Like all great rivalries around the world, the Hell is Real Derby needed a villain. Caleb Porter delivered.
While this short series between the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati, which dates back to just 2017 and didn’t start in earnest until Cincinnati became an MLS expansion side in 2019, has had its epic moments in just eight meetings, neither fanbase had someone on the other side for supporters to hate. That is no longer the case.
Following the Crew’s comeback on Friday night to earn a 2-2 draw at Cincinnati’s new TQL Stadium, Porter shushed the FCC crowd after walking over to the corner of the field to thank the traveling Crew supporters. He then took things a step further.
“I wish we would have sent our supporters home with three points, but I hope they go home feeling good about the comeback,” Porter said to end his postgame press conference. “And more than that, I’m glad that the Cincinnati supporters leave very disappointed.”
While Porter’s actions and comments drew the ire of Orange and Blue fans, the Columbus head coach had every reason to be gleeful and boastful after his side’s rare comeback draw in a rivalry match.
The Black & Gold conceded 25 seconds into the game and found themselves down 2-0 inside the first half hour. Before the halftime break, the Crew was dealt another blow when right back Harrison Afful was issued a second yellow card and dismissed from the match.
Add to this that Columbus entered the contest with 11 players unavailable, including multiple starters, and the task of getting anything out of the game became that much more difficult. To many, it seemed hope was lost for the visitors, who needed to battle back from two goals down while playing with one fewer player for more than a half of a game. That was not the approach the Columbus players took, however.
“It’s incredible,” Porter said. “Obviously you can taint the result by saying we were down 2-0, this, that. This is an incredible comeback and an incredible result. And they have to be devastated over there in that other locker room because how can you be up 2-0 and up a man and not win the game?
“I’m not going to let you guys or anyone paper over this result. This is incredible what these guys did and I hope you guys realize it and I hope you pay them some credit for it, honestly”
A first half stoppage time wonder strike by playmaker Lucas Zelarayan from 30 yards out cut the deficit in half. The Black & Gold then went into the locker room with belief. Having come back from two goals down in the first half a week ago, the Columbus players knew it was possible, but the team accomplished that while playing at home and with the likes of Gyasi Zardes, Luis Diaz and Afful on the field.
But the confidence in a comeback never waivered.
“There was always a belief with us on the bench and the coaching staff and even the guys on the field. I could see that even if we did go down, that we could come back and get a result,” the newly acquired Erik Hurtado, who made his debut at the 75th minute mark, said after the game.
Playing down a man, Porter shifted his team to a 4-4-1 formation that allowed the Crew to continue to defend in two blocks of four. While the Black & Gold couldn’t press higher up the field the way the team normally does, the attack was still present through transition moments and set pieces. With Zelarayan on the pitch, Columbus continued to have opportunities, including a one-time effort from the Argentine that struck the crossbar.
After defending well and picking and choosing times to go forward for 32 minutes in the second half, it was the Crew’s No. 10 who once again provided a bit of magic to set up the equalizer. Zelarayan danced by a couple of would-be Cincinnati defenders before playing a through pass that led to Miguel Berry’s equalizer.
While tactical adjustments, substitutions and a couple moments of brilliance from a Designated Player were all a part of the comeback, what really spurred the Black & Gold to a road point in the first Hell is Real Derby of 2021 was the team’s mental approach.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my guys, just the mettle they showed, the resiliency they showed, the mentality, the belief,” Porter said. “It takes all those things to pull out a result like that under the circumstances. We build our locker room to be tough. We build our locker room to be resilient. We build our players’ mentality to fight through anything. Last year was a good example. We were the team that ended up on top through the most difficult year maybe in MLS history. And today was one of the most difficult situations to be in and for us to pull out of that is absolutely incredible. It says everything about the players in that locker room, that group of guys and I just couldn’t be more proud to be their coach.”
On Friday night, Porter may have become the first major villain of this young rivalry with his reaction to the result, but the Columbus head coach has never shied away from wearing his emotions on his sleeve during his career. While he knows the comeback was not all positive and there are aspects of his team’s game that must be cleaned up, he also understands how uncommon it is to accomplish what the Crew did against FC Cincinnati.
“More than anything, I’m not celebrating a draw, I’m celebrating the mentality of my team,” Porter said. “I love my team. I love this group. I love their attitude. We are on the road, you can’t forget that, and we’re playing a team that’s desperate and they were up two goals and up a man. And it’s just incredible, again, that we were able to get a result.”