The 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup is upon us!
After debuting a new pick-your-opponent format, this year's finalists are the product of overcoming being selected and it helped fuel their fires to make it to the grandest stage in the league.
For the second straight year, Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio plays host to the occasion, and hometown heroes Columbus Crew 2 look to defend their crown as league champions.
It's certainly not going to be easy, though. Their opponent Austin FC II has consistently been one of the best teams in the Western Conference this year and have earned their way to Sunday's stage by passing three straight road tests (earning clean sheets in each).
Whether you're tuning into MLS NEXT Pro for the first time, or you've been following all season - there is plenty to catch up on ahead of kick-off.
Here is a rundown of everything you need you need to know as we count down the minutes to Sunday's showdown:
The 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup will stream exclusively on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. The action is set to kick off at 5 PM Eastern (4 PM Central, 3 PM Mountain, 2 PM Pacific)
You can also visit the Match Center to keep track of lineups, statistics, and match highlights.
Crew 2 and Austin FC II found their path to the MLS NEXT Pro Cup 2023 as third and fourth seeds in the Eastern and Western Conferences respectively. Needless to say, it required some serious heroics to overcome opponent selections and having to dig deep to do it on the road.
There are several storylines that add up to making Sunday a championship-worthy occasion and have zoomed in on the complexities of the match, as well as five on-field battles to watch.
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We also caught up with several parties on both sides to get a sense of the emotions. Hear from both coaches and a handful of players in their own words.
Despite dealing with a daunting amount of turnover from the 2022 roster and staff, Crew 2 finds themselves in the same place - hosting the Cup.
There are a few places of continuity, though. Head coach Laurent Courtois has credited veteran players Marco Micaletto, Noah Fuson, and Abdi Mohamed as players who have helped maintain the standard set in last year's championship run. By and large, Crew 2 successfully regenerated to fill holes left by 2022 Best XI selections Jacen Russell-Rowe (who also won MVP), Mohamed Farsi, Isaiah Parente, and Patrick Schulte.
17-year-old goalkeeper Stanislav Lapkes headlines the pack of new faces to take on big roles this season. Since signing a professional contract with Crew 2 in September, Lapkes has emerged as GK 1 and his safe hands have been critical in getting his side to Sunday's finale.
And if you didn't know, Crew 2 is affectionately known as "The Capybaras" and you can read more about that here.
Regular Season record:
16W-9L-3T (54pts, 3 SOW, Third place in Eastern Conference)
2-1 win vs Orlando City B
1-0 win at Crown Legacy FC
1-0 win at New England Revolution II
The 2023 campaign was the very first for Austin FC II in any competition, which makes their Cup appearance quite commendable as a standalone stat. They came hot out of the gate with a seven-game unbeaten run to start the season. If you've been following along all year, you probably had an early sense that they were set to be playoff favorites. A late-season winless skid of six matches to close out the season somewhat put that in jeopardy and made them look like an easy target in the new playoff format.
But being selected by Sporting KC II in the Conference Quarterfinals seems to have galvanized Brett Uttley's men, as they've been perfect ever since.
Regular Season record:
12W-4L-9T (49pts, 4 SOW, Fourth place in Western Conference)
2-0 win at Sporting KC II
1-0 win at Tacoma Defiance
0-0 tie, 4-1 SOW at Colorado Rapids 2