Sirk’s Notebook: #HellisReal (8/10/19)

The first-ever MLS meeting between the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati lived up (or down) to its billing on Saturday night. Hell was indeed real as the 2-2 draw produced torment for both sides. Cincinnati blew a 2-0 lead. Columbus stormed back but dropped two points at home to the worst team in the league and should have won the game several times over in the final minutes.

Satan works in frustrating ways.

*****

With Columbus sitting in 11th place and Cincinnati buried in 12th, the 2019 edition of Hell is Real may be the lowest iteration of the competition we will ever see, but in its own way, that raised the stakes. Should Cincinnati go on to claim the Anthony Precourt Wooden Spoon—so named by nationwide MLS fans, not me—for having the worst record in the league, claiming victory over Columbus would be the high-water mark of the season. (Well, apart from their first-ever MLS point, which was deemed t-shirt worthy.) Likewise, in the statistically likely event that Columbus misses the playoffs, laughing at the hapless Flappy Knife Lions would provide some cathartic consolation.

The lead-up to the match was interesting. The Crew organization chose to focus inwardly on Columbus and the heart and tradition that makes it so special.

FC Cincinnati focused outwardly on…attendance trash talk.

If that’s all you’ve got to offer for 2019, then run with it, I guess. Even if you’re ironically heading into a sold-out MAPFRE Stadium.

*****

Two-and-a-half hours before kickoff, the focus was on a different kind of lion other than the flappy knife-wielding variety. The Crew held a press conference introducing the club’s new Executive Vice-President and Chief Business Officer, Steve Lyons.

Crew President and GM Tim Bezbatchenko has had so much on his plate since January that it would have been tempting to fill such a critical role with the first viable candidate, just to offload some work and preserve his own sanity. Instead, the Crew’s leadership has been meticulous in its endeavor to double the rubble of an org chart it inherited. That was especially true for this position. The club went through a thorough needs assessment and focused on finding the ideal person for the job. That person was determined to be Lyons, who served as Chief Counsel and Executive Vice-President for the Columbus Partnership.

“It will change my day-to-day not just in terms of the work, but in terms of who Steve is as a person,” Bez said. “He’s passionate about the city and the Crew and what we’re looking to accomplish. While it was an immediate need, we know you have to hire the right people. With this role, it was important that we got it right, and we nailed it with Steve.”

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Steve Lyons at his introductory press conference. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

Lyons does not come from a soccer background, but his Crew bonafides are unassailable. He had an integral role in the #SaveTheCrew movement via the Columbus Partnership and felt that joining the club was a natural transition to remain part of a civic achievement that is still in progress.

“There was so much passion that was brought forth by not just one or two people, but an entire community that were willing to sacrifice their day jobs in order to fight to keep this team in Columbus,” he said. “When you see a fanbase that has that much energy and that much passion and that much care for a club like the Crew, you can’t help but be attracted to that and it’s something that I think is infectious. If we’re there from a fan perspective and I can be part of that organization that gives a little bit back to make their experience better along the way, I’d accept this job every day.”

Lyons couldn’t have picked a livelier first week on the job with it being Hell is Real week in Columbus.

“The momentum starting from Monday and leading up to today has been incredible,” he said. “First of all, the pace of each day has been pretty intense in terms of getting my head around the business operations, but to be able to turn around and see how much every crew member from every facet has put their focus into the field and the stadium and also to look at what’s been going on in social media, it’s been an exciting first week for sure. I’m looking forward to the match.”

*****

Another person looking forward to the match was this guy.

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Tom the FC Cincinnati Super Fan. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

His name is Tom and he is an FC Cincinnati super fan. Literally. Cape and all. In fact, his getup bares a passing resemblance to Columbus native Macho Man Randy Savage, although I didn’t bring that up.

Tom was a casual long-distance Crew fan who made the trip to MAPFRE Stadium a few times in the past, but fully embraced his hometown team upon the creation of FC Cincinnati in 2016. Now he was excited to come to Columbus as a visiting fan.

“After the Open Cup, how is this going to compare?” he said, referring to FC Cincinnati’s upset win over the Crew in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which put FC Cincy on the map nationally. “That was one of the top ten sports moments that I have ever witnessed myself, so I’m excited to see how this one turns out. We’re all excited for this. Unfortunately, I wish we were all vying for the top instead of the bottom, but we’re going to fight each other tooth and nail.”

