The 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Playoff field is down to four as two Conference Finals come your way this weekend, and you couldn't ask for a more exciting group of finalists.
Colorado Rapids 2 and New England Revolution II will serve as host clubs for this weekend’s matchups, with both teams eying their first conference titles and tickets to the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
Revs II kick off the action hoping to fend off defending champs Columbus Crew 2 on Saturday and hope to maintain their red-hot home form. They split lopsided wins in the regular season, setting a stage where anything can happen when they battle one last time in 2023.
Rapids 2 hopes to stay unbeaten against expansion side Austin FC II on Sunday, but the season series shows that this is a nervy contest where both sides have figured out ways to score on one another.
With so many storylines to consider, it's time to break them down match by match. Here is a closer look at this weekend’s Conference Final matchups:
Revs II defeated Philadelphia Union II and New York Red Bulls II in consecutive weeks to make it here. Not only have Revs II been one of the more consistent teams during the second half of the season, but they have also made Gillette Stadium a fortress. They have not lost in regulation at home over their last 13 matches (including playoffs), which spans 173 days.
There are several key players to watch on the Revs II squad that contribute to that stellar run, and the goal threats top that list. Jordan Adebayo-Smith (12) and Marcos Dias (8) combined for 20 goals in the regular season while club wonderkid Esmir Bajraktarevic contributed six tallies of his own despite splitting his time with the Revolution first team and U.S. Men's Youth National camps.
A 3-0 loss and 2-0 win over Crew 2 in the regular season doesn't exactly offer much in terms of what to expect Saturday, but the critical nature of the playoffs gives you the sense it probably won't be a runaway act for the winner.
Now for the team with the most at stake. Columbus Crew 2’s title defense continues on Sunday with a tricky Eastern Conference Final trip to face New England Revolution II.
Laurent Courtois’ squad is clicking at the right time, winning four straight matches coming into Sunday’s match. A 1-0 road win over No. 1 seed Crown Legacy FC was done with a goal from Noah Fuson, who remains a key member of the squad from last season’s title-winning roster. Gibran Rayo leads the team with 11 goals and is one of the rare newcomers with some valuable MLS NEXT Pro playoff experience.
17-year-old Stanislav Lapkes delivered a nine-save shutout in the conference semifinal win over Crown Legacy FC. He stands as one of the major x-factors in Sunday's matchup after inking his very first professional contract last month. In the regular season series, he notched a clean sheet over Revs II in April and was not a part of Crew 2's 2-0 defeat in the reverse fixture.
One might argue that Revs II's lengthy unbeaten streak at home is an intimidating factor to consider, but last week's win marked Crew 2 as the first team to ever beat CLFC on their home soil after going unbeaten in the entire 2023 regular season which was a massive accomplishment.
In the long view, Colorado Rapids 2 undoubtedly carries the most power heading into the Conference Finals. After dominating the Western Conference all season, there might have been a little ring rust by way of their first-round bye in their nervy 1-0 semifinal win over Quakes II last weekend. They ultimately pulled it out, unlike their Eastern Conference counterpart in dominance Crown Legacy FC (who also didn't quite look like themselves), and that wherewithal should be a huge confidence booster.
2023 Coach of the Year Erik Bushey’s men haven’t lost at home since early August, finishing the regular season as one of only four MLS NEXT Pro clubs to register nine victories or more on home soil.
MLS NEXT Pro 2023 Best XI players Rémi Cabral, Yosuke Hanya, and Oliver Larraz have combined for 41 of the club's 66 regular-season goals and will most certainly be occupying the majority of ATXFC II's defensive eyes on Sunday.
Like Crew 2, Rapids 2 found a hero in a young goalkeeper this year. 17-year-old Adam Beaudry was promoted from the academy to a professional contract thanks to his heroics in the 2023 regular season and has been lights-out with his starting opportunities. The question is - will he be available on Sunday? The youngster took a back seat to Abe Rodriguez last weekend after spending some time with the U.S. Men's U-23 camp.
Austin FC II didn't get the better of Rapids 2 in the regular season series, but Brett Uttley’s squad will be laying it all on the line this Sunday and have every right to their newfound stride.
For starters, appearing in the Conference Final is a huge accomplishment for the 2023 expansion side, and partially by that same measure, they fared much better than most in the West. A 3-3 tie and 2-1 loss in the series turned out to be quite respectable, all things considered.
Austin FC II suffered a far fall in terms of their power in the West in the home stretch of the regular season. For much of the season, they looked to be a no-brainer playoff team but hit a six-game winless run to close out the season which put them on the block to be selected by Sporting Kansas City II. SKC II head coach Benny Feilhaber certainly respected ATXFC II's quality and made some headlines with "scared money don't make money" as the rationale for the selection.
That sentiment looks to have galvanized Austin FC II, who were sure to incorporate money gestures in the celebrations of an eventual 2-0 win, and they backed it up with a difficult 1-0 win over Tacoma Defiance last week.
The point is - they are rolling. Their early-season swagger is back, and Goalkeeper of the Year Damian Las has the safest hands you could ask for league-wide ahead of this win-or-go-home clash. Las is protected by fellow Best XI selection Joe Haffery in what was the best defense in the league in 2023.