The 2023 MLS NEXT Pro playoffs are here. Kicking everything off is Sporting Kansas City II's Western Conference Quarterfinals bout with Austin FC II on Friday night at Rock Chalk Park. Tickets for Sporting KC II's highly anticipated return to the playoffs are on sale at SeatGeek.com and all children 12 and under receive free admission. The match, and all other MLS NEXT Pro postseason matches, will stream live on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.
After a thrilling Decision Day draw and shootout win over St. Louis CITY2, Sporting KC II witnessed North Texas take down Austin FC II late on Sunday night to give SKC II the three seed in the Western Conference. With the inventive pick-your-opponent wrinkle in the MLS NEXT Pro playoffs, head coach Benny Feilhaber then selected ATX II as the team's first-round opponent, bringing the Texas side back to Rock Chalk Park for the first time since April 2.
In the 2023 regular season, SKC II took five points from Austin, winning in kicks from the spot on April 2, and claiming a 2-1 road win on August 25. The two sides have ranked toward the top of the Frontier Division almost all season long with SKC II finally surpassing Austin FC II on Decision Day.
Both teams finished the season on 49 points but earned them with two vastly different playing styles. Sporting KC II boasts one of the more high-powered offenses in the league, bagging 60 goals on the season, second most in MLS NEXT Pro. They rank first in expected goals (55.72), shots (451) and key passes (314). In a balanced attack with weapons scattered all over the field, 16 different players scored for SKC II in 2023, 13 of which scored more than once.
Austin on the other hand owns one of the sturdiest defenses in MLS NEXT Pro, conceding a league-best 23 goals. Their 12 clean sheets and 76.8 save percentage also top the charts this season. Goalkeeper Damian Las took home Goalkeeper of the Year honors and was named to the MLS NEXT Pro Best XI after the Austin FC II keeper started 27 of 28 matches, kept 12 clean sheets and made 76 saves. Defender Joe Hafferty was also named to the MLS NEXT Pro Best XI.
Feilhaber will have many options in the attacking third on Friday. Forward Pau Vidal paces the team with 11 goals to his name this season. The Spanish striker rattled off a stretch of six goals scored in seven matches at the start of the season and added five more throughout the campaign. Vidal also scored the leveler against Austin in April. Joining Vidal up top for a large portion of the season has been forward and Sporting KC Academy product Sebastian Cruz. The Cal State Fullerton alum has five goals and two assists on the season and made his first-team debut in Sporting Kansas City's Lamar Hunt US Open Cup win over Tulsa Athletic.
In the midfield, a two-headed juggernaut of Josh Coan and Ethan Bryant emerged as an imposing attacking tandem in the tail end of the season. Coan, the team captain, set the single-season, SKC II record for assists with eight and added six goals in just 13 starts. Bryant scored eight times in 2023, second most on the team, and has three assists. The Texas native made two appearances in the Open Cup with the first team as well.
On the backline, right-back Lucas Rosa has been the most consistent player all season, leading the team in appearances (28), starts (24) and minutes (2253). He has nine goal contributions (4g, 5a), more than any SKC II defender and three of his goals have won MLS NEXT Pro Goal of the Matchday honors. Centerback Nassim Mekideche has also been an integral figure in the back four, starting 14 of 20 appearances and scoring two goals. He recovered from a late-season injury and started on Decision Day against St. Louis, playing all 90 minutes.
First-team loanees have been monumental for SKC II all season long, none more so than Ozzie Cisneros. The Homegrown, Omaha native has 18 starts and 26 appearances, scoring three times and adding two assists. The next highest first-teamer in the appearance category is rookie Chris Rindov who has started 18 of 24 appearances. Midfielder Danny Flores, in his first season with SKC II, has 16 starts, two goals and two assists. Academy products Cam Duke and Felipe Hernandez are two more key contributors. Hernandez is the all-time SKC II assists leader, increasing his total with three additional assists this season. Duke has three goals and an assist throughout the campaign.
Between the posts, SKC II goalkeeper Ethan Bandre has the most appearances (14) and owns a 1.29 goals against average. He kept three clean sheets and owns a regular season record of 7-4-3. First-teamer John Pulskamp has nine starts, one clean sheet, 24 saves and an impressive slash of 4-2-3 with three shootout wins.
Austin enters the playoffs with two results in their last five matches. Their last win came against the six-seed Earthquakes II on August 12. They are led by head coach Brett Uttley in his first year at the helm of the team. He guided Austin through a long and arduous innagualr season, keeping ATX II above the playoff line for the entire campaign.
Their tough defending headlined by Las and Hafferty has been helped out by attacking contributions from Sebastian Pineau and Valentin Noel. Pineau paces Austin with seven goals while Noel's 10 contributions (6g, 4a) are the best on the team.
It is win or go home on Friday night at Rock Chalk Park. Sporting Kansas City II will make their first playoff appearance since 2018 when they bowed out in the USL Championship Conference finals after consecutive USL Cup Final appearances. A true clash of philosophies is set up as one of the top offenses faces one of the most imposing defenses.
Tickets for the massive playoff fixture are still on sale at SeatGeek.com and the match can be viewed on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. Fans can also follow @SportingKCII on X for updates throughout the contest.
MLS NEXT Pro: Western Conference Quarterfinals
Date: Friday, September 29, 2023
Kickoff: 7:00 p.m. CT
Location: Rock Chalk Park
Watch: MLS Season Pass on Apple TV
Match-specific Hashtag: #SKCvATX
SKC II Playoff Hashtag: #WeGotNext