Entering Sunday’s Hell is Real Derby between the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati, there was a lot of excitement. After all, Columbus’ new forward Cucho Hernández was available to make his first appearance at Lower.com Field, both teams entered with long unbeaten streaks and it was the first time each team faced off with Cincinnati being at a higher spot in the standings. Their spot above the Crew didn’t last long, with Columbus leaping above FC Cincinnati following a 2-0 home victory.
That excitement was obvious from before the first kick. During player announcements, Hernández received the largest ovation that Lower.com Field might have ever seen and the tradition of singing “Wise Men” was so loud that it drowned out a large traveling Cincinnati supporter contingency.
Once the match got underway, that energy continued. Initially it was the visitors who took advantage. In the third minute, 10-goal scoring forward Brandon Vazquez found space down the right wing, sending a cross into the box, landing at the feet of winger Álvaro Barreal who shot at goal, within a couple feet of goalkeeper Eloy Room. In a bang bang play, Room stopped the shot with his feet and slowed an initial rush of FC Cincinnati momentum.
The Crew absorbed the pressure, and individual plays broke up the early Cincinnati possession. Leading the way was young midfielder Aidan Morris. The midfielder made two small but impactful plays. The first came on the offensive half, with Cincinnati trying to clear a ball away following a pass into the penalty box, Morris rushed towards the ball to keep it in Columbus’ possession. Moments later, he was in the defensive midfield running up behind Vazquez to stop a Cincinnati play from developing.
As well as Morris was playing, supporters were most excited for Hernández. The new forward who entered with three goals in two matches, in only 89 minutes played, found space patrolling the left side of the penalty area. In the first 13 minutes, Hernández already had two shots that didn’t hit the mark but showed his skills nonetheless. In the 10th minute it was a shot that went wide left of the post and three minutes later, receiving a pass from Nagbe at the top of the penalty area and in a split second turning and shooting it high and forcing a save.
In the 16th minute, Hernández and the Crew broke through. It came like the last two goals, off a pass from Zelarayán, this time a free kick. Standing between the left side of the penalty area and the sideline, Zelarayán whipped in a cross that Hernández hit from the left corner of the goal box, tucked inside the right post.
That goal sent the stadium in a frenzy, and lifted the energy of the Black & Gold on the field, but after the last two matches, where the Crew allowed four goals and the match-tying goal at D.C. United, the defense had a microscope on their performance and for the first half they delivered.
Room and center backs Jonathan Mensah, back from a yellow card accumulation suspension, and Josh Williams kept Cincinnati from real chances on goal and had moments that changed the trajectory of the first 45 minutes.
In the 25th minute, it was Williams rushing back to midfield to intercept an errant pass from the visitors. The 31st minute featured three corner kicks in a row, with Room saving two of the three and his defenders clearing away the third. In the 37th, Vazquez went on the break and a pass was lobbed to the attacking penalty area with Mensah and Williams chasing behind. Mensah caught up to the pass, performed a high kick to stop the pass, and didn’t allow Vazquez to challenge on goal.
Before halftime though, something missing from the match were any yellow card bookings, although it was a physical half of play. As Cincinnati chase a goal, the tackles got stronger. Columbus entered the locker room up a goal, with 45 minutes to hold onto a victory.
The time without a yellow card ended quickly in the second half. In the 47th minute, center back Nick Hagglund pulled Zelarayán back from an attack towards goal, a play that Cincinnati had pulled on Zelarayán a few times in the first half.
For the first five minutes following the foul, Columbus were the aggressors. Hernández took a long shot from the penalty area corner that went high and Zelarayán adding a shot on target of his own requiring a save from goalkeeper Roman Celentano.
A noticeable change for the Black & Gold at the end of the first half, into the beginning of the second half, was less energy. The electricity of the first half subsided and with Cincinnati searching for an equalizer, the Crew got on their backfoot.
Head coach Caleb Porter brought forward Erik Hurtado in and he was part of bringing some of that energy back on offense, becoming part Columbus chances. In the 66th minute, Hurtado ran down the right wing and sent a cross into the penalty area that Celentano fumbled in the box. With the ball sitting a few feet from the goal line, Zelarayán ran up to take the shot but the ball was cleared out of the area at the final second.
Hurtado brought that same energy in the 74th. This time, winger Luis Díaz had a break down the right sideline that Cincinnati lost for an awkward throw to the Crew. Hurtado quickly took the throw, finding Díaz open for goal. The winger attacked the six-yard-box but hit side netting instead of finding an open teammate running into the penalty area.
From there, the Crew changed to a 4-3-3 formation with midfielder James Igbekeme and took control of the match. Moments after the substitution, it was a hand ball call that didn’t come to fruition. Again, it was Hurtado who created a moment. Shooting only a few feet from goal, Hagglund’s hand just touches the ball but not enough for a VAR review or a penalty call. Columbus had a clearer penalty shout moments later.
In the 85th minute, Cincinnati midfielder Obinna Nwobodo stood in the way of a Zelarayán shot from the top of the penalty area and threw his arm up in the air in the process. The referee called the penalty and Zelarayán buried it.
Up two, the Crew didn’t rest, still attacking on net but ultimately didn’t hit on target again. Columbus won the Hell is Real rivalry soundly 2-0.
Cucho Hernández’s introduction
For two matches, most Crew supporters saw Columbus’ record signing on television. In those matches, Hernández had three goals, all scored in dynamic fashion. There’s something missing though watching a player of that caliber on a screen than inside the stadium and Black & Gold supporters saw it first-hand.
Hernández’s 16th minute goal was his fourth style of goal in four goals. This time, a towering header. The striker impressed offensively outside of the goal. He covered most of the offensive half of the field and anywhere there was offensive momentum, there Hernández was.
Porter brought the forward out in the 64th minute, as he’s still building fitness since joining the Crew.
In the last two matches, Columbus allowed teams near the bottom of the standings in Chicago Fire and D.C. United to take leads and also erase them. Sunday, the Crew’s defense looked back to normal, with Williams and Mensah controlling the backline all night.
While Cincinnati had their chances, outside of the first attempt in the opening minutes, the visitors never had a real sound chance at challenging for a goal. Also, another defender returned from injury. Miloš Degenek, who was questionable entering the match, came in at the 89th minute to relieve Zelarayán.
The Crew have back-to-back home matches for the first time in the 2022 season, not including a two-week international break. Columbus welcomes the New England Revolution to Lower.com Field on Saturday. In their last matchup, Columbus and the Revolution ended in a 2-2 draw in Foxboro, Massachusetts.