If you’re in the Austin FC front office, you should probably get ready for some phone calls about one of your youngsters this offseason.
In the inaugural campaign of the club’s second team Austin FC II, nobody’s stock rose higher than goalkeeper Damian Las. The 21-year-old from Des Plaines, Illinois walks away as the most decorated player in MLS NEXT Pro’s 2023 season by a wide margin.
His list of accolades collected include Goalkeeper of the Year, a Best XI selection, shattering the league’s clean sheet record (12, previously eight), Save of the Year, and as of Sunday - he can call himself a champion.
Las signed his breakout campaign off with a signature performance. He contributed six saves in Austin FC II’s title-winning victory over Columbus Crew 2. Lifting his first league championship trophy was a sweet, sweet feeling.
“I think that's the best feeling in the world,” Las said in Sunday’s postgame presser. “Just being able to put in so much hard work throughout the season and then the reward is to be able to lift the trophy and win at all.”
The stage and heightened atmosphere did not faze the youngster one bit on Sunday. Even after conceding a deadlock-breaking penalty in the second half.
“Overall, I'm just doing my job. I love doing my job. I love when fans are talking or screaming. I mean, I'm here to make a save and those are moments you have to live for.” He shared. “Pressure is a privilege. You have to enjoy it, have to live in it, and just love it.”
The invitation of pressure is exactly what any fan or coach wants to see from their budding stars. Time and time again, Las proved capable of handling it, and his rapid rise is not the product of luck or good fortune. It’s the fruit of putting in the extra work behind the scenes.
“It's so difficult to say what his ceiling is,” ATXFC II head coach Brett Uttley said. “All I can speak about is his competitiveness and his willingness to improve every single day. There's times where he's coming back from a game with us and going in the next morning with the first team to train. To be at his level - that's what it takes."
Headlined by the man between the sticks, defensive dominance was VerDos’ brand in 2023. The champions were not particularly close to the top of any of the league's offensive statistics but maintained the reputation of a Western Conference heavyweight all season long.
Getting to the 2023 Cup meant navigating a streaky season and some dramatic swings of momentum. None more apparent than squaring opening the regular season with an eight-game unbeaten run and closing it on a six-game winless skid.
The champs fittingly ended the postseason on another statistically intriguing streak: four road wins without allowing a goal in open play. Outside of allowing a penalty on Sunday, that’s roughly 400 minutes of perfection in do-or-die games.
“That's just been the strength of our team,” Uttley said.” Throughout the whole course of this season, different guys at different times have stepped up, and that's just something even more than anything, I'm so proud of. Every player feels their importance, their value, their role in the team, and everyone celebrates each other. And as a coach, you can't ask for much more than that.”
In the postseason, Las delivered a clear statement moment to reinforce the tried and true “defense wins championships” axiom.
The Western Conference Final went to the spot following a nervy nil-nil contest with Colorado Rapids 2, the highest-scoring offense (70) in the league and the team with three Best XI selections on the attacking end.
Las made two saves in the ensuing 4-1 shootout with the Cup ticket on the line.
It should be comforting for the Austin brain trust to know that Las has the big-game gene, but it really was a great advertisement for what he and his backline had been doing all year long.
Emphasize any item you’d like - there is plenty to be impressed by with the numbers ATXFC II's defense posted in the regular season.
- 12 clean sheets. As mentioned above, this is an all-time individual record. It also equals the all-time club record set by 2022 Champions Columbus Crew 2
- 23 goals allowed. A sizeable 11 fewer than their nearest competitor Crown Legacy FC.
- 100 shots allowed, the second-fewest in the league. Within those, a 77% save percentage topped the league.
Las was complimented with a top-notch centerback pairing of fellow Best XI selection Joe Hafferty and Sal Mazzaferro (who had a strong Best XI case in his own right). They add up to a tightly-knit unit rarely seen in any first-year setup.
“I always say it's like a love triangle,” Las said in Sunday’s celebrations. “I think we all are in the same rhythm and same sync, and everyone knows that. I’d die for them and it's the same way around. So, I think we all have this bond and it's something really special."
While he might call it a love triangle, a Bermuda triangle might be more apt.
What does it all mean in the big picture?
One of the fun things about MLS NEXT Pro is watching the pantheon of stars who will forever be synonymous with the league get carved right before our eyes.
You know it when you see it - some guys are clearly in a class of their own, and Las was that guy in 2023. It’s never easy to compare goalies to field players, but we’re going to let one fly here.
Las’ sensational season mimics and might even eclipse the attention garnered by Jacen Russell-Rowe’s dominance last year. The face of the MLS NEXT Pro’s class of 2022 earned the MVP and Golden Boot honors during Columbus Crew 2’s crusade to last year’s Cup title.
Russell-Rowe’s breakout season was swiftly rewarded with first-team minutes, a new contract, and call-ups to the Canadian men’s national team.
It remains to be seen what Las’ 2023 will do for him in the immediate future, but it won’t exactly be a shocker if it reaps similar rewards. We’ll sign off with a fitting synopsis from Uttley during Sunday’s celebrations:
“Honestly, it's been incredible to have him part of our group and more than anything, I'm just excited for whatever the future holds for Damian.”