MLS Next Pro Cup: Austin FC II at Columbus Crew II

By Carey Van Lue

MLS NEXT Pro Cup: Columbus Crew 2 vs Austin FC II, October 22, 5:00 p.m.
(courtesy MLS Next Pro Communications)
Match Facts Field
Location:Columbus, Ohio
Referee:Calin Radosav
Ast. Referee 1:Noah Kenyawani
Ast. Referee 2:Rhett Hammil

What’s better than being the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Cup champs? Being the first back-to-back MLS NEXT Pro Cup champs.

On Sunday night, the Columbus Crew 2 has the chance to make history yet again when the Capybaras host Austin FC II in the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup Final at Field.

Here’s everything you need to know before the boys hopefully hoist the hardware.

MLS NEXT Pro Cup Match Details

After winning the Eastern Conference Final in dramatic fashion last week, Crew 2 hosts Western Conference winners Austin FC II on Sunday night, Oct. 22, at Field in the MLS NEXT Pro Cup Final. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. Gates will open at 4 p.m.

While Crew 2 typically plays at Historic Crew Stadium, this match will be in the same stomping grounds as the First Team – and the site where the club won the MLS NEXT Pro Cup in 2022.

The Capybaras Youth Movement

While the club is back in the championship, it should be noted that Crew 2 head coach Laurent Courtois’ success in 2023 has come by implementing a different approach than in 2022.

This year’s squad only features a handful of starters from the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro champs a year ago. Instead, Courtois and company have utilized the club’s plethora of talent from the Crew Academy.

We all know the cliché, “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” but that really has been the mantra for Crew 2, which has featured multiple teenagers this season. For example, Alex Zochowski made his debut at 15 earlier this year. There’s also a pair of 17-year-old playmakers: Cole Mrowka and Taha Habroune.

It’s important to remember that Crew 2 certainly wants to rack up trophies, but the Second Team is also a platform for players to gain experience before joining the First Team.

Four players from last year’s MLS NEXT Pro Cup final team have been regular starters for First Team head coach Wilfried Nancy throughout 2023: Jacen Russell-Rowe, Patrick Schulte, Sean Zawadzki and Philip Quinton. Additionally, Isaiah Parente and Jake Morris have featured in matchday squads during the past two MLS seasons.

Sunday night’s match is a massive moment for everyone playing in the final. But for some supporters, the matchup against Austin might be the first time they witness players who will play an important role in the Crew’s future plans.

The Path To The MLS NEXT Pro Final

Similar to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the First Team, this competition is all about getting hot at the right time during the season. Whereas the Capybaras dominated throughout 2022, in 2023, the side has produced a few upsets to reach this point.

So, first things first … Crew 2 won its second Central Division title during the regular season and entered the playoffs as the third seed in the East. The MLS NEXT Pro Cup Playoffs had a pick-your-opponent approach, and Columbus hosted – and beat – Orlando City B, 2-1, in the conference quarterfinals at Historic Crew Stadium.

In the Eastern Conference Semis, Crew 2 upset No. 1 Crown Legacy FC (Charlotte FC), 1-0, thanks to Noah Fuson’s second-half strike. The win put the Capybaras back in the Eastern Conference Finals and back on the road, as they faced No. 2 New England Revolution II at Gillette Stadium.

The Capybaras waited until second-half stoppage time for Gibran Rayo’s late winner to win the Eastern Conference Final and send the club back to another MLS NEXT Pro Cup.

GSo, how did Crew 2 get the rights to host the championship in the Ohio capital?

Well, there were quite a few upsets on the other side of the bracket. Austin FC II entered the postseason as the No. 4 seed. The club has yet to concede a goal in the playoffs and advanced to the final via penalties.

“The Guys Worked Hard and Deserve It”

Experience matters, and in this case, Courtois is familiar with his team hosting a championship game at Field. But that doesn’t mean he’s taking it for granted.

“The guys worked hard and deserve it,” the coach said of the Capybaras playing for the cup. “You can be as talented as you want, but you can’t replace heart.”

Columbus Crew 2 finished the 2023 regular season with the fifth-best record across MLS NEXT Pro. The side earned 54 points from 28 games, and Rayo led the scoring with 11 league goals. Just behind him were Fuson and Marco Micaletto, who had eight goals each.