CINCINNATI -- It might be a little premature to call FC Cincinnati and Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew SC a true rivalry, but the first “Ohio Derby” between them could be the beginning of one -- big time.
FC Cincinnati puts its MLS aspirations to the test when it hosts Columbus Crew SC in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday -- a game that could set a Cup attendance record with about 25,000 fans expected.
The host club is opening up two sections for Crew fans, and both sides’ supporters already have a large presence on social media discussing the matchup with the use of #HellisReal, referencing the well-known sign off I-71 on the drive between Cincinnati and Columbus. There are even T-shirts and scarves with that phrase being sold, marking the very unofficial but widely popular nickname for the derby.
“The rivalry would mean a lot to both of the clubs, I think,” said 27-year-old Maineville resident Steve Williams, who had Crew season tickets in 2014-15 before switching to the local team’s Bailey pass list. “FC Cincinnati looks at Major League Soccer, and a lot of the fans started with watching the Crew, the local major league team. Now that we have our own team, it started out like they don't care about us, we're just some team in Cincinnati, but now it seems they are taking us seriously. They've never cared about the Open Cup (at this stage) before."
FC Cincinnati is one of 12 cities vying for the four remaining spots in MLS expansion plans and could join the league as early as 2020, if awarded a bid.
That buzz is back in the air this week especially with the club’s proposed stadium designs released at a town hall meeting with season ticket holders Monday night and now with the Crew coming to Nippert.
Crew owner Anthony Precourt will have a say in Cincinnati’s fate as one of the expansion committee members, but FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding said there is no added pressure to perform in this game even with the MLS spotlight on FC Cincinnati.
“We have a good working relationship with folks in Columbus, and we believe that regional rivalries are a big part of the interest in sports, whether it be at the college level -- you think about the Crosstown Shootout -- or the pro level with the Bengals and the Steelers or the Reds and the Cardinals, that's what drives a lot of the passion,” Berding said.
Berding pointed to the strong rivalry between the MLS's Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders as a strong regional rivalry.
"At the end of the day, though, we understand we're still part of going through the process and we're not getting too far ahead of ourselves," he said.
Future holds potential
But Wednesday’s match, the entry point of the U.S. Open Cup for MLS teams, certainly could provide a preview to what's to come, should these matches become a regular affair.
Many believe it could become the Ohio’s biggest intrastate rivalry.
“It has the potential to be (Ohio's biggest rivalry) because the Bengals-Browns rivalry is tough right now, and I'm a Browns fan,” said 4th Floor Creative President Tom Gelehrter, who serves as the voice of FC Cincinnati. “It's still a rivalry but the Bengals have been dominating. ... My friends who are big Bengals fans don't even talk trash anymore because it's not really fun."
Gelehrter isn't sure baseball's rivalry isn't any more heated.
"The Indians-Reds (series) is a rivalry but is it blood, sweat and tears when they play? Not really. This rivalry could be. If they are playing three or four times a year, imagine that. Fans going up and down I-71 four times a year, you better believe it could turn into a big rivalry in a hurry.”
Right now, without knowing when the teams will even play again, the perceived rivalry seems more to do with FC Cincinnati wanting to beat the major league club it plays second fiddle to in Ohio simply because of pedigree, and the Crew not wanting to lose to a lower-tier club from 100 miles down the interstate.
FC Cincinnati would have faced the Crew in this same round last year had the Orange and Blue beaten the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the third round. FC Cincinnati midfielder Eric Stevenson said it seems the buildup began then.
“I feel like people have been wanting this game to happen since last year,” Stevenson said. “We came up short the game before when we had a chance to move on and play the Crew, and there was a ton of buzz about it, so it's been a year buildup to this exact game.”
FC Cincy wins regardless
Regardless of the outcome, it’s a win-win situation for FC Cincinnati as the host.
Midweek matchups are usually the lowest attended games, but the club announced Monday it had already sold 20,000 tickets. The game is not included in season ticket packages.
“There is more to lose for Columbus but for FC Cincinnati it's a great opportunity,” Gelehrter said. “There is a lot to gain because it's going to be an incredible atmosphere, close to 25,000 I'm guessing, and it will be a really cool soccer night, much like Crystal Palace last year. Do people remember it was 2-nil? No, they remember the sold-out Nippert Stadium, the pageantry and the fact this place was packed at the first touch."
The excitement could be good for Columbus, too, as the Crew really doesn’t have a big rival in MLS.
The Chicago Fire are the closest in proximity and once were considered the club’s biggest competitor, but the interest seems to have faded over the years, according FC Cincinnati defender Austin Berry, a Cincinnati native who attended Crew games as a youth and began his career with the Fire.
Stevenson, who is from Columbus and came up through the Crew’s youth academy, said the same thing.
“I don't feel like there is as much tension between the two teams as when they were first brought up,” Stevenson said. “If we bump up to MLS, it could definitely be a future big-time rivalry down the road, so you get a first look at that (Wednesday).”
Both teams appear to be taking the match seriously.
The Columbus Dispatch reported earlier this week that the Crew is planning to use a mix of regulars and reserves, which is common among MLS clubs in the early rounds of the Cup. The Crew lost a handful of players to international call-ups, as well, so that could also impact the lineup.
FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said his team is playing to win and will use a regular lineup, despite an important stretch of three games in eight days capped by a match Saturday against Eastern Division leader Charleston Battery.
“We owe it to ourselves, to our fans and to our city to embrace this challenge and we're definitely doing that,” Koch said.
An honored guest
It’s clear FC Cincinnati has a lot of respect for the Crew all around.
Berding went as far as to credit the MLS founding member for helping FC Cincinnati take off as it has in terms of popularity, by building a better awareness to the game for fans like Williams.
Williams said he fell in love with soccer because of the Crew. He had watched some U.S. men’s national team games during World Cup tournaments and the occasional European match on TV, but didn’t become a real fan of the game until attending some Crew games in 2011. The game day environment Williams found at Crew games hooked him in, and now he enjoys that same experience at FC Cincinnati matches. He’s even become a member of the Die Innenstadt supporters’ group.
Berding understands there are likely many others that share that same background and doesn’t take that for granted.
“We are honored to have the opportunity to host the Columbus Crew, and literally, we're standing on their shoulders,” Berding said. “They and the other founding members of MLS have really introduced professional soccer to the United States, starting in 1996, and they've really created the environment through their blood, sweat, tears and money to create the environment where soccer can be introduced and in one year take off here in Cincinnati. It's a testament to what MLS has created. We're thrilled to play them.”