Hotter Than Hell: Columbus and Cincinnati Vie to be U.S. Men's National Soccer's Mecca

What do you get when you mix Columbus, Cincinnati, the USMNT, international intrigue and two proud Ohio fan bases? Bad blood, intensifying rivalries and a season of high-stakes soccer (and trolling).

Chris DeVille
Derrick Johnson, left, and Nick Smith cheer during the U.S. vs. Costa Rica soccer match at Lower.com Field in October 2021.

You’ve seen the meme. “Distracted Boyfriend,” they call it: A woman casts a look of disbelief at the man she is walking with as he whistles approvingly at another woman passing by. This stock photo, such a clear yet versatile visual metaphor, was all the rage back in 2017 and persists online to this day.

“Distracted Boyfriend” made one memorable appearance on TQL Stadium’s Twitter account in July 2021. That day, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that TQL—the newly constructed home of Major League Soccer’s FC Cincinnati—would host a World Cup qualifier between the U.S. men’s national team and Mexico, its biggest rival and fiercest competitor in the region. This was a big deal.

For years, every time the final qualifying round arrived, the U.S.-Mexico clash was played two hours up the road at what’s now called Historic Crew Stadium. This worked out splendidly for the Americans—until it didn’t. After 2-0 victories in 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013 that collectively came to be known as the “dos a cero” games, the U.S. finally lost to Mexico in Columbus in 2016 en route to missing its first World Cup since 1986.

Just weeks before the announcement that TQL would host the Mexico match, the Crew opened a fancy new stadium of its own, Lower.com Field. Many in Columbus hoped the new venue would inspire the USSF to bring Mexico back to town for a sixth straight qualifying cycle. Instead, the most sought-after contest in U.S. Soccer fandom was moving to Cincinnati.

Thus the meme: Lower.com Field as the aghast woman, U.S. Soccer as the distracted boyfriend, TQL Stadium as the object of desire. It was masterful trolling—exactly the kind of gesture that has typified the relationship between the Columbus and Cincinnati soccer contingents.

This is a story about two heated rivalries—both pitting North against South in a battle for regional soccer supremacy—and how they intersected in Ohio in the fall of 2021.

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The older of the two is the longstanding antagonism between Mexico and the United States in men’s international soccer. The North American nations first faced off in a World Cup qualifier in Rome in 1934, a 4-2 win for the U.S. Ever since, they’ve been fighting to rule the continent and, starting with a 1961 merger, the whole of CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football).

Despite getting the rivalry off on the right foot, the Yanks spent much of the 20th century in subjection. Mexico established itself as a global soccer power. Meanwhile, the U.S. went 40 years without competing in a World Cup before finally qualifying again in 1990. U.S. Soccer’s momentum began to build as this country hosted the 1994 World Cup and even advanced beyond the group stage. It picked up even more when the U.S. launched its own professional domestic league, Major League Soccer, in 1996. Still, the rivalry remained lopsided in Mexico’s favor.

One major boost for the Mexicans: When the teams faced off in the States, large numbers of Mexico partisans routinely filled stadiums in major markets, creating a home away from home for the visitors. In CONCACAF’s final World Cup qualifying round, only the top three teams get automatic bids. The fourth-place team faces a one-game playoff. The rest are out. Consistently drawing or losing to Mexico on American soil was making the qualification process unnecessarily difficult for the USMNT. They lacked an equivalent to Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, where high altitude and boisterous supporters contribute to an imposing environment for visitors. Even within their own country, it seemed there was nowhere the Americans could go for a proper home-field advantage.

That changed with the construction of Columbus Crew Stadium. After renovations to Ohio Stadium forced the Crew out of their original home, investor-operator Lamar Hunt rushed to build MLS’s first soccer-specific stadium in time for the 1999 season. It wasn’t a particularly impressive venue, but it was a milestone for American soccer. It also proved to be the fortress the USSF had been seeking: a venue far away from Mexico, in a city not known for its large Hispanic population, small enough to tightly control ticket distribution. After Crew Stadium hosted a successful qualifier against Costa Rica in 2000, U.S. Soccer awarded Columbus the Mexico game in the final round of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.

