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One night in Hell for the Crew

Recounting the night FC Cincinnati fired an opening salvo that changed the course of history.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Columbus Crew SC at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It was June 14, 2017.

Six days had passed since then-USL club FC Cincinnati defeated league rival Louisville City to set up a fourth-round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup clash with Columbus Crew SC.

It was a matchup that intrigued both fanbases. FC Cincy supporters hoped for a shot at their in-state counterpart and frankly, so were Crew fans. Both fanbases and pundits scrutinized over the Open Cup bracket, attempting to forecast potential scenarios in which both teams would meet in the competition.

It finally happened.

A goal from striker Djiby Fall in the 48th minute of the third-round match against Louisville lifted FC Cincy over its rivals, setting up a certain clash against the in-state adversaries for the first time ever.

No one knew what to expect from this matchup. Supporters from both clubs exchanged (sometimes) playful banter via various social media channels. Some even went so far as to call it a rivalry, dubbing the game “Hell Is Real,” the inspiration for the name coming from a particular sign on Interstate-71 that is visible as you travel to and from both cities.

That’s all fans needed to get their creativity flowing and expressing their love for their club.

With kickoff approaching, fans lined up at the various entrance gates around Nippert Stadium. Moments later the terraces were filled with the blue and orange of FC Cincinnati. It was the biggest moment in the Queen City’s brief soccer history.

Blue and orange fans donned creative custom-made apparel with the “Hell Is Real” sign prominently displayed. Visiting supporters emerged wearing their best black and gold and looking to claim a victory over the lower-league side. Situated diagonally from “The Bailey” supporters section, both sets of fans amped up their banter as kickoff neared.

Once play began on the field, the roar from the 30,160 fans in attendance rumbled the stadium to its core. Both sets of fans appeared on edge in the early moments, each knew what this game could mean going forward.

For the Columbus faithful, a win and it’s another day at the office. A loss could prove devastating. Hoping to continue its winning ways in the Open Cup, FC Cincinnati saw this as a dress rehearsal for Major League Soccer. A win would add legitimacy to a team chasing an MLS expansion bid and a loss wouldn’t harm the hosts whatsoever.

Against the backdrop of a picturesque sunset over the campus of the University of Cincinnati, the Black & Gold searched for supremacy. However, their quest was denied by goalkeeper Mitch Hildbrandt and his bunkering defense. After a back and forth contest, both teams retreated into the locker room at halftime tied at 0-0.

Coming out for the second half, both teams traded punches but neither could land a significant blow. It appeared that Cincinnati was gaining momentum, there was an undeniable electricity in the air throughout the opening segment of the second half.

With just under a half an hour remaining in the contest, Fall became the hero again for FC Cincinnati. The forward’s header off of a cross from outside back Justin Hoyte was perfectly hit and knuckle-balled past the outstretched arm of Crew goalkeeper Brad Stuver.

Bedlam ensued.

The home supporters roar from the home fans could be heard all the way in Kentucky. The USL team scored its biggest goal in franchise history. David stunned Goliath and it didn’t appear the Black & Gold expected it.

Crew fans and players were equally as stunned. The Black & Gold chased the equalizer but were unable to level the game, losing 1-0 to FC Cincinnati. The loss stung the egos of the MLS side but it gave fans a taste of something they hadn’t had before.

A true organic rivalry.

Part two of Hell Is Real, the first meeting as MLS sides, takes place on Saturday.