Rivalry Week

Hell is Real: Luciano Acosta brilliance earns FC Cincinnati revenge vs. Columbus Crew


That stretch of Interstate 71 that’s home to the iconic “HELL IS REAL” billboard that gave the Columbus Crew-FC Cincinnati rivalry its name? The northbound side has effectively been a highway to hell for Cincy and their fans.

FCC were 0W-4L-1D all-time in Columbus heading into Saturday’s clash at Lower.com Field, and had been outscored in Ohio’s capital city 13-4.

Pile on the 27-game home unbeaten streak the Crew rode into this clash, and the gut-wrenching nature of the sides’ last meeting – a stunning 3-2 Columbus extra-time win in last year’s Eastern Conference Final, in which Cincy blew a 2-0 halftime lead with a ticket to MLS Cup 2023 on the line – and you begin to understand the scale of the mental burden the Knifey Lions threw off with their 2-1 victory in this Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire showdown.

It’s one of the biggest results of head coach Pat Noonan’s Cincinnati tenure, in fact.

“Yeah, this is up there,” Noonan told reporters after the breakthrough, his team’s MLS-best fifth road win of 2024. “It feels that way because of just where both teams are at in this moment. I think, again, they're a very strong team. I give credit to Wilfried [Nancy] and those players because a they're very tough team to play against.

“You can’t make a whole lot of mistakes, because they can punish you in so many ways, and they throw so many different things at you. So you have to be able to adjust, and I thought our players did that in a really, really good way tonight. And you can see how much it means.”

Huge effort

This meeting of the reigning Supporters’ Shield (Cincy) and MLS Cup (Columbus) holders was a tense, tactical battle befitting an in-state derby, scoreless until the 74th minute. Yet FCC’s triumph was deserved, as they matched or exceeded the Crew in precision, organization and sheer quality on the ball – all areas where Columbus tend to reign supreme against practically anyone they face.

Noonan dedicated the performance to the Orange & Blue supporters cheering deliriously in Lower.com’s upper decks, many of whom were involved in the extensive display of tribute banners that adorned the club’s training facility as the team departed for Columbus the previous day.

“We've had some failures in the past as far as results going, and certainly in meaningful games, but it's nice to go on the road and win this game,” said Noonan. “Especially for those that were up top – thank you for the traveling fans. They were outstanding tonight. Thank you for those supporters' groups who sent us off in such a unique way from MHTC yesterday, that was special.

“And now you start to see in those moments just the love they have for this team and it's nice to share the joy of a moment like tonight. I know it's just one game, but to see what it means to them, that matters.”

Acosta steps up

With the result still hanging in the balance, Cincy star playmaker Lucho Acosta stepped up yet again, as he so often has in his club’s dramatic rise from last-place laughing stock to card-carrying members of the MLS elite.

The diminutive Argentine made the game’s decisive play with 16 minutes left in regulation, slashing through the Crew penalty box on a mazy endline dribble before dropping an inviting cross to the back post, giving new signing Kevin Kelsy the simple task of rising above Columbus attacker Alex Matan to nod a point-blank header past Patrick Schulte for his debut MLS goal.

Smelling blood in the water, Acosta struck again just two minutes later, this time with the final touch. Latching on to a smart pass from Pavel Bucha, he left Crew defender Steven Moreira for dead with a nasty cutback before slotting past Schulte for what would prove the game-winner despite a late Max Arfsten finish that set up a nervy run-in.

“It's just happening frequently enough, and in big games and in big moments – that's why I think our team is in the position we are, because he's done this so many times,” said Noonan of Acosta, who finished with a goal, an assist, four key passes and a game-high three successful dribbles in 50 touches.

“He's done it against other top teams, but to do it in a rivalry game, on the road, and provide the assist with the quality that he did and find the goal, it's not a surprise, but it speaks to his consistency and him being able to step up in big moments to help us win games.”

Road warriors

Cincy’s road form (7W-3L-7D in ‘23) was a key plank in their march to the Shield, and at 5W-1L-1D on their travels in league play thus far this year, they’re well on course to threaten the MLS-record 11W-4L-2D away mark of Nancy’s CF Montréal in 2022.

“When we go on the road and when we play good teams,” said Noonan, “we've won enough previously that there's more of an expectation, maybe, than most, to play tough teams in tough environments and still perform and get a result.

“Defensively I thought we were we were stronger, more disciplined in a lot of ways. But they're not afraid to play. The important thing is, we don't go on the road and change what we're about. There's always going to be moments and stretches against good teams that get momentum and put you under pressure. But our goal is to continue to find ways to play, and not be scared of these types of challenges.”

Crew partisans will point, with reason, to the lingering effects of their team’s ongoing Concacaf Champions Cup campaign, which will reach its final moment of truth in the final at Pachuca on June 1. But the Yellow Football Team’s winless skid in league action has now stretched to seven matches, exacerbating the pain of this setback at the hands of their adversaries to the south.

“First of all, for sure we are disappointed for the fans, obviously, and also for us because I know this is an important game,” said Nancy. “It's been a long time that it's happened that we've lost at home. We knew that something like this [could] happen. So I'm not concerned. Because the idea is to be pragmatic, to be honest, and to move forward.

“Yes, this is Cincinnati. I'm not happy with that, my players are not happy also with that. But we have to move forward and we know that we're going to be able to get better.”