Nobody knew what to expect in MLS NEXT Pro’s foray into the world of professional soccer.
You didn’t know which teams were going to be strong, which players were going to shine, or where the surprises would've been hiding.
Thinking back to the league's launch announcement back in December, you weren’t alone if you expected the first-ever silverware to be issued to the teams that have existed for several years, but it came down to two brand-new operations and Columbus Crew 2 was the one to prevail over St Louis CITY2 in the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
“Frankly, nobody knew what this league was going to be like, it was a shot in the dark,” team captain Marco Micaletto said. “Who's going to play, what the game is going to be like, everything.
“You didn't know a single thing and had nothing to base it off. And they created a little bit of a perfect storm between the staff and the players that they brought in,”
Obviously, Crew 2’s dominance in the Eastern Conference quickly put them on track to be a Cup finalist favorite, but the storybook season didn’t actually start so dominant out of the gate. An immediate buy-in was needed after an opening-day defeat to Inter Miami II, and it was there.
“The opening loss in Miami, I made sure of one thing," head coach Laurent Courtois said. "That playing like this, we were going to be successful. The way that we're able to play forward, create set pieces, (and) have each other's back,”
Courtois’ vision was accurate. His men stuck to it and went on a rampage in the East from Week 2 on. A seven-game winning streak put Crew 2 at the top of the conference and no competitor was able to keep pace.
The numbers put it in perspective best, and some might stand as records for a long time. Crew 2’s 55-point regular season led the league. Their 62 goals led the league. A whopping +40 goal differential topped the league by eight and the Eastern Conference by 26. The most wins, the fewest losses, you name it - Crew 2 is a worthy champion.
It should be no surprise that the extracurricular accolades soon followed.
In the centuries-old history of our sport, standing out is always for the taking but being the first to do anything is nearly impossible.
The inaugural Most Valuable Player, Goalkeeper of the year, and Coach of the year awards live in Columbus, and four of the best XI spots were occupied by Crew 2. Obviously, the award tour has its perks, but the developmental side is what Courtois was quick to mention when thinking of all of the firsts the 2022 campaign had to offer.
“There's so many boxes that we checked this year, and it's so amazing,” Courtois said. “You talk about stuff, you mention stuff about goals and what this platform is going to be about, and then when you actually see the actions … “Everybody's doing exactly what they say they will do. And so I have never been so happy,”
Winning is always important, and positive results keep the good times rolling. But the pathway to Columbus' first team is ultimately the main objective. That’s another area where Crew 2 won big.
2022 MVP and Golden Boot winner Jacen-Russell-Rowe was the first to be rewarded with a first-team contract in June, and fellow MLS NEXT Pro Best XI selection Mo Farsi shortly after. Both have gotten on the scoresheets already in MLS play and immediately have to shift gears for the Crew’s playoff push.
Crew 2 even managed to win off the field as well. The connection to local supporters could be the envy of any team on the globe and has been one of the fun surprises of MLS NEXT Pro’s 2022. Under the gifted identity of The Capybaras, the champions were able to garner local attention, social media chatter, and a fun buzz around them that certainly wasn't a given for a first-year operation.
“I hope it just brings them joy … And we love to be something that they can be proud of,” Micaletto said. “They've got a lot to be proud of when they support this club and we didn't want to come here and stain it. We didn't want to be a laughingstock or a reason not to be proud,”
Of the uncertainties of everything MLS NEXT Pro’s maiden voyage had to offer, local support is something that will undeniably take time to build in most markets, but it quickly showed up in full force in the Ohio capital.
“They've welcomed us from day one. I thought like, maybe we'll get like two fans and that's like my mom and my grandma type thing. You know what I mean? I didn't think there was going to be a supporter group,”
“Perhaps that's even bigger than the trophy in the end.”
Naturally, the success and entertaining style that the champions have shown helped keep fans locked in. The 3-4-3 formation has obvious points of vulnerabilities but they’ve been able to overpower the field with high-flying and high-tempo play on the offensive side.
“The only thing that we don't want to do is doubting about what to do,” said Courtois. “Yes, it's going to be risky. Yes, it's going to be taxing. But, we know what we want to do with and without the ball, so (we) play with no fear,”
So, what comes next? Defending the championship? It’s not too early to start that conversation from the captain’s chair.
“You repeat. You repeat and you do it better,” Micaletto said. “And they're going to clock you and they're going to find how to beat you, and you're just going to figure out a way to go around it. I promise you this, no one's going to sleep on this one.
You could argue Crew 2 had the target on their backs all season long anyways, and Micaletto knows 2023 will be no different.
“If you think that because you win a championship you're perfect, then you're going to win another one. And we want more. A lot more,”