Tom started doing his super fan routine at Reds games as part of his charity Sports Games for Kids, but has expanded the mission to FC Cincinnati games too. On Saturday, he was in costume just for the fun of it.

“I’m up here today and I’m going to have a good time,” he said, “but I have to drive back tonight, so I will stop drinking early. Tomorrow I am going to get up early and repaint in Reds gear and we’re bringing 118 people to the Reds game tomorrow. I’ve got a lot to do in the next 24 hours.”

It takes him about two hours for the bodypainting. He drove up to Columbus fully painted, which made for a fun commute.

“I love every red light,” he said with a laugh. “I just look over.”

And then it was time for the Cincy fans to march into the stadium. Tom left me with a prediction.

“I’m saying 2-1 Cincinnati, but good luck to you guys.”

*****

My experience at the tailgates was that everything was good-natured. Fans of each team wandered through the other team’s tailgate. The worst I head while mingling with the Cincy fans was an offer for beer in a cooler. It was free “but $25 if you’re a Crew fan.”

Back inside the stadium, I ran into #SaveTheCrew’s Morgan Hughes as he hustled back to the Nordecke to help unveil a tifo inspired by a book cover from Columbus native R.L. Stine. Hughes seemed to be enjoying the friendliness of the rivalry without all the wannabe “rough lad” affectations.

“We absolutely want to humiliate each other on the field and have shit-talking rights,” he said, “but this is supposed to be fun. If we can make it so the fans of Columbus and Cincinnati are going to have guaranteed fun two times per year, that will be a good legacy for Ohio to pass on.”

*****

Many, many years ago, Crew defender Ansil Elcock told me he wanted to “turn Columbus into a hellhole.” He meant that he wanted Columbus to be a terrible place for opposing teams to play, but the hellhole description made me laugh. It was so Ansil.

With that in mind, it was therefore fitting that on Hell is Real day, I ran into a fan sporting a game-worn Elcock jersey. I took a photo and texted it to Ansil.

“Thank you,” he wrote. “Tell Columbus I say hi.”

We then chatted about that night’s game and I eventually explained that it was the Hell is Real match and so the stadium is now quite literally a hellhole. That got me the wide-eyes emoji.

So Hell is Real produced a random Ansil Elcock memory and spur-of-the-moment text conversation with him. What a delight.

*****

Ansil was not my only alumni encounter. I ran into Dante Washington on the concourse and we were soon joined by Gino Padula.

*****

When the game kicked off, I had a good vantage point. Standing next to Neil Sika in the TV booth, I was across the field from both supporter sections. I was slightly closer to the Cincy fans, but still relatively equidistant. Despite standing next to Sika, I couldn’t make out a word he was saying because the Nordecke filled my left ear and the Cincy fans filled my right ear. As the game wore on, the noise tilted heavily in the home team’s favor, matching the flow of the game, but those first few minutes were fun. It reminded me of the 2008 Crewsmas game against Toronto FC when Dante and I sat together in the upper deck, equidistant between the newly-created Nordecke and the horde of hosers in the south end. In another parellel, both games resulted in laughably distorted claims of visiting fan superiority.

Don’t get me wrong, the Cincy fans were loud and awesome. But for representatives of FC Cincinnati, including their coach, to claim it was a “like a home game” is in stark contradiction to reality.

*****

The Cincinnati fans had a lot to cheer about early in the game. The vistors ran roughshod over Columbus for most of the first half and jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Darren Mattocks in the 16th minute and Emmanuel Ledesma in the 23rd minute.

By that point, the evening had all the hallmarks of a terrible performance and a squandered opportunity in front of a sellout crowd. But then Gyasi Zardes converted a penalty kick in the 45th minute.

The Crew suddenly had life.

*****

At halftime, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther joined Neil Sika on the Fox Sports Ohio broadcast to talk about Hell is Real, his friendly Jeni’s/Graeter’s ice cream bet with the Cincinnati mayor to benefit the winning city’s foodbank, and his excitement about the future of the Crew in Columbus.

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Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther and Crew broadcaster Neil Sika. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

“It’s a great reflection of the Columbus way and what Columbus is all about,” Mayor Ginther said of saving the Crew. “We wouldn’t be here today and we would not have saved the Crew if the city, the county, the private sector and everyone hadn’t stepped up and got on board to make this happen and put us in this position. We’re excited about the community sports park here at MAPFRE and moving the training headquarters here from Obetz and the future of the great new stadium and community in the Arena District.”

