What the Hell is Real, Really?

By Steve Haldeman

HELL, OH — August 2019 — Webster's defines a rivalry as "don't ever start a piece of writing with a dictionary definition; it's lazy, contrived, and will get you docked a solid 10 points in any decent freshman comp class." That said, rivalries themselves are usually contrived. So, not to put too fine a point on it, but a rivalry is when our give a $#!t is in direct opposition to their give a $#!t, when our animosity is a nagging wound that only victory can salve, when our adversary is the reviled sibling always encroaching on our half of the backseat; when nothing else matters, the rivalry is all that matters.

For better or worse, sports rivalries are, more often than not, manufactured marketing gimmicks created to drive ticket sales and media hype. And, it's exactly those two things that brought the MLS to Cincinnati. MLS is actively building rivalries in an effort to drive ratings, and Hell is Real is a natural, a regional rivalry in a Midwestern state known for some of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports.


Hell is Real, the first edition, lit the match that sparked national attention for the soccer phenomenon that consumed Cincinnati in 2017, and that season's run through the Open Cup put FC Cincinnati (and its fans) on the international soccer map. Over 30,000 fans packed into Nippert Stadium on June 14, 2017 to see what the media had unimaginatively dubbed the "Ohio Derby." The first ever meeting of FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew was in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the first round that MLS teams (thus Columbus) entered the competition. FC Cincinnati, in only its second year of existence as part of the USL, had entered two rounds before.

Fans of both clubs had given the contest a name of their own. A tifo hung from the Bailey that night in June, proclaiming it, "Hell is Real," based on a southbound-facing billboard on I-71 between Columbus and Cincinnati.

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The MLS side were heavy favorites and fielded a stronger-than-usual roster--featuring nine regular starters including talismans like Federico Higuain and Will Trapp--for a lower-bracket U.S. Open match against a second-division opponent. (It should also be said that the Crew were very good in 2017. Coached by current U.S. Men's National Team skipper Gregg Berhalter, Columbus played their way to the Eastern Conference Championship during the MLS Playoffs that season.) The Crew clearly had no intention of revving up the Cincinnati hype machine by risking an embarrassing loss in the first match of a rivalry that hadn't existed a year before.

The "upstart" USL side, on the other hand, had nothing to lose and a homefield advantage like few others in American soccer. The 30,160 Cincinnati supporters who sold out Nippert that night were 10,000 more than the full capacity of the Crew's Mapfre Stadium. The banging of the drums and full-throated chorus pouring smoke from the Bailey urged the team on as if this was a moment in history. For FC Cincinnati, it wasn't simply and early-round match in a soccer tournament; it was one shot, a chance to shine bright in the media fog of a flyover state in a city gone mad for soccer.

The Crew out-played Cincinnati that night, leading in every statistical category except one (goals). FC Cincinnati's defense rejected 11 shots and Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt stood on his head in the first match of what would become one of the most significant runs of impressive performances by a keeper in U.S. Open Cup history. Columbus launched a few shots just wide, and by halftime with the score still knotted at nill-nill, it would have been difficult to argue that the noise and fervor of the Bailey hadn't caught the MLS side off guard.


There's a cardinal rule in sports: you don't let an underdog hang around. In the 65th minute, with Cincinnati attacking the goal under the nose of the Bailey, Justin Hoyte floated a miraculously precise cross into the box from far on the right side. FCC's star striker Djiby Fall fought for the header with the Crew's Hector Jimenez, and the ball ricocheted fifteen feet skyward. Never taking his eyes off the ball, still fending off Jimenez, Djiby caught the floater on its way back down, and headed it with force into the upper right corner of the net, just out of reach of Crew Keeper Brad Stuver for the game's only goal. Cincinnati held on for dear life for the next thirty minutes as Columbus launched a barrage of desperate attacks to no avail.


When the final whistles blew, FC Cincinnati had won 1-0, prompting broadcaster Tom Gelehrter's now iconic, "David has slain Goliath at Nippert Stadium." Cincinnati went on a historic run all the way to Open Cup semi-finals, but most importantly, a "manufactured" rivalry had taken on a life of its own. There is no question that the potential of adding Hell is Real to the list of annual MLS rivalries played a huge part in FC Cincinnati's accelerated promotion to the top tier.


The budding FC Cincinnati/Columbus Crew rivalry is (so far) relatively good-natured, but there's enough history on each side to plant the seeds of something pricklier. The Columbus Crew is the charter member of the MLS. Cincinnati is the newest expansion team. Old School versus Box Fresh. Columbus seems partly grateful for a legitimate regional rival, at the same time mildly annoyed at the newcomers who've managed to garner a seemingly instant, massive fan-following, a feat that's eluded the Crew to date. It doesn't help that Cincinnati fans are by no means humbled or ashamed about being referred to as Attendance FC. Furthermore, while MLS bent over backwards to usher Cincinnati into the league in record time, they (at best) did little to stop, or (at worst) actively encouraged the Precourt Group to move the Crew franchise to Austin.

In fact, most ardent FC Cincinnati fans and supporters' groups actively participated in the #SaveTheCrew movement to keep the Crew in Columbus. For the most part, the attempted move was handled poorly by the league, and Precourt's cynical backroom dealing seemed thoroughly unjust (although anemic fan support so far in Columbus in 2019 seems to be proving the league wasn't entirely off base). Ultimately, the Crew was saved, FCC joined MLS, and Hell became officially Real on August 10.


