'Hell' is even more real in this year's MLS Ohio derby

<a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Diego Rossi;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Diego Rossi</a> of <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Columbus Crew;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Columbus Crew</a> celebrates after scoring against <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Cincinnati;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Cincinnati</a> in his team's comeback win in last season's Eastern Conference Final. (Jeff Dean)

The Ohio rivalry between Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati, which resumes on Saturday, was already becoming one of the most intense in Major League Soccer before last season's Eastern Conference final.

But after the Crew walked into Cincy's TQL Stadium and raised the trophy after an upset win over the number one seed, the heat was turned up even more.

The manner of the loss hurt too -- Cincinnati led 2-0 at half-time and they maintained that lead until the last 15 minutes, when Columbus scored twice before winning the game in extra-time.

To add to Cincinnati's pain after a dominant regular season ended in such an elimination to their neighbors, the Crew went on to beat Los Angeles FC in the final, winning their third MLS Cup title.

Wilfried Nancy's side has continued to impress this season, reaching the final of the CONCACAF Champions Cup after upsetting Mexican giants Monterrey.

The Crew have achieved their continental success with a style that has football purists purring, no doubt irritating further the fans in Cincinnati, who see their own club again above Columbus in the standings.

Winners of the Supporters' Shield for the best regular-season record in MLS, Cincy rank second in the East, just three points above Lionel Messi's Inter Miami.

The Crew, perhaps with their focus on CONCACAF action, are in fifth place, six points behind their rivals having drawn six of their opening 10 games of the season.

There is only 100 miles between the two cities and the derby has been nicknamed 'Hell is Real', a reference to a landmark Christian billboard placed on the I-70 highway between the two cities that has stood for almost 20 years.

Cincinnati goalkeeper Roman Celentano said the players have been trying to focus purely on the game and put aside their feelings, but was clear that there is a little extra bite to the match.

"I mean, I'm all for guys using bad feelings as fuel," he said.

"I feel like if you're playing against someone you hate personally, I feel like it makes you play better. So I'm cool with that, for guys that feel certain ways if they want to do that.

"But for me, it's just about... I just want to do everything I get mentally and physically ready just to go out and perform because we want to get our lick back on them because last game didn't go too well."

- 'Have to set the tempo' -

Crew forward Jacen Russell-Rowe certainly expects the visitors to be fired up.

"To be able to come back and beat them in a final in their home, they're going to remember that and they're going to come out flying," he said.

"We have to set the tempo because we're playing in our home."

The status of the derby is surprising given that Cincinnati only came into MLS in 2019.

But the rivalry pre-dates Cincinnati joining MLS as the then-second-tier club upset the Crew in the 2016 US Open Cup in their first-ever meeting.

As in many MLS clashes, there is a distinct South American flavor to the two teams.

Cincinnati are inspired by the league's Most Valuable Player, Argentine midfielder Luciano Acosta, while much of the Crew's inventiveness comes from Uruguayan Diego Rossi while Colombian striker Cucho Hernandez is their main goal threat.

Neutralizing Hernandez will be a tough task and former Crew striker Bradley Wright-Phillips believes that could be the key to the game.

"He fills three positions in the final third. He works off the ball, he scores goals and he gets assists. He had 16 goals and 11 assists last year and has been the best player on the field in Columbus' Champions Cup matches," he said.