*****

The Crew would tie the game in the 62nd minute on a brilliant long-distance strike by Pedro Santos.

It as eerily reminiscent of Wil Trapp’s “of Columbus, by Columbus, for Columbus” stoppage time game-winner against Orlando last year during the nadir of the relocation saga. The Santos strike was also monumental in that it erased a two-goal deficit to an in-state rival and gave the Crew 28+ minutes to grab what seemed to be an inevitable game-winner.

Hell, which is real, had other plans.

*****

There’s no way around it. Gyasi Zardes skying a shot over the crossbar from three yards away with a chance to defeat Cincinnati is going to live on in Crew lore for some time. In the 90th minute, newcomer Youness Mokhtar, in his Crew debut, rushed up the right side of the box with the Crew on the break. He played a perfect ball across the goalmouth to Zardes. With 192 square feet of gaping net just nine feet in front of him, Zardes improbably sand-wedged a shot that skimmed the crossbar on its way into orbit. As fans screamed and held their heads in disbelief, Zardes collapsed to the turf in horror.

It seemed impossible, even on the multiple replays. Alas, the play actually happened. The Miss is Real.

It was a miss so baffling to the senses that one instinctively grasped for alternative explanations. Did it take a bad hop? Did it pick up an undetected defection? Did the sliding defender throw him off? There had to be something. Like, anything.

“I’m not going to make any excuses,” Zardes said. “You just have to bury it next time.”

Zardes spoke of the need for a striker to be able to shake it off and be ready for his next opportunity. That’s exactly what he did. Those opportunities would come in short order in the dying moments of stoppage time. (Oh, and in between The Miss is Real and the ensuing opportunities, David Accam had a deflected shot hit the goalpost.) With the game on the line in the final moments, Zardes headed an apparent game-winner toward the Cincinnati goal only to have it pushed over the crossbar by diving Cincy goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton. On the ensuring corner kick, Zardes again appeared to head home the winning goal only to be denied by another sprawling Tyton save along the goal line.

“You have to give credit where credit is due,” Zardes said of Tyton’s point-preserving acrobatics.

As Cincinnati cleared the rebound after the second save, the final whistle blew and the yellow-clad Crew collapsed to the turf in disbelief that four glorious chances to win the game in the final minutes went wanting due to a legendary miss, an unlucky goalpost, and two clutch saves.

Columbus 2, Cincinnati 2.

*****

After the final whistle, the Crew took a group journey to the Nordecke and swayed arm in arm as the supporters serenaded them with “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with Crew.”

The players and coaches appreciated the effort that the sold-out crowd of 20,865 put in for 90+ crazy minutes.

“It was an amazing atmosphere,” said Zardes. “The Columbus Crew fans out here tonight, thank you guys for coming out and supporting us. It was very electric and we look forward to seeing you guys when we go down to Cincinnati.”

“As with any time we have a full house here, it’s always exciting,” added captain Wil Trapp. “We get just more excitement. Every play just feels just a little bit more important.”

“What a great crowd,” said Crew coach Caleb Porter. “I want to thank our supporters for coming out full force and giving all they had. It was the loudest game I’ve been a part of here as the head coach of the Columbus Crew. The supporters made me very proud. I had goosebumps before the whistle blew just looking at the crowd. They did their part today.”

Porter loves rivalry games and he spent a few years living the Portland-Seattle feud. He’s excited to see the Ohio come to life, even if his squad didn’t deliver a victory as he’d hoped.

“It’s an in-state game,” he said. “Obviously, when you have two cities and people that live in those cities, everybody wants to feel like their city is the best and that was the reason we wanted to leave this game with our supporters having three points. We wanted them on their Sunday to mow the lawn, take their family to the pool, and feel like Columbus is the best in Ohio and I think based on performance they can feel that, but not based on points, obviously. I think for anybody that was at the game, to see the battle, to see the intensity, to see four goals, I know that they’re going to be coming back after this game and I think anybody that wasn’t at the game will probably see highlights and hear about it from the people that were here and even though we didn’t get the three points, it was a very entertaining game and I think it was a good showcase for the sport and it’s great to have this rivalry.”

It was indeed an immensely fun experience, especially in the second half. The final minutes sent pulses racing and I think everyone in attendance laments the lack of payoff for the anticipated emotional explosion that would have accompanied a dramatic game-winner. What a scene it would have been.

