The 2023 MLS NEXT Pro regular season might not have been as dominant for defending league champions Columbus Crew 2 as last year, but Laurent Courtois’ squad are only one win away from fighting for a second-straight title.
Crew 2 earned one of the biggest upsets of the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs after recently eliminating No. 1 seed Crown Legacy FC by a 1-0 scoreline. The defending MLS NEXT Pro Cup winners had already defeated Orlando City B by 2-1 on home soil and followed that up by knocking off one of the league’s more consistent teams.
Noah Fuson’s second-half goal paired with Stanislav Lapkes’ nine-save clean sheet was all Crew 2 needed to set up an Eastern Conference Finals showdown with New England Revolution II at Gillette Stadium next weekend.
Despite suffering nine regulation losses this season (third-most in East), Crew 2 ended the regular season on a high note with back-to-back victories, which have certainly boosted the confidence in the squad.
2022 standouts Jacen Russell-Rowe, Mo Farsi, and Patrick Schulte have moved into larger first-team roles this year, but many other players have stepped up. Noah Fuson, Marco Micaletto, and Coleman Gannon were all key contributors in last season’s title-winning campaign and have all excelled in 2023.
Fuson, Micaletto, and Gannon have combined for 22 goals and 10 assists to date, playing leading roles once again in the Crew 2 squad.
Not only have familiar faces excelled for Crew 2, but many new talents have also impressed for the Eastern Conference club. Gibran Rayo’s 11 goals lead the team while Mataeo Bunbury and Taha Habroune have combined for eight goals and six assists in 35 combined appearances between them.
26-year-old Abdi Mohamed has been a stalwart in the Crew 2 backline in 2023, logging two goals and two assists in over 1,600 minutes of action (most by any Crew 2 defender this season).
The aforementioned Lapkes, 17, has earned the starting nod throughout the playoffs, conceding just once in 180 minutes of action. Despite being in-and-out of the squad throughout the season, the bright lights of the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs haven’t frightened Lapkes, who is arguably coming off his best performance yet in Crew 2 colors.
While many teams might be wary of heading on the road in the conference finals, Crew 2 won’t be one of them. Their seven regulation away victories were the fifth-most in MLS NEXT Pro this season and the second-most in the Eastern Conference (Crown Legacy FC, 10).
In addition, Crew 2 have won three of their four all-time meetings with Revs II, holding an advantage in the head-to-head meetings to date. Revs II did earn a 2-0 home win over Crew 2 back in May, but experience will ultimately be on Columbus’ side once again, knowing the stakes are higher now than any of the previous three matchups.