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's 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 encourage people to reflect on their faith, the sign now offers a different meaning for Major League Soccer fans in Ohio. It stands as a moniker for a budding rivalry between two MLS sides.
Ahead of the latest chapter in their rivalry Sunday (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada (Local TV), here's a look back at the birth of the rivalry and some of the key moments leading up tonight's showdown at MAPRE Stadium.
How a new MLS rivalry was born
That possibility became reality in 2017 when Cincinnati defeated Louisville City FC in the U.S. Open Cup, setting up their 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 supporters escalated on social media before the Open Cup showdown, a member of the fanbase dubbed the rivalry "Hell is Real" in honor of the sign. It caught on.
The match certainly lived up to its name, too. 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 fans. While it was only one game, it was enough to set the tone — both on the field and in the stands.
Just like that, a rivalry was born.
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 NFL's Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals 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:
Helluva result. pic.twitter.com/BECcnfZ8H6— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) August 26, 2019
After a rough expansion season in 2019, Cincy reloaded their roster by bringing in Jurgen Locadia, Yuya Kubo and Siem de Jong to jumpstart the offense. Defensive reinforcements have arrived, too, as their Dutch revolution continues under new head coach Jaap Stam.
In fact, Stam's first match on the Cincy sidelines came against Columbus, a 4-0 setback at the MLS is Back Tournament. The former world-class defender was still figuring out his side, and he's since opted for a defensive approach that stymied the Crew in the second encounter, a 0-0 draw at Nippert Stadium on August 29.
Head coach Caleb Porter's side entered 2020 with fanfare after adding midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan, and they've shown an ability to score in bunches, while rarely conceding. With striker Gyasi Zardes also in fine form, they're currently the top team in the Eastern Conference.
As Cincy seek their first MLS win against Columbus, the latest Hell is Real match should prove electric. Crew SC goalkeeper Eloy Room said his team is seeking revenge for that goalless draw. Porter said all they need is one goal to unlock a bunkering team. Stam held steadfast his team should have won that last encounter.
Porter and Stam now have experience against one another, and the rivalry adds another few layers.