The 2022 MLS NEXT Pro campaign comes to an end this weekend with either Columbus Crew 2 or St Louis CITY2 walking away with the inaugural cup trophy.
Both conference winners have excelled for the majority of the year, claiming No.1 seeds ahead of the postseason before picking up back-to-back playoff wins in recent weeks. There will be no shortage of talent between Crew 2 and CITY2 at Lower.com Field, especially with Jacen Russell-Rowe and Kyle Heibert headlining the amount of talent for both teams.
Although Crew 2 has the home-field advantage in Columbus, CITY2 will throw out all stops in the final match of the season, knowing a place in history is at stake.
Here is a closer look at the Top Five Things to Watch in Saturday’s MLS NEXT Pro Cup:
Columbus Crew 2's 13-1-0 record at home, which includes back-to-back playoff wins, is tough to overlook. But St Louis CITY2 went 8-3-1 on the road in the regular season. Both are ranked first in those respective categories in MLS NEXT Pro.
Home-field advantage will be on Crew 2’s side, CITY2 won’t back down at Lower.com Field, especially after winning eight of their 12 away matches this season. In addition, CITY2 pushed Louisville City to the brink of elimination in U.S. Open Cup play earlier this year.
Crew 2 needed a dramatic comeback to eliminate TFC II in the Eastern Conference Final but eventually got it done. CITY2 has outscored their opponents 4-1 in the playoffs, but will now hope for any traveling support in Columbus after playing their previous matches at Ralph Korte Stadium.
There will be plenty of matchups all around the field, but the No. 1 showdown to watch will be between Crew 2 striker Jacen Russell-Rowe vs. CITY2 centerback Josh Yaro.
Russell-Rowe has had his way in MLS NEXT Pro this season, totaling 24 goals between the regular season and playoffs. Despite being held without a goal in last weekend’s 4-3 triumph over TFC II, the 20-year-old will still be confident on home soil against one of the top defensive teams in the league.
Yaro, 27, is a seasoned veteran, boasting previous experience in MLS with the Philadelphia Union, as well as in the USL. A former No. 2 overall draft pick by the Union, Yaro has been one of the best centerbacks in the league, leading CITY2 with 39 interceptions and totaling over 1,900 minutes of game time (third-most on the roster).
If anyone can try and keep Russell-Rowe in check, Yaro might be John Hackworth’s best option.
Jacen Russell-Rowe and Josh Dolling will garner plenty of conversation heading into Saturday’s final, but creativity from the midfield could be the deciding factor for either team.
Crew 2’s Mo Farsi, Marco Micaletto, and Isaiah Parente have combined to be one of the best midfield threats in MLS NEXT Pro, totaling 16 goals and 18 assists to date. Farsi’s 10 assists alone show his playmaking power and his versatility has helped in giving Laurent Courtois the best options in his squad.
Noah Fuson has mainly featured as a forward, but could also drop into the midfield, especially after registering nine goals and four assists to date.
CITY2 does not boast a double-digit goalscorer or assist man, but they do have a versatile group of midfielders that can interchange with one another. Celio Pompeu, Tomas Ostrak, Wan Kuzain, and Vitor Dias have totaled 20 goals and 13 assists between them, with Ostrak contributing two goals this postseason.
The playmaking abilities of all seven of these players will surely be fun to watch as both Crew 2 and CITY2 aim to score early and often.
Patrick Schulte has been sensational for Crew 2 this season in goal, finishing as a Best XI selection, winning Goalkeeper of the Year, and conceding only 19 goals in 17 starts. His seven clean sheets during the regular season finished as the second-most in MLS NEXT Pro, while he also registered 40 saves.
The 21-year-old had a rough night in the Eastern Conference Final against TFC II, being lobbed by Themi Antonoglou in extra time at Historic Crew Stadium. Crew 2 was able to fight back and advance to Saturday’s final, but Schulte will need to be wary of a dynamic CITY2 attack that has zero to lose on the road.
Michael Creek is one of four goalkeepers that John Hackworth has called on for CITY2 this season, but it’s been his job to lose in the postseason. Creek, 24, has made 27 saves in 13 appearances this season, conceding just under two goals per game (1.61 GAA).
A former Missouri Valley Conference standout with Missouri State University, Creek will be playing in the biggest match of his career to date with a trophy on the line.
99% of the starters in Saturday’s MLS NEXT Pro Cup have been in that role for most of the 2022 season, but substitutes could become heroes on Saturday if needed.
Crew 2 have received two goals from substitutes during the playoffs as Coleman Gannon and Jordan Knight both found the back of the net against TFC II. Both players have been key depth pieces in Laurent Courtois’ squad and could be among the first off the bench if Crew 2 needs an equalizing, winning, or insurance goal this weekend.
St Louis CITY2’s four goals this postseason have all come from starting players, but substitutes will also be key for John Hackworth if called upon. Selmir Pidro and Sergio Rivas have both earned minutes throughout the season while pending how Hackworth sets up his midfield, Kuzain could be the odd man out.
No matter the league, tournament, or country, substitutes have etched their names into history by delivering monumental moments for their clubs. With the stakes high in Columbus on Saturday, the final result could come down to a bit of magic from a player from either Crew 2 or CITY2’s bench.
Be sure to join us live at MLSNEXTPro.com at 1:30 on Saturday, October 8 when the action kicks off.