this law, that team would have gone to Austin, Anthony Precourt would have gone with them and every one of those people in Columbus would now be FC Cincinnati fans.”

Set aside the trollish banter that predominates in the lead-up to a match like Saturday’s, though, and you’ll find a level of mutual respect between these rivals, and generally less rancor than the likes of El Trafico or the Hudson River Derby.

“There were many people in Cincinnati who were Crew fans. Some have continued to stay true to the Crew, while others understandably switched over to their hometown team,” suggested Sirk. “But there were already some existing relationships there. It's a fun rivalry and everyone wants bragging rights, but it's not as bitter as other rivalries. At least not yet. Maybe this weekend changes that.”

Said Broo: “We don't want to fight. We're not ‘hard lads.’ It's not like that. I'll get a beer with anyone after the game. But I do enjoy creating misery in their fan base. I do laugh when mischief and misfortune befalls them … so yeah, it's a good rivalry in that sense.”

While former Columbus head coach Caleb Porter stirred the pot in 2021 by shushing the crowd at TQL Stadium following his team’s rally from 2-0 down to snatch a 2-2 road draw, bad blood has yet to bubble up between the clubs’ current technical staffs.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys,” Cincy general manager Chris Albright told MLSsoccer.com this week. “[Crew president] Tim Bezbatchenko, I think, is one of the best in the business and an awesome guy. So we have a ton of respect for what they do. For me, those are the coolest rivalries from where I sit, is when you do have a mutual respect, but you want to kill each other on the field. As opposed to, you truly hate the people in the front office or something like that – those to me aren't as fun.”

Aidan Morris CLB

Crew resurgence

After facing down the trauma of nearly losing their team, Columbus’ soccer community now finds itself in a markedly better place. Beyond a new stadium and training facility that rank among the best in MLS, the Haslams have invested substantially in star players like Lucas Zelarayán and Cucho Hernández and paid out a substantial amount to hire head coach Wilfried Nancy away from CF Montréal last winter.

With Nancy’s fluid, attacking-oriented possession system drawing plaudits and eyeballs alike, Lower.com Field has been rocking this season and the club is more relevant than ever in a town long dominated by Ohio State football.

“The resurgence in the community has just been amazing,” said LaMacchia. “We're seeing more black and gold out on the street, just folks wearing Crew gear around town. We're getting more exposure in local media than we ever have before. I would say that this is the best time in our history to be a Crew fan.

“As far as just the brand awareness and the people asking about it, I was at Lowe's on Saturday during the Ohio State-Michigan game, wearing a Crew sweatshirt, and one of the guys there was like yeah, go Crew, look forward to the game tonight. Five, 10 years ago, that never would have happened.”

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"Ohio vs. the world"

While Columbus had to fight for their team’s life, Cincy got the most humbling introduction to the top flight imaginable. An accelerated ramp-up to their MLS debut put them behind the 8-ball and a subsequent sequence of miscues snowballed their struggles as they finished dead last in the league for three years running.

The arrival of Albright and head coach Pat Noonan from the Philadelphia Union catalyzed a dramatic turnaround from Wooden Spoon to Supporters’ Shield winners in less than two years, rewarding the FCC hardcores who kept faith through those down times. For many of them, this playoff run feels like playing with house money.

“This fan base, we’re undeterred by anything that could happen to us,” said Ellerbe. “We've been through hell. I know we're a newer team, but to survive those three years of abject failure, [we] didn't miss a beat, kept showing up to the games, sold out many of them through those defeats, and came back and continued what we do on on a weekly basis.”

From a neutral’s perspective, there’s been significant mutual benefit to having a noisy neighbor 90 minutes down the road, an easy away day and an adversary to contrast oneself against. The fact that the two squads have risen into the East elite this season via drastically different styles of play further sharpens that effect.

“I'll be honest, none of us Cincinnati fans wanted Columbus to leave,” said Ellerbe. “Our visioncast for this was a bunch of contentious, bloodbath matches between Cincinnati and Columbus. And then as soon as the glimmer of hope that we join this league comes in, here comes the league saying well, they might move to Austin. It was kind of a Matrix-esque, ‘not like this.’

“In the end, we all got what we wanted. Crew are there to stay. We're here to stay. And we're going to see on Saturday what that looks like going forward. Hopefully, FC Cincinnati can prevail.”

Cincy provide the Crew with a natural rival that was often elusive in their early years, as an attempt to cultivate a “Trillium Cup” antagonism with Toronto FC in the late ‘00s didn’t really take root.

Now central southern Ohio can face off with something real on the line, while savoring the fact that both teams’ success has exerted a sort of gravity on the rest of MLS that was scarcely conceivable back when Columbus was the quintessential ‘small market’ club, so much so that their supporters ironically embraced the “Massive” moniker that is now a badge of pride.

“To be sure, we don't like each other for the game weeks,” said LaMacchia. “There's a lot of – I'm sure you've seen it – a lot of healthy trash talk and banter on Twitter and other social media. They've got their jokes about Columbus, we've got our jokes about Cincinnati or Kentucky. But at the end of the day, we've got that Midwestern ‘Ohio vs. the world’ attitude, and a rising tide lifts all ships. So outside of those two or in this case three weeks a year where we play each other, it really is good to see the Midwest and Ohio specifically claiming our rightful spot at the top of MLS.”

hell is real duel

All that said, no one is quite sure what this derby will look and feel like after Saturday, by far its biggest fixture to date.

“We were talking about this idea of the mark of a true rivalry is where the fear of losing outweighs the joy of winning,” said Broo. “I think both fan bases, if they're being honest with themselves going into this match, fear losing it more than they want to win. And I think that that's going to make for some incredibly uncomfortable soccer – but if you're a neutral tuning in on this, you get to watch one city die in real-time.”

Players and coaches, even those with limited experience in this context, feel the extra energy in these fixtures, and doubly so this weekend.

“This is something that I like, because I don’t have to motivate the players for anything. So they are ready for that,” said Nancy on Wednesday. “I’m proud and happy that, hopefully it’s going to be us, but one of the winners are going to be in Ohio, so this is good for this. And we’ll see.”