The Crew's in-state rivalry with FC Cincinnati comes to the MLS regular season

“HELL IS REAL.” If you’ve traveled southbound on I-71 toward Cincinnati in the last dozen years or so, you’re familiar with the phrase. Kentucky real estate developer Jimmy Harston has spent two decades installing billboards proclaiming that message (and more upbeat alternatives such as “JESUS IS REAL”) across the South and Midwest. Say what you want about these signs, but they leave an impression — so much so that the “HELL IS REAL” sign in Mt. Sterling about halfway between Columbus and Cincinnati has become a part of local iconography.

So when the Columbus Crew faced minor-league upstart FC Cincinnati in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup two years ago, someone from one of the fan bases — no one can agree on whom — dubbed the burgeoning in-state rivalry Hell Is Real. This idea caught fire (sorry) among supporters of both clubs. And when Cincy upset Columbus in that Open Cup showdown, a proper intra-Ohio grudge was established.

A few months after that match, Anthony Precourt announced he was exploring options to move the Crew to Austin, which, among many other sad consequences, would have extinguished Hell Is Real before it really got crackling (again, sorry). Instead, the Crew stayed in Columbus, FC Cincinnati upgraded to MLS, and Ohio gets its derby — pronounced darby, it’s soccer slang for a match between two teams from the same vicinity.

This isn’t the first time the Crew has had a rival. First it was DC United, whose playoff domination of Columbus in the late ’90s made the conflict rather imbalanced. Then it was Midwest neighbors the Chicago Fire, who stole Brian McBride away from the Crew but then poetically fell to Columbus in the 2008 Eastern Conference Final. Then it was the Trillium Cup battle with Toronto FC. But they’ve never had as natural a rival as FC Cincinnati: just 100 miles away, bursting with pride over their superior attendance numbers. The competitive spirit flares up (I truly apologize) just thinking about it.

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Not counting a Columbus victory in the preseason, the first Hell Is Real match since Cincy joined MLS is this Saturday, Aug. 10, at Mapfre Stadium. The Crew will play at Cincinnati two weeks later on Sunday, Aug. 25, to complete this year’s fight for Buckeye state bragging rights — pending a meeting in the playoffs, which looks unlikely given that Columbus and Cincinnati are the bottom two teams in the Eastern Conference right now.

The Crew isn’t mathematically eliminated from the postseason yet, and is actually riding a four-match unbeaten streak, with two wins and two draws since the historically bad stretch that took them from first to almost-worst in the East. A few weeks ago it seemed like winning the Ohio derby would be one of a few possible silver linings for a disaster season. With the Crew on the upswing, Caleb Porter and his players are focused on the big picture. “It’s a rivalry game,” captain Wil Trapp told the Dispatch this week, before adding, “Ultimately it’s about just winning the game at home and climbing up the standings in the table.”

If the team is striving to remain level-headed, the front office has thrown itself into the rivalry completely. Whereas the Hunt family took several years to embrace supporter-coined terminology like “Nordecke” and “massive,” and Precourt seemed allergic to grassroots fan movements (he preferred AstroTurf campaigns), the new front office has taken a cue from the people and gone all-in on “Hell Is Real” branding.

The Crew has been promoting the Cincinnati match as “Hell Is Real” on their website, over the Mapfre Stadium PA, in calls and emails from ticket salespeople and in tweets from investor-operator Dr. Pete Edwards. Even the press conference at Miranova introducing the new ownership this past January referenced Hell Is Real. FC Cincinnati has followed suit, including a brilliant tweet this week trolling the Crew about the infamous Mapfre scoreboard fire of 2013. All involved recognize the potential for a truly awesome rivalry, one that will hopefully be roaring for all eternity (OK, you got me, I’m not sorry at all).