Lucas Zelarayan slammed the ball with his hand in frustration as he returned it to the halfway line to resume play.
Behind him, blue plumes of smoke rose into the air, blocking the wall of people wearing blue and orange. In front of him, the scoreboard read:
FC Cincinnati 2, Columbus Crew 0.
The opening 25 minutes of the Hell is Real Derby couldn’t have started any worse – or at least it felt that way until Harrison Afful was sent off for a second booking in the 37th minute.
The reigning MLS Cup champions were reeling against their biggest rival. Hell was real.
But then it wasn’t. In first-half stoppage time, Zelaryan scored with a world-class finish from outside of the box. In the 77th minute, his perfectly weighted pass slotted Miguel Berry in behind the FCC backline as he guided the ball into the net, resolving the Crew of its deficit while silencing the Cincinnati supporters who watched their party crash very, very quickly.
WATCH | Highlights from the Crew's comeback draw at FC Cincinnati
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At the end of the day, the 10-man Crew, who were missing 11 players entering the rivalry match, were still better than FC Cincinnati away from home. It was a point shared, but a huge morale boost for the Black & Gold.
Afterward, head coach Caleb Porter shushed the home fans, and “Wise Men Say” echoed inside the rival’s home stadium long after the majority of home fans left the venue. It was a moment when Columbus was in complete control – and a long way removed from how Zelarayan felt after trailing by two goals.
“I think it speaks well of us as a group and as a team,” the playmaker said after the game. “We're not the kind of people that just cross their arms — we go out there to try and get a result. We were able to find a goal in the first half and we had an even better second half.
“Once we tied the game, we could hear our fans sing, and I think that powered us through and made us work to get the winning goal, which we were unable to get. At the end of the day, we’re happy with the result and we hope our fans are satisfied with our performance.”
So, how exactly did the Crew pull this off?
With limited numbers due to injuries and a handful of players away for the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, Columbus tried to play their way through the difficult situation.
But when Harrison Afful was issued a second yellow card, the visitors switched from their 4-2-3-1 formation into a 4-4-1. From there, they continued to out-pass and out-possess FCC, as if they were ignorant to the minor crises the Crew created for themselves.
Berry, who had only played a single regular-season minute entering Friday's matchup, scored his first career MLS goal and played like a veteran. Erik Hurtado, who hadn’t even trained with his teammates since he joined from CF Montreal on Thursday, logged his first minutes since late May and offered attacking sparks on the wing.
A Columbus side that once found itself trapped in a nightmare clawed out of the scenario and nearly snatched all three points. If you believe in moral victories, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than what the Crew achieved inside TQL Stadium.
However, the 2-2 draw was a reminder of something else arguably more valuable than the point shared between the Ohio rivals: bragging rights.
Yes, technically, Cincinnati is unbeaten against Columbus in the last two meetings, but that feels like an outlier overlooking the Black & Gold’s grasp on this rivalry.
In the eight previous meetings – across all competitions – the Crew has three wins, three draws, and two losses against Cincinnati.
Outside of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup meeting, here’s how the numbers stack in Columbus’ favor during MLS league play:
Games Played: 7
Goals For: 15
Goals Allowed: 7
The Crew averages 2.14 goals per match against its southern neighbor while conceding a goal a game. But more than that, Columbus has twice rallied from two goals down to deny Cincinnati a rivalry win.
The second leg of the Hell is Real Derby is set for Aug. 27 at Lower.com Field – the first meeting between the sides in the Crew’s new home. In Historic Crew Stadium, the Black & Gold were unbeaten versus FCC.
The prevailing mood from Friday night suggests that won’t change in a few weeks’ time, much to the chagrin of FC Cincinnati. Beating your rival is great, but embarrassing them is a close second.