Why fans call FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew SC the "Hell is Real" derby

For those who have never driven between Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, the term "Hell is Real" likely has little significance.

But for anyone who has made the 110-mile trek, it likely rings a bell.

South of Columbus, in the city limits of Mt. Sterling, Ohio, there is a sign just off Interstate 71 clear to anyone driving from Ohio's capital toward Cincinnati. It was erected by Kentucky real-estate developer Jimmy Harston nearly 30 years ago. The message it delivers is quite simple: "Hell is real."

While originally intended to spur people to reflect on their faith, the sign now serves a different meaning for Major League Soccer fans in Ohio. It stands as a moniker for a budding rivalry between two MLS sides.

How a new MLS rivalry was born

An MLS original, Columbus Crew SC have lacked a true geographic rival. When FC Cincinnati joined the USL in 2015, however, a potential showdown emerged.

That possibility became a reality in 2017 when Cincinnati defeated Louisville City FC in the U.S. Open Cup to set up the first-ever match against the Crew.

Originally dubbed the "Ohio Derby," the matchup eventually received a new moniker from the fans.

As the trash talk between the two sets of supporters escalated on social media in the buildup to the Open Cup showdown, a member of the fanbase dubbed the rivalry "Hell is Real" in honor of the sign, and the name caught on and stuck.

And the match lived up to its name. On June 14, 2017 at Nippert Stadium, the USL side upset the Crew 1-0. Although they faced a lower-division side, Columbus rolled out a largely first-choice lineup, only to be stymied by Cincy in front of a raucous crowd of 30,160. While it was only one game, it was enough to set the tone — on the field and in the stands.

And so a rivalry was born.

Just getting started

The sport-rich state of Ohio sees its fair share of rivalries during the year: the annual interstate clash between Ohio State and Michigan in college football, the intra-division showdowns between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL and the annual Ohio Cup between MLB's Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians.

When MLS welcomed Cincinnati to the league as an expansion team, it set the stage for a regular dose of rivalry showdowns of the soccer variety. 

And those first two league matches in 2019 were as high-strung as rivalries get: Cincinnati held off a furious Crew comeback to hang on for a 2-2 tie in Columbus, but two weeks later the Crew came away with a decisive road win and left their rivals feeling the burn: