If the Columbus Crew have any designs on making a late charge for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, it likely must start Saturday night when they host last-place FC Cincinnati in the first all-MLS edition of the Ohio Derby.
The Crew (7-14-4) are eight points behind New England for the seventh and final playoff spot in the East and eight points clear of the expansion side. Four of Columbus' next five games are against opponents below the postseason cut line - including a return match at FC Cincinnati (5-17-2) on Aug. 25.
Caleb Porter's club is enjoying its best stretch of the season, extending its unbeaten streak to four matches (2-0-2) after a 1-1 draw at San Jose last Saturday. The Crew had just one shot on target in the match, but Gyasi Zardes made the most of it with an equalizer in the 65th minute.
"It's a rivalry game," Crew captain Wil Trapp told the Columbus Dispatch about facing FC Cincinnati. "Ultimately it's about just winning the game at home and climbing up the standings in the table."
The Crew did have nine shots overall in the draw, and their offense has improved of late with seven goals during this unbeaten streak after totaling 18 in the first 21 matches. But the defense continues to be problematic as Columbus has gone 19 league games without a clean sheet.
FCC are the only team with fewer goals than Columbus in MLS, entering this contest with 23. The Royals are looking to avoid a fifth consecutive loss after absorbing a 2-1 home defeat to Vancouver last Saturday.
Allan Cruz staked FC Cincinnati to a lead in the sixth minute, but despite registering a season-high 20 shots and maintaining a majority of possession, the Royals finished with only three shots on target and conceded the go-ahead goal on 84 minutes.
With a playoff berth almost all but mathematically impossible, FC Cincinnati players are pointing to this game as a chance to put a positive mark on their first MLS season in addition to giving Ron Jans a victory in his MLS coaching debut.
"I think it's a double motivation," FC Cincinnati captain Kendall Waston told the Enquirer after the loss. "Why? Because we know a lot of the fans are gonna go to Columbus and, today, and weeks before, they're sad, obviously, because we aren't winning. We want to give them a win against Columbus.
"We deserve it as well ... We have to give them something. We don't know what's going to happen but you have to give everything in a rivalry match. We have extra motivation because we are not winning and we are at the bottom of the table. We just need to win."
Jans took over coaching duties Monday, replacing interim manager Yoann Damet. Jans had previously worked with FC Cincinnati general manager Gerard Nijkamp at PEC Zwolle in the Dutch Eredivisie and served as technical director at FC Groningen before signing an 18-month deal with the MLS side Sunday.
With the two clubs separated by 110 miles, the nascent rivalry is also known as the "Hell is Real" derby, paying homage to a billboard with that phrase on Interstate 71 nearly equidistant from the cities. The only previous match with anything at stake took place in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup as FC Cincinnati, then a USL side, recorded a 1-0 victory in the fourth round as part of a stunning run to the semifinals.
Updated August 8, 2019