The Crew must show experience, discipline in Hell Is Real Derby at FC Cincinnati

Last August, the Columbus Crew went to rivals FC Cincinnati and came away with a dramatic 2-2 draw. What appeared to be a win for the home side, which responded to a Derrick Etienne second half goal with what the fans at TQL Stadium thought was the game-winner three minutes later, was spoiled by a goal from Steven Moreria in the sixth minute of stoppage time.

Cincinnati fans weren’t happy with the result for a number of reasons, but Moreira remembers his goal fondly. “Fire,” the defender said when asked to recall that game and his equalizer.

Saturday night, the Hell Is Real Derby kicks off in 2023 as the Crew makes the familiar two-hour trip south to face Cincinnati. It is a game that is once again expected to be “fire.”

For what could likely be as many as six starters, this will be their first experience in this rivalry. This does not include first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy, or his staff, who will get their first experience in the Hell Is Real Derby.

“This is not another game because it’s a rivalry,” Nancy said of facing Cincinnati. “So we cannot deny that. This is going to be the first one, so I need to see how the players will react regarding this game. And after that, I’m going to be able to use tools, depending what I’m going to see. It could be tactical tools. It could be a lot of things. It depends. But in terms of motivation, we know we don’t have to motivate the players for that.”

Motivation should be no problem, but experience could be limited for the away side. It is likely that only Moreira, midfielders Aidan Morris, Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan and forward Cucho Hernandez have played legitimate minutes in this derby match. Depending on how Nancy lines up his team, three starters in defenders Mohamed Farsi and Philip Quinton and goalkeeper Patrick Schulte are in their second professional seasons.

Like any rivalry, this game takes on a different meaning for the players, staff and fans. There is an intensity that must be met by either team in order to make it a competitive game. 

Talking about that in the build up to the game this week is one thing but those who haven’t been in a derby such as Hell Is Real could be in for a quick awakening.

Crew supporters piled into TQL Stadium last year for the Hell Is Real Derby in Cincinnati. Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

“We cannot buy experience,” Nancy said. “Experience comes with – you have to live it. And for me, I believe that. That doesn’t mean I will not put the young players or old players, because we can have a young player but he has this ability or personality to handle any kind of pressure. But yeah, for sure, it’s important to have a good mix of players that understand what it means because this is not the same game.”

What makes this game that much more difficult for the Black & Gold is how Cincinnati has begun the 2023 season. The Orange and Blue are off to a fast start to the year, sitting atop MLS with 27 points. Cincinnati has lost just once in 12 games this season and is a perfect 7-0 at TQL Stadium.

The emotion mixed with the ability of the home side makes for the biggest challenge of the year for Columbus.

“I’d love to say it’s just another game but obviously there’s a lot more emotions that go into it,” Schulte said this week. “I think it’s just trying to calm ourselves down and just play our game, honestly. With all the emotions that go on, the way we play, we need to be calm and composed. So I think the first couple minutes of the game, doing whatever we can to relax, slow down and then hopefully our ability and our system just kind of takes over the game.”

Then, of course, there’s what actually takes place on the field.

The Crew has dominated this rivalry in its six years of existence, losing once in MLS play and once in the U.S. Open Cup. But Cincinnati turned a corner last season, climbing out of the MLS basement to finish in fifth place in the Eastern Conference – three points ahead of the Black & Gold – and make the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time.

If Columbus – who sits in fifth place in the East, nine points behind the Orange and Blue, heading into this game – is to continue to get results in this series on Saturday night, it will require discipline beyond handling the emotion of the derby. Nancy isn’t so concerned with his team scoring goals, something the Crew has done better than all but one MLS team, but rather key moments coming the other way.

Following a 2-0 win against the LA Galaxy on Wednesday, Nancy saw something concerning with his side when it came to what he termed “rest defense” or being set up to defend when the Black & Gold lose the ball. The Galaxy kept attackers forward even when Columbus has the ball in the offensive third and the team was caught in transition too frequently.

LA couldn’t punish the Crew, but FC Cincinnati, a team that plays with two forwards and an attacking midfielder who aren’t asked to defend much, will if the Black & Gold aren’t careful.

“Yesterday we were not good in the rest defense,” Nancy said on Thursday. “Rest defense is when we attack, try to counter the offensive transition. And if we do that against Cincy, we’re going to take five goals. So we have to be good when we attack to be balanced depending how many players are going to stay up… All the players, they have to orgainze the shape offensively to attack well but also to defend well. Against Cincinnati, we know that they’re going to have two players up front and one No. 10 most of the time, I don’t think that’s going to change. We have to be good to control those players when we attack.”

Columbus won’t change the way the team plays for the occasion or going on the road against a rival but has to manage all the aspects of the game in the right way. Saturday will be a good test for a young Crew team.

“Honestly, I’m looking forward to this game,” Nancy said.

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