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What is the Hell is Real Derby? MLS Conference final

FC Cincinnati take on Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final this weekend. We take a look at the history behind Ohio’s MLS derby.

Origins of the Hell is Real Derby
X Columbus Crew

As we head into December, there are two teams from the Eastern Conference still in contention to lift MLS Cup.

FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew both hail from the Midwestern state of Ohio but each took very different routes to get to this point. On Saturday evening they meet at TQL Stadium knowing that they are just 90 minutes away from the showpiece final.

In terms of Ohio sporting rivalries the Bengals-Browns NFL fixtures may have the edge in terms of history, but the stakes could not be higher for the first-ever MLS playoff Hell is Real Derby.

With it all to play for in Ohio this weekend, we take a look at the origins of the infamous soccer rivalry...

Why is it called the Hell is Real Derby?

FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew first met in 2017, when the former was playing in the second tier United Soccer League (USL). Cincinnati were admitted to MLS in 2019 and the teams have now met 14 times across both competitions.

The two Ohio cities are separated by a 102-mile stretch of road with one very distinctive feature. The I-71 highway is home to a huge billboard bearing the words ‘Hell is Real’ and supporters have taken that phrase as the fixture’s moniker.

It is not entirely clear how the ‘Hell is Real Derby’ name first burst into mainstream consciousness, although the process was certainly a fan-led one. This is the case with many well-known MLS derby monikers. El Trafico began as a light-hearted reference to Los Angeles’ transport nightmare, New York supporters groups banded together to build interest around the Hudson River Derby.

Sporting rivalries are an animating force for supporters and this weekend’s Hell is Real Derby, with a place in MLS Cup on the line, promises to be one of the games of the season.

Who made the Hell is Real sign?

The iconic sign, along with many more dotted around Ohio and other neighbouring states, are the work of Kentucky developer Jimmy Harston. He has erected more than 30 billboards to spread messages of Christianity across the country.

However there is one billboard that has risen to national fame, the Hell is Real sign sitting alongside the I-71 between Cincinnati and Columbus. The message is simply displayed with white letters on a black background, although a local graffiti artist added a cartoonish devil’s face earlier this year.

Harston, now 72, has little interest in soccer but insists that the billboard is helping to spread the word of the Lord.

“The Lord put it on my heart,” Harston told The Columbus Dispatch. “It doesn’t damage what I have done. I am sure the Lord is using it for what it was meant to be.

The sign has been up since 2004 and, although it is approaching its 20-year anniversary, the large roadside structure appears as strong as ever.

Cincinnati vs Columbus head-to-head record

As hosts and Supporters Shield winners, Cincinnati come into the Eastern Conference final as slight favourites. Cincinnati cruised through the regular season and boast MLS MVP Luciano Acosta and Coach of the Year Pat Noonan.

But they come up against a Columbus side who were the MLS’ top scorers in the regular season and have blasted another ten goals in four playoff fixtures. Cincinnati are also weakened by the absence of Matt Miazga after he was hit with a three-game suspension earlier this week.

Saturday’s game is finely balanced, but in historic terms Columbus have the edge over their Ohio rival. With the help of our friends at Sofascore, here is the full head-to-head record for all MLS Hell is Real fixtures...

FC Cincinnati vs Columbus Crew head-to-head
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FC Cincinnati vs Columbus Crew head-to-headSofascore

In the 2023 regular season the home side came out on top in both matches. FC Cincinnati secured a 3-2 victory in May, with Luciano Acosta scoring twice for the hosts. In the reverse fixture in August Columbus ran out 3-0 winners, emphasising their attacking prowess.

Saturday’s game is almost too close to call, with a shot at MLS Cup on the line for both teams. One thing’s for sure, it promises to be another thrilling chapter in the burgeoning history of the Hell is Real Derby.