A Brief History of FC Cincinnati’s “Hell Is Real” Rivalry

Saturday night’s match against Columbus at TQL Stadium is the first between them with an MLS playoff spot on the line.

FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew square off Saturday evening at TQL Stadium in the 11th edition of Hell Is Real, and it will be the first tussle between the two sides with playoff implications. Over the course of the rivalry—which, frankly, can only be considered an actual rivalry now that FC Cincinnati are a respectable MLS club—the matches have featured a little bit of everything, from manager trash talk to stinging comebacks and shocking results.

The Origin

Just about every FC Cincinnati follower knows the origin of the rivalry’s moniker. “Hell Is Real” is derived from the billboard of the same name stationed along I-71 just south of Columbus. Any longtime FCC fan also clearly remembers the first match between the two teams: the fourth round of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup.

In their second season of United Soccer League play, the Orange and Blue edged their MLS counterparts 1-0 thanks to a 64th-minute double-header by Djiby Fall, who later appeared in one of The Bailey’s greatest tifos. Over 30,000 fans packed Nippert Stadium that evening, a record for a non-U.S. Open Cup final, to watch the amped-up hosts knock off the Crew, who fielded a starting XI full of regulars.

Too Much Hell

Already on its third head coach during its inaugural MLS season, FC Cincinnati jumped out a 2-0 lead and held on for a 2-2 draw in the first-ever MLS edition of Hell Is Real on August 10, 2019. Darren Mattocks and Emmauel Ledesma (remember them?) scored in the 15th and 23rd minute, respectively, to stake the visitors to a shocking early advantage.

Columbus quickly seized control of Ohio’s soccer-branded purgatory, though. The Crew thumped FCC 3-1 later in the 2019 season at Nippert. During the pandemic-altered 2020 season, MLS employed the “MLS Is Back” tournament and reduced travel to maximize games and ensure the season’s completion. Unfortunately for FC Cincinnati, that meant a quartet of contests against the eventual MLS champions.

The first match was a 4-0 bludgeoning at the tournament in Florida. The Orange and Blue managed to scrape out a 0-0 draw during the second meeting at Nippert, with the two sides combining for just five shots on goal. Another Columbus blowout arrived during the third meeting, a 3-0 shellacking in which FC Cincinnati failed to notch a single shot on target, before FCC stunningly prevailed 2-1 in the final matchup of 2020.

By the end of the 2020 season, Hell Is Real wasn’t much of a rivalry. FC Cincinnati had taken just eight out of 18 points in the teams’ six MLS meetings. And regardless of the quality of the two sides, playing four times in just over three months in 2020 shaved some friction off the rivalry. As did the fact that Columbus went on to win the MLS Cup championship while FCC finished with the league’s worst record.

Rubbing Salt in the Wound

Two first-half goals from FCC, followed by a Columbus red card. The first edition of Hell Is Real in 2021 could not have started better for FC Cincinnati, playing the Crew for the first time in just-opened TQL Stadium.

The happiness failed to last. Columbus pulled a goal back just before intermission and then added the equalizer in a dominant second half showing despite playing with 10 players. Crew head coach Caleb Porter didn’t miss the opportunity to verbally jab the opposition afterwards: “They have to be devastated over there in that locker room. How can you be up 2-0 and up a man and not win the game?”

Porter wasn’t wrong. And because FC Cincinnati were so bad (again) in 2021, it couldn’t stand up for itself in the return meeting in Columbus in late August. Ahead 2-1 entering the last 15 minutes of the match, Columbus’ Miguel Berry scored twice in two minutes to deal FCC another back-breaking Hell Is Real result.

New Year, Different Vibe

The rivalry’s first go-around this season featured distinctly different vibrations. Yes, FC Cincinnati was missing the suspended Lucho Acsota, but FCC still ventured up to Columbus unbeaten in six consecutive matches, having spent the summer in playoff positioning while the hosts had been on the outside looking in.

Optimism slowly evaporated after the match began. First, Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room made an incredible touchline save to deny Alvaro Barreal a goal. Then Cucho Hernandez, Columbus’ stud striker signing, flicked in a free-kick header. FCC actually did a decent job of fending off the Crew, but its failure was sealed after Obinna Nwobodo conceded an 86th-minute penalty. Columbus leap-frogged FC Cincinnati into a position slot, while FCC dropped down.

Playoff Implications

Following a 1-1 weekend draw at the New York Red Bulls, in which FC Cincinnati were fortunate to escape with their 10th tie of the season, the Orange and Blue remain on the outside of a congested East playoff picture. Just six points separate sixth and 13th in the East, with FCC (34 points) checking in at ninth and Columbus (35) in the seventh and final playoff slot.

Though a positive result against Columbus is a must, FC Cincinnati has already “won” this week by reportedly inking All-Star striker Brandon Vazquez to an extension on Monday. Vazquez, third in MLS with 15 goals, reportedly had a team option for 2023 on his existing deal but has agreed to new terms with the club through 2025 and a club option for 2026. Still just 23, he’s received interest from Mexico and Europe but for now has chosen to continue with the franchise he’s called home since the 2020 season.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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