Hell is Real 2024: Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati Fans Prep for Derby

Fans of two of the best squads in MLS — Ohio's own Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati — are ready for their next derby meeting.

May 7, 2024

Hell is Real. There are a few ways of looking at the latest upcoming edition of the heated rivalry between the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati. It’s a chance for revenge for FC Cincinnati. It’s a showcase for the best state (Ohio) in the MLS. It’s another possible notch in an incredible Crew run over the past six months which includes an MLS Cup title and an upcoming trip to the CONCACAF Champions Cup Final.

It’s also another meeting between two of the most passionate fan bases in Major League Soccer.

The slogan for this intrastate hate/respect-fest came from a billboard with those exact words along I-71 between Columbus and Cincinnati. This time, FCC travels to Field to face the Crew, with kickoff scheduled for 7:45 p.m. ET Saturday.

“They hate us, we hate them, it’s Hell Week, this is all that matters right now,” said Chris Marshall, founder and president of the 400-plus-strong Norden Supporters Group for FC Cincinnati.

“We think of them in a positive manner,” says Morgan Hughes, who spearheaded the Save the Crew movement in 2017. “If you’re a Cincy fan, it’s likely that you either just started paying attention to soccer or you’re a former Crew fan who changed allegiances. Either way, they’re very precious.”

Currently, Cincy is second in the Eastern Conference, while Columbus is in fifth place.

Cincy would love to extract some revenge for the Crew’s comeback 3-2 victory in the Eastern Conference finals in December. Brandon Vazquez and Luciano Acosta scored to give Cincinnati a 2-0 lead in the 45th minute, but Christian Ramirez scored the game winner in the 115th minute of regulation time.

The shocking loss ended FCC’s dream season, during which they captured the Supporters Shield for best record in the MLS, just two years after the club had the worst record in the league.

“The Eastern Conference Finals heartbreak in Cincy last year left a really bad taste in our mouths, watching them celebrate on our field after we lost our lead is not something that many have gotten over, the sting is still there,” Marshall says.

For the Crew, Saturday’s match could be their latest bit of glory. Last week, they defeated powerful Mexican club Monterrey — in both legs — to reach the CONCACAF Champions League final (vs Pachuca on June 1). Back in December, they won their second MLS Cup title.

“It’s been an amazing run, where they’ve come from, everything they went through,” says BigPlay TV host and The Field contributor Chris McNeil (also known as reflog_18 on X/Twitter), who calls himself a fan — albeit not a superfan. “The Crew is different than other sports, like Ohio State football. They continue to do things you don’t expect them to do, but in a good way. They are both the underdog and also win championships.”

“FCC and the Crew are the top two franchises in the league right now,” Marshall says. “Both major trophies (Supporters Shield, MLS Cup) from 2023 live in Ohio in their respective cities, and the top play has carried over to this year.

“No one likes Inter Miami, they are the corporate franchise of the MLS,” Marshall said of the MLS club that added Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. “The Crew are an original MLS club and FCC is the greatest grassroots soccer story in the country. Ohio has the largest rivalry in the league with the best players, coaching and quality of play without being the media darlings, but the trophies live in Ohio.”

Big Play TV’s McNeil has had a front-row seat to the Crew’s rise and its place in the pantheon of Ohio sports.

“When Cincinnati got their beginning (in 2016 in the USL), many of their fans were Crew fans. Now it’s a natural rivalry. I see a lot of parallels with the Browns and Bengals, when Paul Brown went to Cincinnati and founded the Bengals.

“Cincinnati is a bit more buttoned up than Columbus…there are natural differences between us, but it’s great to have this amazing rivalry.”

Hughes says it’s hard to describe the energy when thousands of Crew and FCC fans converge — either at Field or at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati. There’s a lot of “hate,” but probably more respect from the franchises and fans.

“The vibes are off the chart,” Hughes says of Hell Is Real matches. “On the field, in the stands or at the pregame tailgates. Cowtown turns into Goosebumps City when it’s game day. Unsurpassed atmosphere from start to finish.”

It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago FC Cincinnati was just about the worst franchise in the MLS, finishing with the 24th-, 25th- and 27th-worst records in the MLS. That was before winning the Supporters Shield last year.

“It’s funny because during the dark years we just wanted to be competitive,” Marshall says. “But now the expectations are tops. Fans have expectations that not only do we need to win, we need to always look dominant doing it. Times have changed and success is the standard. It will not end until we win the MLS Cup, that is the expectation.”

The Crew, one of the original MLS franchises, now has three MLS Cup titles. In their last two title-winning seasons, they finished with the third-best overall record in the league, only to surpass that level in the postseason.

“This team is consistently playing their best games in the biggest moments, which is literally the apex of sports,” Hughes says. “The ethos of the team is to invite pressure and then execute. Your brightest lights are the most effective during the darkest of nights, and right now the Crew aren’t just welcoming the darkness, they’re actively celebrating its arrival.”

Alex Valdes
Alex Valdes is Web Content Manager at Tipico North America. He has written, edited and performed user and site analysis at MoneyTalksNews, NBC Sports, MSN, Bing, MSNBC, as well as newspapers and magazines.