The first official MLS iteration of Hell is Real was fittingly played in Columbus, and the Crew must have figured that home field advantage might be on their side this time. Possibly anticipating ravenous demand from Cincinnati fans, tickets for the regular season match were oddly hard to come by for a club struggling to put butts in seats. At first there were no single match tickets for the game; tickets for August 10 were only available as part of a bundle of multi-game packs. While it could be argued this was meant to drive sales for less attractive Crew games, it couldn't have escaped the front office's attention that it would make those tickets less appealing to Cincinnati fans. The FCC supporters' section tickets were divvied up among the various Cincinnati Supporters' Groups and were distributed via a lottery. Other Cincinnati fans took to the internet to procure available tickets for the "near sell out."

The big question wasn't whether Cincinnati would show up, but rather would the stands have as much orange and blue as yellow and black. The announced attendance at the game was a sellout of just over 20,000. Estimates of Cincinnati fans ranged from 3,000 on the low end to 8,000 on the high end. Considering the match was announced a sellout, the stands did not seem particularly full at any point in the match, so at the very least Cincinnati support was significant, and the traveling Bailey filling over a third of the east upper deck outmatched the Crew Supporters Nordecke for much of the match. One might call it a tie, perhaps.



The game itself had its share of surprises, not least of all was the speed at which the visitors managed to score their first goal. Sixteen minutes into the match, at the feet of the traveling Bailey on the south side of the pitch, Darren Mattocks headed in a ball off of a Victor Ulloa corner kick. For Crew players who'd lived through the 2017 version of Hell is Real, the header must have seemed like real hellish deja vu. Up 1-0, Cincinnati supporters began to turn it on. When Manu Ledesma put in another goal just 6 minutes later to put them up 2-0, Mapfre Stadium was fully ablaze with orange and blue.

The next 20 minutes went punch-for-punch with both sides continuing to pour on the attack. With the final minutes of the first half ticking away, a whistle blew on what could at best be called a "soft foul" in the box that resulted in a penalty kick. Gyasi Zardes put the resulting penalty kick into the bottom left corner to bring Columbus back to within one as the first half came to an end. Crew Midfielder Pedro Santos added the equalizer on a banger from 30 yards out in the 62'. Once again, Cincinnati was holding on for dear life and Columbus was throwing the kitchen sink at them.


In the first minute of stoppage time, Zardes skyed a shot on a wide-open net from two yards out, a seemingly impossible miss from that range. Center Back Kendall Waston slid in for a tackle just as the ball was leaving Zardes’ foot. Was it just an errant shot, or had Cincinnati’s Captain saved the day?

Over the next 7 minutes, pandemonium ensued. The intensity on the field and in the stands grew as Cincinnati sweeper Caleb Stanko deflected a shot safely over the crossbar while still on his back from another goal-saving tackle. Cincinnati Keeper Przemyslaw Tyton leapt and stretched to punch another Zardes shot from point-blank range over the net. Cincinnati fans erupted, while Crew fans recoiled. On the resulting corner in the final play of the game Zardes headed another beauty toward the net, only to be once again foiled by Tyton, an extra time performance that earned Cincinnati's Keeper MLS Team of the Week honors. Cincinnati Keepers in the waning moments of Hell is Real might just become a thing.

One of the most raucous finishes to a draw anyone in attendance had ever seen, FC Cincinnati fans and players were shouting, embracing, elated, while Crew fans and players were visibly disappointed, crushed, and shaking their heads.

Once again, little brother bested his older sibling. Granted, a tie is not a victory, but a point on the road, especially for a last-place team struggling to get results of any kind, is a kind of success. It doesn't hurt, of course, that it daunted the Crew's opportunity for retribution. They would have to wait two more weeks to try again to wipe the wry smile off little brother's face.


As drama goes, you really can't beat the narrative arc of a draw. There's unfinished business. After two games, the Crew still don't have satisfaction. In two games, the Crew have arguably fielded a stronger team, have pulled out every stop, but have never taken a lead. With literally every passing minute on the pitch, that shadow grows, that wound festers, that rivalry sets in like the wet cement of concrete shoes. If it's any indication of how serious Columbus are about righting the ship this weekend, Caleb Porter, the Crew's new coach rested much of his firepower in Will Trapp, Pedro Santos, and Youness Mokhtar on the bench (Gyasi Zardes didn't even make the trip) in their mid-week match against New York City FC this week.

For their part, FC Cincinnati are 1-0-1 against their foe. There's no greater satisfaction for fans, especially given that the MLS honeymoon is long over, and the inaugural season is lost. Someday, old FCC fans are going to sit in their easy chairs, half-deaf, berating young supporters about how good they have it now, not like the rough old days, when the Orange & Blue couldn't buy a point... except, of course, against the Crew.


The next match is set up for all the marbles, and then some. Both Cincinnati and Columbus are effectively (barring a mathematical anomaly akin to walking through a wall) eliminated from the Playoffs. There's nothing else of note to play for at this point. While the rivalry is new and mostly about banter between the teams' supporters, and while most of the players don't have the ingrained history of Ohio sports to spur them on, the way the chips have fallen in the lead-up to the next episode of Hell is Real, there is a clear zeitgeist that this match is now the only match that matters in 2019 for both teams, players and fans alike. If Cincinnati can beat the Crew, then the rest of this tumultuous season can be put to rest. If Columbus can beat FC Cincinnati, then they can finally get this obnoxiously loud and exuberantly juvenile monkey off their back.

Either way, in the season finale this Sunday night, Nippert Stadium will be bursting at the seams, the Bailey will be rabid, the Crew will be out for blood, and FC Cincinnati will be hungry to salvage a whole season in ninety minutes plus. The heat is on. Hell is real. Not bad for a manufactured marketing gimmick created to drive ticket sales and media hype.

Steve Haldeman