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After 9 matches between the Crew and FC Cincinnati, Sunday’s Hell is Real Derby is the biggest in its history

There’s more on the line on Sunday than just pride.

Sam Fahmi - Massive Report

In 2017, the Columbus Crew drew a United Soccer League team in the U.S. Open Cup, the annual tournament featuring teams from throughout the divisions of United States soccer. That team was FC Cincinnati, two years into the club’s existence as a lower-league side.

Since that time, when the lower-league side upset the Major League Soccer team, Cincinnati joined MLS, the Black & Gold won an MLS Cup and both sides — located roughly two hours apart — unveiled new stadiums. But when did the rivalry transfer from the fans in the stands to the players on the field?

Someone with experience in the Hell is Real Derby, as this rivalry is affectionately known due to a sign posted on the interstate between the two cities — is center back Josh Williams. After two years spent between Toronto FC and New York City FC, the Northeast Ohioan rejoined Columbus in 2017. On June 14, 2017, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Williams stepped into the first match between Cincinnati and the Crew as a 46th minute substitute.

“That was obviously the first time where I felt a presence about them,” said Williams. “And as soon as you get into the league, you know there’s that rivalry that’s kind of kindling there.”

Cincinnati starting the kindling, getting the best of the Black & Gold with the 1-0 Open Cup victory thanks to a header from Baye Djibi Fall. In the eight matches that followed, the rivalry results have been as stark of a contrast as each team’s respected places in the standings over the years.

Columbus leads the all-time series with a 4-1-3 record since Cincinnati joined MLS in 2019. Since that initial Orange Blue victory and a Crew comeback draw in 2019, the Black & Gold have scored 18 goals in the 10 matches against their rivals to the south, compared to nine for Cincinnati.

In 2020, when the series swung in Columbus’ favor, Crew standout Aidan Morris made his MLS debut. The Black & Gold Academy product played in two of Columbus’ three matches against Cincinnati in 2020 but hasn’t played in the rivalry since due to an ACL tear in 2021.

For Morris, there’s something under the surface of supporter banter that folks might not see that makes Hell is Real a rivalry.

“I don’t know if you guys notice as much as we do, little gestures, little actions within games where you kind of pick up that it means a little bit more than just a regular match,” Morris said when speaking to the local media about the game this week. “When there’s a distance like that, guys say a little bit more than they normally would, guys tackle a little bit harder than they normally would. So, I think there’s a bit more edge from both teams.”

The Crew has edged Cincinnati multiple times since the two teams began playing regularly, including in 2021 when the Black & Gold came back from multiple deficits to earn a 2-2 draw and 3-2 victory, courtesy of three goals over the two matches from forward Miguel Berry. Those meetings, along with many others, came with the Orange and Blue sitting well below Columbus in the standings, with three wooden spoon seasons in their MLS history.

In 2022 though, the story is different.

For the first time in the rivalry, the teams enter the match with Cincinnati above the Crew in the Eastern Conference table. After three seasons of finishing last in MLS, the Orange and Blue sit in sixth place in the East, one more point in one more match played than the Black & Gold.

Entering Sunday, both teams come in with impressive streaks on the field too. Columbus has gone seven straight matches without suffering a defeat and Cincinnati hasn’t lost in six matches.

It isn’t only the supporters that appreciate a match between rivals where both clubs are in good form.

“I’m not trying to be funny or disrespectful at all but you need both sides to bring that heat to a rivalry,” said Williams. “I’ve watched them a bunch this year and they finally put together a roster that you know they can compete on a high level.”

Although both teams are in better positions this year than in 2021, Cincinnati won’t be at full strength on Sunday. Cincinnati midfielder Luciano Acosta misses this match while serving what will be a three-game suspension for touching a referee in the team’s 1-1 draw against New York Red Bulls on July 9. That means FC Cincinnati will be without the June MLS Player of the Month, who has six goals and 10 assists in 19 appearances this season.

Regardless, FC Cincy still brings firepower to the contest. Forward Brandon Vázquez has 10 goals and four assists this year, while Brazilian forward Brenner is finally making an impact after joining the club in 2021 with five goals and four assists in nine 2021 starts, including a hat trick against New York City FC.

Given the two teams’ place in the standings, Sunday’s match has by far the biggest implications since the rivalry began five years ago. Adding that it could be a potential home debut for new Crew Designated Player forward Cucho Hernández and this Hell is Real Debry is a matchup made for a national audience.

For head coach Caleb Porter, its importance goes further.

“For me, this is the biggest game of the season,” said Porter. “This is the one that you highlight on the calendar. We have a chance to kind of go over the top of them in the standings, or obviously, they have the chance to go further away.”