'HELL IS REAL,' and so is FC Cincinnati's threat to Columbus

Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati

The 'Taj Majal' of the second division is fighting for inclusion in MLS and out-drawing its Ohio neighbor. 

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CINCINNATI — When Jimmy Harston erected a massive “HELL IS REAL” sign alongside Interstate-71 over 25 years ago, his intentions were to warn every passerby of eternal doom.

Ohio soccer supporters interpreted it differently.

The “HELL IS REAL Derby” seemed a perfect name for Columbus Crew SC and FC Cincinnati: playful and innocent. The two teams playing 110 miles apart were more like siblings than real, legitimate rivals. After all, they play in different leagues and therefore would likely never play each other.

Until Wednesday.

FC Cincinnati was created in August 2015 with the promise of offering “first-class” soccer to Cincinnati, a city where any previous soccer teams failed, semi-professional or not.

But after the United Soccer League side drew more than 14,000 fans to its first match in a league that averaged less than 3,400, Cincinnati had to be taken with at least some seriousness.

Matthew Long is just one example of a former Columbus season-ticket holder who either felt ostracized or tired of the four-hour round trips to home games. When FC Cincinnati was announced, he signed up for season tickets immediately. Once matches arrived, he called the atmospheres incomparable. 

“You were just blown away,” Long said of his first match in Nippert. “The physical environment is such a close one, you never had that at Crew Stadium. … We play in the Taj Mahal of USL. You have to recognize that.”

Columbus couldn’t ignore the fact that, by the end of the 2016 season, Cincinnati already had a higher league average attendance (and still does).

And that’s what made Wednesday night’s inaugural “HELL IS REAL Derby” authentic.

The beauty of cup soccer is that anything can happen in one game

- Cincinnati manager Alan Koch

Had the teams played in Columbus in 2016 in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Crew SC would’ve played the match at a local college soccer stadium, likely with reserves. That never happened — FC Cincinnati lost in the preceding round.  

So when Cincinnati beat its league rival Louisville City FC last month to earn hosting rights with Columbus, FC Cincinnati took a typical fourth-round cup match and made it into the biggest soccer game in city history.

Eyeing a spot as one of Major League Soccer’s next expansion locations, Cincinnati saw the opportunity as a rough draft for a potential future league fixture. Special shirts and scarves were made, ambitious marketing strategies were rolled out and the club, while not officially recognizing the supporters’ rivalry name, mysteriously began adding fire emojis to social media posts.

Strong side, weak result

All of this made Columbus uncomfortable, and probably, annoyed.

Had Crew SC played almost anyone else, the match’s importance would’ve been low, if not irrelevant altogether. That’s the U.S. Open Cup, a 100-plus-year-old knockout tournament which parallels England’s FA Cup -- except that the U.S. version gets very little coverage.

Even the Seattle Sounders treated their cup clash with rival Portland Timbers FC as secondary. Nine players from the S2 USL side were called up for first team action in a stadium capacity of only 4,000.

Columbus wasn’t so lucky. Instead, in an effort to quell its southern noisy neighbors, Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter deployed an almost full-strength roster, starting roughly eight regulars. He wanted to send a message, which ultimately backfired.

Before 30,160 spectators at Nippert Stadium on Wednesday night, FC Cincinnati upset Columbus Crew SC 1-0, playing to an attendance 10,000 higher than the previous fourth-round record. The impressive crowd wouldn’t fit in Columbus’ Mapfre Stadium, and came within 1,000 people of the first-tier side’s all-time highest home attendance.

“The beauty of cup soccer is that anything can happen in one game,” Cincinnati manager Alan Koch said.

And it did. FC Cincinnati’s triumphant win over its intrastate rival didn’t secure MLS expansion, but it showed the seriousness the city has toward soccer that, at least currently, is more fanatical than Columbus’ league-worst average attendance (13,050).

Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati

Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati

Barring a few banners stretched across the upper deck bleachers, Nippert Stadium was packed with blue and orange, pinning the away supporters into a corner of the ground.

The Bailey, FC Cincinnati’s main supporters section, released all its best tricks, from blue and orange smoke meant to resemble fire in pre-match festivities, to unveiling a massive “HELL IS REAL” banner after full time, as Crew SC supporters stood shocked nearby. A few away fans were so frustrated that some were allegedly escorted from the stadium after jawing at players and their manager.

The aftermath

After the match, Crew SC players refused to call it a rivalry. Goalkeeper Brad Stuver, who watched Djiby Fall’s 64th-minute looping header drop near his left post, simply said it was a good attendance for a midweek match.

Crew midfielder Wil Trapp, who was eating a steak salad during his interview, dropped a piece of meat from his mouth when he was reminded that his team, which for two decades dominated the Ohio soccer landscape, was just unraveled by a second-tier side which didn’t exist two years before.

Berhalter, who fully admitted his better team couldn’t splinter Cincinnati’s backline, praised the atmosphere. “This is what makes soccer special,” he said.

And the upset is what makes the HELL IS REAL Derby, well, real.

When Djiby scored in front of The Bailey, he trotted to the corner, fell to the turf and wept. Meanwhile, The Bailey replicated scenes from a great derby match anywhere in the world. Rather than simply celebrating the goal, supporters openly celebrated scoring against Columbus. Fans in blue and orange turned toward the petrified yellow-and-black patch, pointing fingers and mocking the big brother club that, for the first time, finally looked small. 

Smoke filled the air and the stadium shook, with arms flowing like waves as supporters relished the biggest moment in their club’s short history. For a team created from scratch with a cringe-worthy advertisement, nothing was artificial about the celebrations. There was a sense of belonging that could be mistaken for an organic fandom passed down through generations. FC Cincinnati’s pride in its fans, and the the supporters’ pride in their club, was pure, passionate love — with or without MLS approval.

In a competition discredited for pairing cup fixtures based on geographical proximity, FC Cincinnati offered an experience that would have been entirely different had the match not conveniently occurred between the two clubs and in Cincinnati.

The Seattle-Portland rivalry might be the most coveted in American soccer, but this week showed two Midwestern clubs could have just as much fun.

The difference, though, is, even if only for one night, Columbus and Cincinnati  cemented that the HELL IS REAL Derby was more real than any pre-match speculation ever suggested.

There’s no guarantee the fixture will ever happen again. Cincinnati, at least for now, is still in the USL. On Monday night, the club revealed new stadium plans, a last-ditch move to get an MLS team in the city. The match two days later proved if that happened, there’s certainly genuine interest.

Sadly for Harston, moving forward, his sign will recall not so much a spiritual tent revival as a smoke-and-soccer spectacle that would’ve made Mick Jagger smile. Maybe that’s for the benefit of everyone.

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