It’s gut check time in MLS NEXT Pro with the first round of the league playoffs kicking off on Friday night.
Sporting KC II hosts Austin FC II in the opening match of the playoffs with both teams seeking advancement to the next round. Benny Feilhaber’s squad took five out of six available points against Austin FC II during the regular season.
Sunday’s five-match slate begins on the East Coast with New York Red Bulls II hosting Chicago Fire II. Orlando City B visits Columbus Crew 2 also in Eastern Conference play while New England Revolution II hosts Philadelphia Union II later that evening.
St. Louis CITY2 faces off with Earthquakes II in Western Conference action while the final match of the night pits Tacoma Defiance against Houston Dynamo 2.
Here is a closer look at the first round playoff schedule:
Friday - 9/29
Sporting KC II vs. Austin FC II (8 p.m. ET, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV)
Not much separated Sporting KC II and Austin FC II during the MLS NEXT Pro regular season and the two Western Conference clubs will square off on Friday in the opening match of the playoffs.
Sporting KC II edged Austin FC II to the No. 3 seed in the West on Decision Day, rebounding from back-to-back defeats. Benny Feilhaber’s men have yet to suffer defeat against the Texas-based club, defeating them 4-2 in a shootout in April before also claiming a 2-1 regulation victory in late-August. Five different players have contributed five goals or more for SKC II this season, including leading-scorer Pau Vidal who leads the way with 11 tallies.
Austin FC II heads into the postseason without a regulation win in their last six matches, losing their last two matches overall in league play. Brett Uttley’s squad struggled away from Parmer Field this season, earning just three regulation wins out of their 14 road matches in total. A stingy backline led by Salvatore Mazzaferro (2,422 minutes played) helped Austin FC II concede a league-fewest 23 goals during the regular season while goalkeeper Damian Las registered 12 clean sheets in 27 appearances.
Sunday - 10/1
New York Red Bulls II vs. Chicago Fire II (1 p.m. ET, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV)
Sunday’s heavy slate of playoff matches gets underway from MSU Soccer Park as New York Red Bulls II hosts Chicago Fire II.
Red Bulls II claimed five points out of six available against Fire II during the regular season, most recently defeating them 5-4 back on August 27. Ibrahim Kasule scored twice in that match while Frank Ssebufu and Wikelman Carmona also found the back of the net. The dangerous attacking trio have combined for 31 goals and nine assists in 2023 and will be tough for Fire II to keep quiet.
Chicago Fire II are seeking a major upset on Sunday, especially with just one regulation win under their belt over their past six matches. Ludovic Taillander’s squad went to shootouts in each of their last two matches, falling to Orlando City B before defeating Huntsville City FC 4-2 on Decision Day. Fire II do not have a double-digit goalscorer in their current squad, but will rely on Luka Prpa, Omari Glasgow, and Billy Hency to carry the load (20 goals, 17 assists combined in regular season).
Columbus Crew 2 vs. Orlando City B (5:30 p.m. ET, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV)
Columbus Crew 2 and Orlando City B split their two regular season meetings in 2023, but Sunday’s third head-to-head meeting of 2023 will serve as a stepping stone into the second round of the playoffs.
The defending MLS NEXT Pro Champions have been up-and-down this summer, winning four of their last seven matches heading into the postseason. Back-to-back victories over FC Cincinnati 2 and ATL UTD 2 helped Crew 2 capture the No. 3 seed in the East, with seven different players finding the back of the net over that span. Noah Fuson, Marco Micaletto, and Coleman Gannon were part of last season’s title-winning side for Crew 2 and bring valuable experience to the squad. Gibran Rayo has been an influential signing since his move from RNY FC earlier this year (11 goals, five assists).
Orlando City B heads into Sunday’s trip to Historic Crew Stadium, riding a three-match unbeaten streak. A 4-1 home win over Crew 2 back in August featured goals from Shak Mohammed and Golden Boot winner Jack Lynn, who also scored on Decision Day. Lynn and Mohammed have 25 combined goals between them this season and will be tough for Crew 2 to shut down for 90 minutes.
St. Louis CITY2 vs. Earthquakes II (6 p.m. ET, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV)
St. Louis CITY2’s quest to return to the MLS NEXT Pro Cup begins on Sunday with a home clash against Earthquakes II.
Bobby Murphy’s men are riding a strong run of form in league play coming into the playoffs, going unbeaten in regulation over their last 10 matches. They have outscored their opposition 27-10 over that span, using dynamic attackers and a stingy backline to lead the way. John Klein and Faysal Bettache have been among the goals in recent weeks, coming for 22 total tallies in 2023.
Earthquakes II have yet to defeat CITY2 in regulation over four prior meetings, but will try to turn the tide with a road win. Back-to-back victories over Whitecaps FC and LAFC II have boosted confidence in the Quakes II squad, which helped them propel themselves over the red line in the Western Conference. Eduardo Blancas has totaled five goals in his last five appearances and overall leads the team with 12 tallies this year.
New England Revolution II vs. Philadelphia Union II (8 p.m. ET, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV)
Two Eastern Conference teams riding strong form heading into the playoffs are New England Revolution II and Philadelphia Union II, who will clash at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Philadelphia Union II claimed the last playoff spot in the East after using a three-match winning streak to end the regular season on a high note. Victories over TFC II, Huntsville City FC, and New York Red Bulls II will have Marlon LeBlanc’s squad feeling confident heading into a tricky test in Foxborough. Stefan Sjoanovic and Jeremy Rafanello lead the attacking front after totaling 19 goals during the regular season.
New England Revolution II should be well rested after enjoying a bye week on Decision Day. Revs II have won their last three head-to-head matches against Union II, scoring three goals or more in each of those contests. Jordan Adebayo-Smith and Marcos Dias will be a handful for the Union II backline after combining for 20 goals and seven assists to date.
Tacoma Defiance vs. Houston Dynamo 2 (10 p.m. ET, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV)
Tacoma Defiance are unbeaten in their last three meetings with Houston Dynamo 2 and will seek to extend that streak on Sunday night.
Wade Webber’s men haven’t lost in regulation over their last six matches, scoring two goals or more in each of those fixtures. Starfire Sports Complex has been a fortress for the Defiance this season, with the Western Conference club losing only twice out of their 14 matches at home. Braudilio Rodrigues has led the way for the Defiance, totaling 15 goals and four assists in 26 regular-season appearances.
Houston Dynamo 2 snuck into the final playoff spot in the West, using a 2-1 Decision Day victory over LA Galaxy II to finish in the No. 7 seed. Kenny Bundy’s squad have only won two of their last six matches, but will seek a fresh start in the postseason. Papa Ndoye and Diego Gonzalez have 24 combined goals in 2023 while defender Talen Maples has been key once again defensively this season (2,340 minutes played).