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.

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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

On May 29, 2018, MLS announced Cincinnati as an expansion team, meaning the two sides would begin playing twice a season, home and away, starting in 2019.

After a preseason match in the Carolina Challenge Cup — the Crew won the match 3-0 — the first of those regular-season meetings comes in Week 23, (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada) when FC Cincinnati make their first-ever trip to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday, for what will be the first league contest between the two Ohio clubs.

In a sport-rich state like Ohio, there are plenty of rivalries, the biggest being the annual interstate clash between Ohio State and Michigan in college football. But the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals play in the same division and MLB's Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians vie for the Ohio Cup every year.

On Saturday, it's the turn of MLS to get its first taste of Cincinnati vs. Columbus. And with FC Cincy (17 points) in position to play playoff spoilers as Crew SC (25 points) make a push up the East standings, there's no reason to believe the action won't live up to the billing.