With the way his club is accumulating points on the road, you wouldn’t blame Jaap Stam for petitioning for a venue switch for Friday’s first Hell Is Real derby of 2021 against Columbus. Following a 1–1 draw in Houston last Saturday night, FC Cincinnati completed its three-game road trip by taking seven out of a possible nine points, vaulting the Orange and Blue (11 points from 10 matches) out of the bottom of the Eastern Conference table into 11th place, six points clear of last-place Toronto and five points behind New York Red Bulls for the seventh and final playoff slot.
The next test for Stam’s road warriors is to maintain that mentality at TQL Stadium vs. Columbus, the reigning MLS Cup champions. The Crew are not the buzz saw they were in 2020—at least not yet. Columbus opened its new stadium, Lower.com Field, last weekend with a 2–2 draw vs. East front-runners New England, nearly six weeks after FC Cincinnati christened its new home in the West End. It was the third straight match without a victory for Columbus (two draws, one loss), though the club’s last two matches have been emotional outings. The Crew’s 0–0 draw at Austin FC on June 27 was the franchise’s first match against former owner Anthony Precourt’s expansion side. Precourt attempted to move the Crew to Austin before a grassroots fan movement and the owners of the Cleveland Browns saved one of MLS’s original franchises from relocation in late 2018.
So it will be interesting to see how much emotional energy the Crew possess in reserve for the first Hell Is Real match of 2021, a contest that happened four times in the pandemic-altered 2020 season. The first occasion was a 4–0 Columbus bushwhacking of FC Cincinnati at MLS Is Back that prompted Stam to drop the team’s possession-based 4–3–3 formation for a defensive-minded 3–5–2. The two sides would face off three times in the travel-conscious regular season restart, with the results a 0–0 draw at Nippert Stadium, a 3–0 Columbus victory at Crew Stadium (FCC notched zero shots on targets), and a 2–1 FC Cincinnati win in mid-October, FCC’s final win of the 2020 campaign before finishing the season with five consecutive losses.
Columbus sits five points above FC Cincinnati in ninth place, presently struggling for goals (11 in 11 matches) but having maintained their impressive defensive record from last year (21 goals allowed in 23 games, second-best in the East), yielding just nine goals, tied for the lowest total in the East. The Crew’s defensive solidity combined with FC Cincinnati’s much-improved defense (13 goals surrendered in the first four matches of the season, five goals allowed in the past six contests) could lend itself to a defensive struggle Friday.
Against Houston, Stam was forced to make changes to the starting XI and his rotation at large, something he’d been reluctant to do during the recent three-matches-in-eight-days stretch. Two typical starters, midfielder Allan Cruz and left back Ronald Matarrita, are with the Costa Rican national team for the Gold Cup. And Jurgen Locadia, one of Stam’s preferred subs, no longer plays for FC Cincinnati. Two MLS veterans replaced the missing Costa Ricans, with 34-year-old Edgar Castillo standing in for Matarrita and 36-year-old Haris Medunjanin—third on the squad in minutes played in 2020 but with only 83 minutes in 2021 (all as a substitute)—taking Cruz’s position in the midfield. Medunjanin nearly logged his entire season minutes total on Saturday, going 77 minutes before being replaced by Caleb Stanko. Franko Kovacevic, who had his loan from German club TSG Hoffenheim extended last week, replaced winger Isaac Atanga in the 77th minute, a move that usually inserted Locadia onto the field in previous games.
The Houston match was an even affair, with each team taking turns scoring very early goals—Houston in the third minute, FC Cincinnati through Alvaro Barreal in the fifth minute—via lackadaisical defending. Both teams finished with four shots on target and struggled passing in the final third, though the hosts outshot FCC 21–11.
FC Cincinnati has a major opportunity against Columbus. Not only can it top its rival in a derby FCC has historically struggled in, the Orange and Blue can prove to their fanbase that they can translate this recent impressive road form onto home soil. Buckle up, Friday night should be a fun one.