When Columbus Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte takes his position in goal at Lower.com Field to do battle with Los Angeles FC for the 2023 MLS Cup on Saturday, it won't be an entirely unfamiliar setting.
The 22-year-old from Saint Charles, Missouri was in a similar position at the same venue just a year ago when Columbus Crew 2 capped off MLS NEXT Pro's inaugural season by hoisting the historic trophy.
Schulte, who individually earned MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeeper of the Year and a Best XI selection in 2022, is one in a handful of players to have graduated from the inaugural Crew 2 cast finding himself playing do-or-die minutes in the 2023 MLS Cup playoffs. None bigger to date than Saturday's Eastern Conference title win over FC Cincinnati.
"I've got no words honestly, it's just crazy," Schulte said. "I look back at where myself and some of the guys on the team were a year ago, and just to look at where we are now... It's completely different. I'm blessed. I'm thankful and it's just a privilege to be in the situation and I take it with pride."
Crazy is an apt way to describe the storybook season Schulte is enjoying. The youngster couldn't recall the "craziest" thing he dared to think heading into the 2023 season, which for many reasons (new head coach included) was penned to be a transitional year in Columbus.
The starting goalkeeper spot was a part of that transition. Schulte ultimately won the job over five-year MLS veteran and club mainstay Eloy Room, who helped deliver the 2020 MLS Cup title. No small feat. He's been undeniably one of the best stories in American soccer ever since.
"Wilfried (Nancy) has a lot of trust in me and I'm super grateful for him giving me this opportunity," said Schulte. "I just try and take every day just full-hearted and I just to try and embrace it and enjoy the moment,"
Schulte headlines the crop of inaugural MLS NEXT Pro champions to make an immediate impact in their first season on a higher stage. The smooth transition into the full-time first-team jump begs the question: does Columbus have the most talented pipeline in MLS right now?
At the moment, it feels hard to argue with.
Crew 2 graduates Schulte and Mohamed Farsi started Saturday's match and have been starting locks throughout the season and playoffs. Midfielder Sean Zawadski came in as a substitute. 2022 MLS NEXT Pro MVP and Golden Boot winner Jacen Rusell-Rowe was in the holster as an attacking option. Several others have made contributions throughout the season.
Columbus Crew Assistant General Manager (and Crew 2 GM) Corey Wray is one of a few people with the recipe for the secret sauce. One of the biggest parts of his job is to oversee the development of the perpetual next generation of Crew stars and provide accurate assessments of their projected timeline to contribute at the MLS level.
Even in his mind, watching this all unfold is a lot to wrap his head around.
"That's what it's all about," Wray told MLSNEXTPro.com. "I would be lying if I thought that they would be so integrated so early, but credit to the staff and obviously the players for everything they've done to get here. They've been incredible. A huge part of this team, and we're really happy for everybody ... I'm at a loss for words a little bit."
The appointment of Nancy has proven to be the perfect fit for Columbus in 2023. Nancy, whose managerial formative years were spent with the CF Montreal Academy, brought an ethos that was always going to allow for his younger players to have roles at the MLS and cup season levels.
"We're really proud of that to be honest," said the Crew gaffer. "Because with my background, this is something that is really important for me. Yes, I want to win. Yes, I want to compete. But I like to develop players and people.
"And the idea when I took the team was to see and evaluate all the players and to see who can fit in our vision. Big trust with the front office."
Then there are the personal wins that are too serendipitous to believe sometimes. Every great rivalry has its characters and side stories. Schulte got the rare opportunity to run back a not-so-fond memory and prevail when it mattered most.
It's a trait that proves he is indeed ready for the big time and won't get caught making the same mistakes twice.
The Eastern Conference title was captured with a rollercoaster comeback 3-2 win over bitter "Hell is Real" rival FC Cincinnati. Despite controlling nearly everything in the first half, Schulte and the Crew were down 2-0 at TQL Stadium before rallying to the three-goal second frame.
You can't make this stuff up. Schulte was in this exact situation in the regular season on May 20, where he blamed himself for allowing Cincinnati's game-winner in a stunning 3-2 loss after his side found a way to equalize a 2-0 first-half deficit.
"If I didn't allow a goal, I knew our attackers and the people in front of me would do their job," he said. "And so honestly, knowing where we were last time we came here, I made the mistake in allowing the 3-2 result. So I just wasn't going to allow that to happen again."
The win over Cincinnati is the signature moment of the postseason so far. The Crew also topped Atlanta United FC and Orlando City SC on their path to hosting MLS Cup. Schulte registered a clean sheet in the opener of the three-game series with Atlanta, as well as blanking Orlando in the conference semifinal.
If that reference is above your head, we've got you covered here. You'll probably run into some Capybara references in the run-up to Saturday's finale and wonder what it's all about. Everything about Crew 2 and their associated players makes for prime niche MLS lore, and it will surely hit new heights with the world watching.
Schulte and his Crew 2 contingent are forever bonded by 2022's championship win and all the fun that came along with it. These days, it seems like that same vibe has carried over to the first team when you ask Schulte if there's any lingering fraternal aspect to the Capy culture.
"I definitely think we have a really strong relationship just from last year this year. Obviously, it's easier, age-wise as well. We all have very similar interests and stuff, but it's not a separation in the locker room ... everyone's super tight and super close.
Schulte and the Crew look to cap off a storybook season at 4 PM Eastern on Saturday in a can't-miss game. Be sure to tune in on Apple TV (no subscription required, FOX, or FOX Deportes.