Top 5 things to watch in the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup

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The 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup takes place this Sunday with defending champions Columbus Crew 2 facing off with Austin FC II for all the marbles.

Crew 2 have won all three of their playoff matches this fall, most recently going on the road and defeating New England Revolution II 1-0 thanks to a late Gibran Rayo winning goal. The result marked Crew 2’s five-consecutive victory dating back to regular season play, continuing a stellar run of form which has carried them to a second-straight final.

Despite a rocky run of form to end the regular season, Austin FC II has saved their best soccer for last. Brett Uttley’s squad has registered three-straight shutouts defensively, led by MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeeper of the Year winner Damian Las. Las has made 11 saves over ATX II’s three playoff wins while three different players have contributed goals to date.

It will mark the first head-to-head showdown between the two clubs in MLS NEXT Pro with several intriguing storylines to watch.

Here is a closer look at the Top Five Things to Watch in Sunday’s 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup:

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Crew 2’s strong home form vs. Austin FC II’s improving away form

Columbus Crew 2 will play host to Austin FC II on Sunday and overall have been one of the best teams on home soil in 2023.

Crew 2 has won 10 of their 15 matches at home this season, which included a 2-1 playoff victory over Orlando City B to kickoff their postseason schedule. They were one of six MLS NEXT Pro clubs to register nine wins on home soil, which were tied for the most in league play. 

Austin FC II struggled away from Parmer Field during the regular season (winning just three of 14 away matches), but have since done a lot better during the playoffs. Back-to-back regulation victories over Sporting KC II and Tacoma Defiance were followed up by Sunday’s shootout win over No. 1 seed Colorado Rapids 2. Field will play host to Sunday’s MLS NEXT Pro Cup so the early advantage might be on Crew 2’s side.


Damian Las, Stanislav Lapkes providing safe hands in between the posts

Both Crew 2 and Austin FC II have received consistent goalkeeping play during these playoffs and will be hoping that leads them to a title lift on Sunday evening.

Austin FC II has been led by 22-year-old Damian Las, who won the MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeeper of the Year award earlier this fall. Las, a former U.S. youth national team shot-stopper, has totaled 15 clean sheets in 2023, with three of those coming during ATX II’s run to the title game.

His 87 saves are the second-most among all MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeepers this season, while his 20 goals allowed are the least by any goalkeeper to have played in 15 or more matches.

Las certainly has the ability to stand on his head in Sunday’s final, but so does his counterpart, Stanislav Lapkes.

Lapkes, 17, split time with Brady Scott for most of the 2023 season, but since has excelled in the No. 1 job. He’s only conceded one goal in 270 minutes of action during the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs, while also making 13 saves.

A Man of the Match performance by Lapkes in Crew 2’s 1-0 win over Crown Legacy FC was certainly the headliner as he made nine saves to help eliminate the East’s No. 1 seed.

After a positive 2023 campaign, Lapkes will be eager to end his debut season with a piece of silverware this weekend.


Dynamic Crew 2 offense vs. stingy Austin FC II backline, who has the edge?

Columbus Crew 2 have been one of the league’s highest scoring teams in 2023 while Austin FC II’s defense has been hard to break down.

Crew 2’s 58 goals scored during the regular season were among the top-six most in MLS NEXT Pro, with Gibran Rayo leading the way with 11 regular season tallies of his own. Rayo delivered the winning strike in Friday’s 1-0 Eastern Conference Finals victory over New England Revolution II, continuing what has been a second-straight impressive season in the league.

2022 title winners Noah Fuson and Marco Micaletto have also contributed 19 combined goals this year, with each of them finding the back of the net during the postseason.

No matter how Laurent Courtois lines his attack up, expect Crew 2 to create opportunities one way or another.

Austin FC II’s 20 goals conceded in 2023 are the fewest to date in MLS NEXT Pro history, surpassing Crew 2’s 27 combined goals in 2022. In addition to Damian Las’ consistent goalkeeping, ATX II has relied on a consistent backline of defenders.

Salvatore Mazzaferro has logged 2,722 minutes this year, starting in all 30 matches he has played in. Joe Hafferty’s 225 duels and Alonso Ramirez’s 42 interceptions are the most in each respective category among Austin FC II defenders, as both players have also shined next to Mazzaferro.

After not conceding a goal in the last 300 minutes of playoff action, Austin FC II’s defense will be confident against one of the league’s dynamic attacking units.


New faces taking leading roles for Crew 2 following title-winning 2022

It’s always going to be hard to replace your best players, but Columbus Crew 2 have received plenty of production from new faces.

Gibran Rayo, Mataeo Bunbury, Taha Habroune, and Giorgio De Libera were just a handful of key contributors for the defending MLS NEXT Pro Cup winners in 2023. Rayo leads the team in goals (12 in total during the regular season and playoffs) while Bunbury and Habroune have combined for eight goals and six assists to date in league play.

De Libera’s 25 appearances are tied for the second-most in the Crew 2 squad this season.

Despite losing key players such as Jacen Russell-Rowe, Mohamed Farsi, Patrick Schulte, and Isaiah Parente to the first team, Laurent Courtois has continued to trust the process and reward new players with opportunities.

Returning players such as Noah Fuson, Marco Micaletto, and Abdi Mohammed have also been important to the squad, but the new faces haven’t shied away from the expectation to repeat as league champions.


No double-digit goalscorer? No problem for Austin FC II!

While plenty of MLS NEXT Pro sides relied on the goalscoring abilities of one or maybe two players, Austin FC II received contributions from everyone in the final third.

Austin FC II was one of seven MLSNP clubs to not have a double-digit goalscorer in 2023, but it didn’t stop them from reaching the upcoming league final. Three of the club’s top five goal scorers are all 21 years old or younger, with Sebastien Pineau, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, and David Rodriguez all fitting the bill.

Pineau’s seven goals led the team during the regular season while Valentin Noel has seven himself between all competitions.

Rodriguez and Ocampo-Chavez made the move to Austin FC II this past offseason after originally being at North Texas SC and Tacoma Defiance respectively.

A total of 14 different players found the back of the net at least once in 2023 for Austin FC II, showing the countless amount of depth that Brett Uttley has at his disposal this weekend.

You can catch Columbus Crew 2 and Austin FC II face off for the MLS NEXT Pro Cup on Sunday, October 22 at 5PM ET on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.