After a grueling eight months of action, the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup has finally arrived!
Defending champions Columbus Crew 2 will play host to a second-consecutive final as Austin FC II makes the trip to Lower.com Field seeking their first trophy in club history.
Crew 2 has been one of the league’s top attacking teams yet again in 2023, grinding their way to the league final. Austin FC II has provided the best defensive unit in MLS NEXT Pro this season, which continued this postseason with three-straight shutout victories.
Here is a closer look at this weekend’s MLS NEXT Pro Cup:
Columbus Crew 2
Columbus Crew 2 rebounded from some ups-and-downs in 2023 to clinch their spot back into MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
Laurent Courtois lost several key contributors from last season’s title-winning team, including MVP and Golden Boot winner Jacen Russell-Rowe, as well as Best XI selections Patrick Schulte, Isaiah Parente and Mohamed Farsi. Still, Crew 2 have found a way to get back to the big dance, relying on several returning leaders and some new faces.
Noah Fuson, Marco Micaletto, and Abdi Mohammed all shined in their second MLS NEXT Pro campaigns, while Gibran Rayo (13 goals in all competitions in 2022) arguably was the acquisition of the offseason.
17-year-old Stanislav Lapkes didn’t start the season as Crew 2’s No. 1 goalkeeper, but it hasn’t stopped him from delivering under the bright lights of the playoffs. Lapkes registered a nine-save clean sheet against Crown Legacy FC and overall has only conceded one goal in 270 minutes of postseason play.
Five-straight victories, including three-consecutive wins in the postseason have led to Crew 2 getting back to MLS NEXT Pro Cup. Back-to-back road triumphs over East-leading Crown Legacy FC and New England Revolution II featured a pair of 1-0 results away from home.
Home-field advantage will be on Crew 2’s side, which has already led them to 9 regular season victories and 1 playoff win in 2023.
Players to Watch:
Gibran Rayo - Forward
Gibran Rayo enjoyed plenty of success in 2022 and transitioned that into his short time with Columbus Crew 2. Rayo’s 12 goals in all competitions during 2023 leads Crew 2, which included a dramatic 91st minute winner against Revs II last weekend. His creativity and versatility will be hard for Austin FC II to quiet.
Noah Fuson - Forward
Noah Fuson played a key leadership role for Crew 2 in 2023 despite losing several of his teammates from last season. Fuson, 23, scored 10 goals in all competitions, while also registering five assists (tied for the most in the squad). No matter where Fuson has been on the field, he’s certainly made an impact for the defending league champions.
Stanislav Lapkes - Goalkeeper
It’s not often you see a 17-year-old goalkeeper starting a league final, but Stanislav Lapkes is an exception. Lapkes split time with Brady Scott for most of the season before eventually earning the No. 1 job ahead of the playoffs. Lapkes is 3-0 in the playoffs so far, registering two clean sheets and 12 saves over that span.
Austin FC II
Austin FC II’s worrying away form during the final strech of the regular season was quickly erased in the playoffs with three impressive road victories.
Brett Uttley’s men eliminated both Sporting KC II and Tacoma Defiance in regulation before ousting No. 1 seed Colorado Rapids 2 by a 4-1 shootout result. It marked the third-straight clean sheet for the Western Conference side, who entered the playoffs failing to win any of their final six matches in regulation.
During a recent press conference, Uttley talked about his team's playoff form: "I think going on the road is not easy in the regular season, let alone going into the postseason. But our guys have shown us really strong collectiveness and resilience. We're going to the places where we played so far to get results, which has been really strong testament to what the group is about."
Defense has been Austin FC II’s strength in 2023, with them leading the league in fewest goals allowed in 2023 (23). Goalkeeper of the Year Damian Las (15 total clean sheets) and a stingy backline will try and make it difficult for Crew 2 to find their groove on home soil.
Despite not having a double-digit goalscorer this season, Austin FC II received contributions from the entire roster. A total of 14 different players found the back of the net at least once in 2023, giving Uttley plenty of scoring options to call on this weekend.
Valentin Noël, David Rodriguez, and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez headline the attacking talent for Austin FC II, who will look to win their first-ever MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
Players to Watch:
Damian Las - Goalkeeper
Austin FC II has relied heavily on Damian Las’ shot-stopping abilities in 2023 and the 22-year-old has delivered in a big way. Las, a former U.S. youth national team player, led the league with 12 clean sheets during the regular season before adding three more in the playoffs. His 76 saves and 0.74 goals-against-average (GAA) during the regular season were among the best in MLS NEXT Pro.
Valentin Noël - Midfielder
Valentin Noël has been Mr. Everything for Austin FC II in 2023, registering the second-most goals (6) and sitting tied with the most assists (4). Noël's 16 key passes were the fourth-most in the squad and overall he has been able to do whatever is needed to help ATX II get themselves into MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
Salvatore Mazzaferro - Defender
The rock of Austin FC II’s backline has been centerback Salvatore Mazzaferro. Mazzaferro’s 2,722 minutes this season are the most by any ATX II outfield player, showing his durability and consistency in the squad. Mazzaferro has helped contribute to 15 clean sheets in 2023 and will have the task of keeping Crew 2’s forwards under wraps.
You can catch Columbus Crew 2 and Austin FC II face off for the MLS NEXT Pro Cup on Sunday, October 22 at 5PM ET on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.