As a bonus, the match was scheduled to take place in February, creating a particularly inhospitable environment for the Mexican contingent. In fact, it was so cold on Feb. 28, 2001, that Mexico’s team skipped their pregame warmups. “La Guerra Fría” (the Cold War) was hard-fought—Crew star Brian McBride, the starting U.S. striker, was forced out within the first 15 minutes after a collision with Mexico’s Rafa Márquez left his eye swollen shut—but ultimately the U.S. prevailed 2-0 on goals by Josh Wolff and Earnie Stewart. It was a pivotal moment in American soccer history, one that gave a new swagger to American players, coaches and fans.

Columbus Crew defender Josh Williams reacts with fans after the Major League Soccer match between Columbus Crew SC and D.C. United at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday, September 30, 2017.

Current Crew defender Josh Williams, a native of Copley, Ohio, was in the stands that night. “That match was what made me kind of fall in love with American soccer, truly fall in love with it,” Williams told ESPN last year, reflecting the feelings of many who witnessed the win. In the same feature, former Crew star Frankie Hejduk, a reserve for the USMNT that night, recalled, “That was the first time we really felt that aura and energy of Crew Stadium.”

Opting not to fix what wasn’t broken, U.S. Soccer kept scheduling the Mexico game in Columbus. A 2005 rematch between the Yanks and “El Tri” (so named for Mexico’s three-striped flag) yielded the same 2-0 result. Improbably, the same score repeated in 2009 and 2013. (U.S. forward Clint Dempsey famously missed a penalty kick seemingly on purpose in the waning moments of the 2009 game to keep things at 2-0.) Each successive “dos a cero” victory bolstered the city’s reputation as the “spiritual home” of American soccer, a phrase that has been repeated in several articles and broadcasts over the years.

U.S.-Mexico in Columbus became arguably U.S. Soccer’s most storied tradition. It was a point of pride for the local soccer community: Columbus was the best because it brought out the best in the U.S. team. And then, with a deflating 2-1 defeat on Nov. 11, 2016—setting the tone for a disastrous run that saw the Americans miss the World Cup for the first time in three decades—the Columbus magic was suddenly gone.

The same year the U.S. mojo wore off in Columbus, FC Cincinnati played its inaugural season in the United Soccer League, a professional league one notch below MLS. The team was an immediate sensation, drawing USL-record crowds to Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus. In 2016, the team’s average attendance was 17,296. In 2017, it rose to 21,199. By 2018 it was up to 25,717. Cincy’s draw exceeded that of many MLS franchises, including the Crew, whose attendance was dwindling even before investor-operator Anthony Precourt revealed his plan to move the team to Austin in late 2017.

Cincinnati fans made sure to point out the attendance disparity in June 2017 when the Crew and FC Cincy faced off at Nippert in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a century-old tournament involving pro, semi-pro and amateur soccer teams. (Yes, it was renamed in honor of the Crew’s former owner in 1999 to recognize his contributions to American soccer.) A 1-0 victory in the Open Cup match further emboldened Cincinnati supporters, who believed a more robust fan culture had sprung up around their so-called minor-league franchise.

In the leadup to that first Columbus-Cincinnati showdown, a supporter for one of the teams—nobody can remember who—had the bright idea to call the new intra-state rivalry “Hell Is Real,” a reference to an infamous, evangelical billboard between the two cities along I-71 in Mount Sterling. The name stuck. By the start of 2019, the Crew was saved from being shipped off to Austin, just in time for FC Cincinnati to join MLS as an expansion team. Now the Ohio clubs would face off multiple times a year in regular season play, occasioning lots of references to “Kentucky FC” from Columbus supporters and a T-shirt from Cincy Shirts that reads “Carole Baskin Is A Columbus Fan.

Crew fan Victor Ortiz holds a "Hell is Real" flag at a match against FC Cincinnati at Mapfre Stadium in 2019

“Hell Is Real,” a phrase that has been embraced by both clubs’ front offices, quickly became one of the Crew’s fiercest rivalries. Columbus has dominated on the pitch, posting a 4-1-3 record versus Cincy since that initial Open Cup loss. Cincinnati has yet to post a winning season in MLS. Yet the saucy banter between supporters has translated to intensity on the part of players and coaches. In 2019, a fight broke out between Columbus and Cincy players in the waning moments of a 3-1 Crew win. Last summer, Crew head coach Caleb Porter shushed the TQL crowd with his index finger after Columbus came back to tie Cincinnati 2-2 despite playing the second half down a man due to a red card. The taunting continued in Porter’s postgame comments: “They have to be devastated over there in that other locker room, because how can you be up 2-0 and up a man and not win the game?”

