Columbus travels south to face would-be MLS rivals FC Cincinnati

Columbus Crew SC has a game in Cincinnati on Wednesday, June 14. If you're wondering when the Queen City added a Major League Soccer franchise, they didn't — at least not yet. Columbus is facing minor-league FC Cincinnati in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The Open Cup is the oldest soccer tournament in the U.S. Founded in 1913, it's a contest any soccer team in America can enter — pros and amateurs alike — much like England's FA Cup. It boasts heavy participation from the nation's three pro leagues (MLS plus the United Soccer League and North American Soccer League), but MLS clubs typically don't enter the bracket until amateurs are out of the picture. That leaves stiff competition from USL and NASL teams, who view the tournament as a chance to prove their mettle, March Madness-style, and often do upset MLS squads.

The event is significant in Crew history: In 1999 it was renamed to honor team founder Lamar Hunt for his contributions to American soccer, and Columbus hoisted its first championship trophy after winning the tournament in 2002. Still, given the demands of the MLS season and casual fans' relative ignorance toward the Open Cup, Columbus has sometimes approached it as a distraction rather than a lucrative side hustle — either explicitly, by fielding a reserve-heavy lineup, or implicitly, by playing like their heads are elsewhere.

That likely won't be the case next week thanks to the emergence of an in-state competitor. Last year, in its first season as a USL franchise, Cincinnati's attendance averaged 17,296, besting many MLS clubs (including Columbus, just barely) and inspiring a bid to become an MLS expansion franchise. It's not unprecedented; Minnesota, Montreal, Orlando, Portland and Vancouver have launched MLS squads after building a fanbase in USL first, making the leap with team branding and part of a roster intact.

If MLS approves the bid, Cincy would be a fierce Columbus rival right away. Given the intense dialogue between the clubs' supporters — with Columbus fans scoffing at the upstarts who think they're ready for the big leagues — the rivalry might be underway already. It will play out on the pitch for the first time Wednesday with both Open Cup advancement and Buckeye State bragging rights on the line.