“We should’ve won,” Porter said. “I think everyone knows that. Everybody in the stadium, even their fans, even their coach, they know that. We should’ve. I think they’re feeling better with the point than we are.”

That’s just how it goes in Hell, which is real.

*****

As the parking lot cleared out, I had a conversation with an FC Cincinnati fan named Jared. He was in good spirits after a roller coaster of a match that saw his team blow a 2-0 lead but also claim a road point in Columbus.

“I think there’s a lot to take away from it, but you can’t help but be a little disappointed,” he said.

Jared grew up in southern Ohio and watched Crew games since they were the closest team. His girlfriend had an internship in Dublin for a spell and the pair would attend games at MAPFRE Stadium. They hoped that Cincinnati would get a team someday so they’d have a hometown team of their own.

“This is a dream for us,” he said of FC Cincinnati. “This is big. And to be able to come up here and to have an away game that’s two hours away, it’s unbelievable.”

He found the matchday experience to be far more enjoyable than earlier road trips to Seattle, Atlanta, and Chicago.

“Everywhere we go, it’s like, ‘We’ll meet you out in the parking lot.’ And it’s like, ‘We’re just a bunch of midwestern kids hanging out. What did we do? We exist, and I guess you don’t like that?’ It’s silly.”

Columbus was a completely different vibe.

“Coming up here, my girlfriend and I got to know Morgan Hughes really well and coming to games here over the years, so it was nice to go over to their tailgate and see everybody and friends that are still Crew fans. It was cool. Everyone’s been really good. There are probably a few people like me who grew up watching Crew games. It was really weird to be in that top corner. That was a little strange. But we had a great time.”

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Cincy fans in the upper deck 15 minutes prior to kickoff. (Photo by Steve Sirk)

As much as Jared and his fellow FC Cincy fans want to beat Columbus, he can’t fathom an expansion team talking too much crap about an MLS pioneer.

“For us, there needs to be some level of respect for Columbus,” he said. “That’s 1996. That’s since the beginning. The first stadium in MLS. That’s big stuff. It’s hard to make fun of that. It’s good.”

He expects that FC Cincinnati fans will likewise be welcoming to Crew supporters in a few weeks, although the gameday culture is a little different down there and will probably resemble the shift that will take place in Columbus once the new Confluence Village stadium is built in the Arena District.

“Up here, you have tailgating culture,” he said, “but in Cincy, we don’t because it’s too dense and the University of Cincinnati doesn’t really allow tailgating on campus. We do more of the bar thing.”

He’s looking forward to the Hell is Real finale. With the first game ending in a draw, there’s still a lot at stake for both fanbases.

“Especially with how shit both of our seasons have been,” he said. “At least these two games are something to look forward to. We’re probably a little bit happier with the point on the road. I think it wasn’t the best game to watch but it sure was fun to watch. I am pretty happy with it.”

*****

Crew fans weren’t as happy with it, no matter how fun the second half was. Elsewhere in the parking lot, longtime Crew supporter Kristina Balevska lamented the lost opportunities late in the match, but then shared a fun story.

After the game, Crew owner Dee Haslam walked down the sideline in front of Balevska and her friends, who brought many hand-held flame signs for Hell is Real. Haslam remarked that she liked the display and loved the atmosphere. Then she apologized that the Crew couldn’t deliver the victory for such a great crowd. Columbus went from an owner who didn’t attend games to an owner who talks to the fans and politely apologizes for a heart-pounding comeback home draw.

“I told her, ‘We didn’t win, but wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you,’ Balevska said. “I told her, ‘You did this. Thank you!’”

Then Dee Haslam, joined by Crew right back Harrison Afful, posed for a picture with Balevska and her friends and all their Hell is Real flames. It’s just a tiny anecdotal demonstration that better days are ahead in Crewville due to committed, caring ownership. Accordingly, it’s also a reminder that if hell is real, then so is heaven.

Dee hell is real
Harrison Afful and Dee Haslam pose with Kristina Balevska (center of the photo just over Dee’s shoulder) and all the Hell is Real flames. (Photo courtesy of Kristna Balevska)

*****

Saturday’s game was a mixed bag of conflicting emotions. A two-goal comeback to salvage a point. Two-points dropped at home against the worst team in the league after four glorious chances to win in the closing minutes went bust. A lively sold-out crowd, a friendly rivalry, and unfinished business after the teams split the points.

Was it real? Yes.

Was it hell? In many ways.

Regardless, it really was a hell of a good time.

*****

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
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A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.

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