Three weeks after Porter threw shade at Cincinnati, the USSF announced two crucial games on the road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Columbus would once again host a qualifier on Oct. 13, 2021, this time against Costa Rica—a historically tough opponent but not nearly as prestigious as Mexico. Meanwhile, Cincinnati would host the Mexico match Nov. 12. This was a momentous shift, if not exactly a surprise.

“Unfortunately, due to the fact that we lost last time in Columbus, I think that broke the aura that we had of Columbus,” says Gerald Foston, national president of the U.S. Soccer supporters group Sammers SC, who lives in New Jersey and travels to as many national team contests as he can. “Once we lost that, I knew it wasn’t going to come back there.”

The U.S. team celebrates a goal during its World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Cincinnati in November.

Michael Saad, a longtime Crew and USMNT backer who prioritizes his support of the national team over his loyalty to Columbus, agrees with Foston. “My reaction was not really surprise when it was Cincinnati,” Saad says. “Honest to God, it was excitement. I’ve seen the games in Columbus; I know what that brings. As an Ohioan, because of the way I look at the national team and because of the traveling I do around the country, there’s a lot of pride in saying I’m from Ohio. I still feel a real sense of pride that our state is hosting the game.”

Speaking by phone the day of the Costa Rica match—which the U.S. won 2-1 at a festive, rowdy Lower.com Field—Saad suspected his position would not be common among his fellow Central Ohio soccer superfans. “I’m definitely the anomaly,” Saad says. “There’s no doubt in my mind.” But later that bright October afternoon, as thousands of people in red, white and blue apparel flood into the Arena District for pregame festivities, fans express a wide range of opinions.

Some local soccer fanatics are surprisingly chill about the end of this city’s prized soccer tradition. “I’m not really that hurt about it,” says Brian Guilfoos, who was just glad the Mexico game remained within driving distance. “I don’t feel like Columbus has a right to the game or anything.”

His fellow Crew season ticket holder Scott Bonner went even further: “It’s kind of nice that we’re not the only city that can host something like that anymore. So it’s really kind of come full circle.”

Marcus Cranston and Lila Asnami dressed as an eagle and Wonder Woman for the U.S. vs. Costa Rica World Cup qualifying match held in Columbus.

Kristina Balevska had a far more hostile reaction. “Truthfully, it’s almost a slap in our face,” says Balevska, a hardcore Crew and USMNT supporter who attended the first “dos a cero” game as a teen and was present for every subsequent U.S.-Mexico match at Crew Stadium. “‘Dos a cero’ was born in Columbus, Ohio, on that very brutal night in February,” Balevska continues. “You can take it to any city, any state, but [Columbus] will always be … home of ‘dos a cero.’”

Arena District bar Whistle & Keg, site of the Sammers pregame party, is dotted with USMNT supporters from all over the country, who share similarly disparate takes on whether moving the Mexico match out of Columbus was an outrage or an inevitability. Even among the FC Cincinnati fans who drove up for the Costa Rica game, conclusions are inconsistent. Although excited for Cincinnati to host Mexico, Aaron Patton describes the rivalry between Ohio’s MLS franchises as “friendly,” noting that “a lot of people in Cincinnati used to be Crew fans.” FC Cincy season ticket holder Ryan Taulbee is a bit more inflammatory: “It does feel good to take a little something from the Crew. Because they’re like, ‘This is the home of U.S. Soccer,’ and it’s like, well, last time they lost. So maybe it’s not, you know?”

Two of the central decision-makers for the USSF are former USMNT players with close ties to Columbus. Brian McBride, the legendary striker who starred for the Crew from 1996–2003, is now the USMNT’s general manager. Gregg Berhalter, the Crew’s head coach from 2014-2018, now coaches the national team. Both have spoken diplomatically about the choice to relocate the Mexico game to Cincinnati.

“We didn’t look at it as moving the [Mexico] game, per se,” McBride told The Columbus Dispatch last August. “It was more about trying to find the right fit. Knowing that the support’s always been excellent in Columbus and now there are some very unique and great options for games in newer stadiums all sort of weigh into that decision.” McBride also asserted that after losing to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey in 2017, there was a need for a proven pro-U.S. venue to bolster the Yanks against the Ticos.

