In the last 10 years, only one Conference Final has featured a team facing off against its fiercest rival. That was back in 2016, when Toronto FC played CF Montréal (then Montréal Impact) in a Canadian Classique derby to decide the Eastern Conference champion. The epic two-leg series finished 7-5 on aggregate in favor of Toronto, who clawed back from an early 3-0 hole in leg one to book their first-ever MLS Cup trip.
Saturday’s Hell is Real derby promises equal fireworks. Four of the last six matchups between the two Ohio-based clubs have produced four or more goals, including a late-May 2023 thriller where Cincinnati knocked off Columbus, 3-2, in an early sign of this year’s power shift that also saw Cincy lift the Supporters’ Shield.
Let's get ready for the highest-stakes Hell is Real derby yet.
Save the Crew
At first glance, the histories of these two clubs share little in common. The Crew played their first MLS season as one of the league’s founding teams in 1996, while Cincy kicked off in MLS as the league’s 24th team in 2019. Yet both took first breaths of new life at the same time.
That’s because in 2017, the Crew’s previous ownership group, Precourt Sports Ventures, proposed moving the team to Austin amid challenges securing a new downtown stadium in Columbus. Shortly after, the supporter-led Save The Crew movement launched efforts to keep the club in its original home, enlisting local businesses and government to support the cause and organizing season-ticket pledges to entice new ownership.
The mission looked touch and go throughout most of 2018, but in the virtual 11th hour, a new ownership group led by Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who also own the NFL's Cleveland Browns, announced they were in the process of buying the Crew. That deal went through – with PSV getting the rights to now-Austin FC. Columbus began their first season under new ownership in 2019.
That same year, FC Cincinnati made the leap from the second-division USL Championship to MLS.
Cincy earn stripes
What binds the two clubs most (outside of shared geography) is their fans’ undeniable pursuit to bring and maintain top-tier soccer to their respective cities – Columbus through the Save the Crew movement and Cincinnati through record-attendance numbers during their time in USL (2016-18).
The first Hell is Real derby was a watershed moment for the latter. It went down in 2017, when FC Cincinnati were still a USL team hosting games at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. In the fourth round of the US Open Cup, they got the chance to host their MLS neighbors to the north and prove themselves both on and off the pitch at a national level. They did exactly that, inflicting a gut-wrenching 1-0 loss on Columbus and breaking the Open Cup non-final attendance record (modern era) in the process.
Fast forward six years, and two clubs who elevated themselves through grassroots efforts are among the marvels of the league, notching the league's first and third-best points total in 2023 while hosting opponents in new state-of-the-art soccer-specific stadiums (TQL Stadium for Cincinnati, Lower.com Field for Columbus).
Just like many great derbies, there’s one major stretch of road separating one fan base from the other in Ohio: Interstate 71. On that highway stands a massive biblical sign erected on a local farm that's infamous to residents of the region.
In stark block letters painted across a black backdrop, it reads 'Hell is Real'.
The slogan began to circulate between fan bases in the buildup to that first derby match in 2017. The name stuck, with players and supporters from both sides agreeing it’s a fitting way to sum up the intensity of play, as well as how it feels to lose.
4. Pat Noonan says Cincinnati were “robbed”
When FC Cincinnati hosted Columbus in late August 2022, they’d gone four straight matches without a win over their arch-rival and were sporting a brutal 1W-5L-3D Hell is Real record since joining MLS.
That meant Steven Moreira’s 96th-minute game-tying goal for Columbus stung extra bad for Cincinnati. What may have hurt worse was the fact the Crew’s first goal of the match, scored by Derrick Etienne Jr., looked awfully close to offside. Weeks of Twitter debate ensued with all the usual hand-wringing over angle distortion and body position, but Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan was unequivocal after the 2-2 draw.
“How can you not just look at that and say, ‘I should check this. This is something that doesn’t look right?’” Noonan asked postgame of the decision to not send the play to Video Review. He also called the offside “f---ing clear.”
3. Caleb Porter shushes Cincinnati crowd
A brutally physical Hell is Real derby (by cards given, nine) saw Columbus complete a two-goal comeback after going down a man in the 42nd minute. Riding high off the road heist, former Crew head coach Caleb Porter found time post-match to both applaud traveling supporters and antagonize hosting fans, visibly shushing the TQL Stadium crowd and pounding his chest as he left the field.
He poured a little salt in the wound in the ensuing press conference, too: “They have to be devastated over there in that other locker room because how can you be up 2-0 and up a man and not win the game?”
2. Aidan Morris paints Ohio gold
After conceding their second-ever league loss to Cincinnati in May 2023, Columbus enacted revenge with a comprehensive 3-0 win to close the summer. Aidan Morris got the ball rolling for the Crew with a long-distance golazo, and the young star didn’t hesitate to double down on the win post-match, saying: “For sure that was a statement, especially at 3-0. I think we know what color Ohio is, huh?”
Time will tell if Cincinnati pull a UNO reverse card on that statement in the Eastern Conference Final.
1. Cincinnati knock out Columbus
Despite Columbus' strong league record against Cincinnati, Saturday’s hosts hold the edge where it matters most: elimination games. Cincy’s 1-0 US Open Cup win as a USL side (shoutout to goalscorer Djiby Fall) still holds up as the only time one team has eliminated the other from a cup competition.
The fact it came when Cincinnati were playing in a lower league than Columbus only heightened that moment’s significance in derby history, particularly with the national attention the win garnered. Columbus’ best chance of creating an equally iconic moment will come in Saturday's Eastern Conference Final.
Cincinnati are a well-balanced side, finishing top 10 in the league for both goals scored and fewest goals conceded. They press hard and break quickly to goal, accruing the sixth-most duels and eighth-quickest speed to goal (per TruMedia via StatsPerform) in the league.
The Crew seem to value chance creation above all else, scoring the league's most goals but finishing 13th for fewest goals conceded. Where Cincinnati are direct, Columbus are patient and elaborate, averaging MLS's third most passes per sequence as they throw big numbers into attack to create overloads.
Across all competitions, Columbus hold a 6W-3L-4D advantage. There's also this: