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What We Learned: Crew at FC Cincinnati

The Black & Gold’s second straight comeback draw had gave us plenty to take away.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at FC Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight weekend, the Columbus Crew found itself down 2-0 in the first half of a match, digging a hole on Friday night. But like against the New England Revolution two weeks ago, the Crew, for the second straight game, battled from behind to earn a 2-2 draw on the road against FC Cincinnati.

The first Hell is Real Derby of 2021 did not disappoint, giving the sold-out crowd at TQL Stadium plenty of action. Not only were there four goals in the match, but the Black & Gold saw Harrison Afful sent off after receiving two yellow cards before the comeback push began.

While every game teaches us something about this Columbus side, a contest such as this one, with so much action, leaves plenty to unpack. Let’s dive into what we learned from the Crew’s road draw against the in-state rivals.

Hell is Real is a very real rivalry

Major League Soccer likes rivalry games, so much so that the league designates a “rivalry week” throughout the course of seasons. Because of this, MLS often creates rivalries that sometimes feel natural and sometimes don’t.

The Crew and FC Cincinnati was always going to be an interesting series because the two teams are located in the same state, less than two hours apart. Prior to FC Cincy becoming an MLS expansion team, the first matchup provided a spark with the USL Championship side upsetting the Black & Gold in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup.

But one game does not a rivalry make.

It was possible that neither team took these matchups that seriously, even once they started playing regularly in MLS in 2019, or that one side dominated the series and never gave it the full fire that a rivalry needs, especially early on. While the Crew has won three of the eight all-time meetings and only lost twice, including the first game in the Open Cup, to the Orange and Blue, these games have been intense from the offing.

Friday night’s matchup at TQL Stadium was no different. Cincinnati scoring nearly off the opening kickoff set the tone for the contest. While it hasn’t been a great year for FC Cincy, beating the defending MLS Cup champions to earn a first win at the team’s new home would be a potential turning point in the season and the team played well enough in the early portions to deserve that victory.

But the Black & Gold didn’t want to be embarrassed by “that team down the road,” as head coach Caleb Porter called FC Cincinnati in the buildup to the match, and found a way to fight from behind. This gives fans another memorable game in the early history of Hell is Real.

But it wasn’t just on the field that made this game feel like a real rivalry. Before the match, there was a real energy around TQL Stadium as both FC Cincinnati and Crew fans enjoyed the pre-game bars and restaurants. The various marches to the contest featured chanting and singing as the teams entered the stadium — including taunting words being thrown. Once the game kicked off, both the Bailey and “Nor on Tour” could be heard throughout the match.

Porter’s comments after the game, that he was happy to send the Cincinnati fans home disappointed, and his shushing of the FCC crowd after celebrating in front of the traveling Crew supporters, only adds fuel to the fire.

With each team now playing in a new, state-of-the-art stadium with passionate fans packing these buildings, and matches on the field living up to the billing, Hell is Real has turned into one of the best rivalries in MLS.

The Black & Gold are becoming comeback kids

As mentioned previously, this is the second straight time Columbus has found itself down two goals in the first half and managed to come back and get a point, after doing the same against the Revolution in the opening of Field. It’s also the third time this year that the Crew has gotten a result when trailing, earning a 2-1 comeback win against New York City FC at Red Bull Arena in late May.

Porter does not want to see his team fall into these early holes and have to fight back often. The head coach mentioned after the match that the Black & Gold have to clean up these uncharacteristic errors defensively that have allowed both New England and Cincinnati to claim first half leads. But he is proud of his group for finding a way to fight back in each game after going behind.

Not all teams can battle back from early holes, some instead admitting defeat and preparing to fight for another day. It takes a mentally strong group of players to make any multi-goal comeback, not to mention doing it in back-to-back contests. Columbus showed, especially in this game on the road while playing down a man for much of the match, this ability, which is a good card to be able to play when needed.

The Crew found depth at the right time

Depth has been a major talking point for the Black & Gold all of 2021. In the offseason, the team was building it. Early in the year, it was being tested. Recently, it has been questioned.

On Friday, Columbus went into the game at Cincinnati down 11 players due to a combination of injuries and international call-ups, including multiple starters, and had just six field players on the bench. The Crew then lost Afful to a 42nd minute red card, depleting the depth further.

Yet Porter trusted a number of reserve players to get the job done and they delivered. Saad Abdul-Salaam came in at right back to start the second half, allowing the team to maintain its 4-4-1 shape and play the way they wanted to over the final 45 minutes. Miguel Berry and Aboubacar Keita were inserted 12 minutes into the second half and rookie Isaiah Parente and the newly acquired Erik Hurtado came off the bench with 15 minutes to go.

Berry will forever be remembered for scoring the tying goal in the 77th minute, but also held possession well and created down the right side for the Black & Gold in his MLS debut. Hurtado, despite having only one partial training session with Columbus after his Thursday trade, played multiple roles — as a forward, a winger and then almost as an additional fullback late — to help the Crew get a result. Keita made some important tackles and interventions to keep the one-goal deficit and then preserve the draw after the equalizer. Parente helped maintain the needed level of control in the midfield.

While the Black & Gold hope to see the injury list get shorter in the coming weeks, those players playing for their country at the Gold Cup are going to miss multiple matches. Berry and Hurtado are going to be important for the team’s attack until Gyasi Zardes and Bradley Wright-Phillips return. Abdul-Salaam will likely have to slot in for Afful while he serves his one-game suspension. Given the busy upcoming schedule, Keita and Parente are likely to be called upon again as well in the near future.

This group of relatively unknown players from a Columbus perspective were important in getting an emotional road point on Friday, but will need to be factors going forward for the Crew to continue to earn results.