As for why Cincinnati got the sought-after grudge match, in a November interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer, Berhalter noted the Queen City’s heavy potential for a pro-U.S. crowd and the “top-class” TQL Stadium. But also, “My personal experience here really helped me understand what the fans are like.” Berhalter described that initial “Hell Is Real” showdown in the 2017 Open Cup as “one of the best atmospheres I’ve experienced in the United States.”

On Nov. 12, soccer fans gather in the bars and restaurants of Cincinnati’s West End to initiate the next chapter of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry. Here, there is no more collective ambivalence about the end of the storied Columbus tradition, just palpable excitement about the here and now. As an army of chanting supporters march from Rhinegeist and Northern Row breweries toward a pep rally in Washington Park, the air courses with a contagious enthusiasm.

For some in the crowd, this moment is a culmination of a lifetime with the sport and a local history they believe runs deeper than any soccer tradition in Columbus. “Cincinnati’s been soccer for way longer than Columbus. We’ve always been a big soccer community,” says Kurt Hoelmer, a first-generation American who attends every FC Cincinnati game with his adult son Kurt Jr. “Our family’s from Germany. And we always played soccer in Cincinnati. And when I played, Columbus didn’t even exist on the soccer map.”

Mike Carr, the son of an Irish-born soccer coach, tells a similar story. “The youth program in Cincinnati was on par with St. Louis as one of the best youth programs in the country in the ’70s and ’80s,” Carr says. “So the base here was incredibly strong and showed up when they finally brought a professional team to Cincinnati. And the fans really stepped up.”

Within a few hours, the U.S.-Mexico game kicks off at TQL. The tension is thick. The Americans beat their Southern rival in two separate tournament finals over the summer, establishing some kind of psychological edge. But this is the truly meaningful contest: a pivotal step toward qualifying for its first World Cup in eight years and a chance to exorcize the demons from that dispiriting 2016 loss. With the weight of the nation’s soccer diehards on its shoulders, Cincinnati shows up big on this night, as does the USMNT. Final score: dos a cero.

So Is that it? Is Cincinnati the new spiritual home of American soccer? Just weeks after the triumph at TQL, the USSF complicated any such narrative by scheduling a second World Cup qualifier at Lower.com Field, this time versus El Salvador on Jan. 27 ahead of clashes with Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, on Jan. 30 and Honduras in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on Feb. 2. With so many vibrant soccer markets clamoring to host a qualifier, some Columbus partisans interpreted two games in the same round as an unspoken apology from U.S. Soccer for transferring the Mexico game to Cincinnati—or at least as proof that Columbus is still the center of the American soccer universe.

USMNT vs. El Salvador:5 things to look for in World Cup qualifier at Lower.com Field

In a virtual press conference in December, Berhalter details a more level-headed rationale for the return to Columbus. Proximity to Ontario is a major factor; if Canada had elected to play the U.S. in Vancouver, “We had two venues on the West Coast that would have fit nicely.” There was also the matter of field conditions: “We know the field in Columbus is going to be good. Some other venues, they weren’t able to get the field up to standards to play in the winter, so we had to exclude them.” Throw in the promise of a pro-U.S. crowd and the potential for inclement weather to thwart the Salvadorans, and Berhalter believes Columbus gives the USMNT a great chance to win.

For Columbus, hosting two qualifiers in the same round is especially significant because this cycle might be the last time the stakes feel quite so high. The United States, Canada and Mexico will co-host the 2026 World Cup, likely yielding an automatic bid for all three of those nations. More importantly, in 2026 the field expands from 32 to 48 teams, which could lead to as many as six guaranteed spots for CONCACAF. Presumably, qualifying for the World Cup is about to become much easier for the Americans.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine a future where a U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier does not feel like a major event, or one where local fans do not scrutinize U.S. Soccer’s decision about where to schedule it. It’s even tougher to envision the end of passive-aggressive discourse between two Ohio cities vying to be the USMNT’s mecca, especially as the antagonism between their respective MLS clubs matures. The “Hell Is Real” and “dos a cero” traditions seem destined to keep colliding—just as they did after the win over Mexico at TQL. That night, amid a celebratory outpouring from the American faithful, the Crew’s Twitter account got in one last dig at its neighbors to the south: “It’s about time the home team wins in Cincinnati!!!!”

This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.