‘Defense travels’ is a term that is used frequently in sports when discussing great team defenses that find success on the road. Throughout the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season, Austin FC II’s defense proved to be difficult to break down no matter where they were playing.
The Verde & Black finished the regular season as the league's best defense. The team set a new league record with 12 clean sheets, surrendered a league-low 23 goals, and had the league’s best save percentage at 76.8 percent. Damian Las was voted MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeeper of the Year after recording the league’s lowest goals conceded average (0.74) of goalkeepers to appear in at least 10 matches and ranked fourth among all goalkeepers with 76 saves.
Las continued his dominant play from the regular season into the postseason. The team held its opponents scoreless over the first 300 minutes of postseason play, sweeping its Western Conference playoff opponents with three clean sheets. Las made 17 saves in four postseason matches, including six in the MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
“Overall, I’m just doing my job,” said Las after winning the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup. “I love doing my job. I love it when fans are talking and screaming at me. I’m here to make a save and those are moments you have to live for. All throughout the season, those are moments I was working really hard with Jason (Grubb), and Preston (Burpo), the goalkeeper coaches. These are moments you have to live for. Pressure is a privilege. You have to enjoy it, have to live in it, and just love it.”
Austin trotted out a back four of Charlie Asensio, Sal Mazzaferro, Joe Hafferty, and Cheick Touré in all four postseason contests. Those four combined for 45 clearances and 27 interceptions in on the extraordinary defensive showing throughout their postseason run. Additionally, they managed to hold the top three attacking teams in the Western Conference scoreless.
“I would say it’s a love triangle,” said Las on the relationship between him, Hafferty, and Mazzaferro. “We’re all in the same rhythm and same sync. I think we all just have this bond and it’s something really special.”
Austin FC II became the first team in MLS and MLS NEXT Pro history to win four consecutive away playoff matches en route to winning the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup in their inaugural season. The team didn’t allow a goal in open play all postseason.
“To win four games on the road in a row in the regular season, let alone in the playoffs, it’s almost unheard of,” said Head Coach Brett Uttley on the team's remarkable postseason run. “It’s a testament to what these guys are all about, it’s a testament to the collective that we’ve developed as a team and I’m honestly just so proud of the guys.”