MLS Next Pro Midseason Review
MLS Next Pro was established last year in an effort by MLS to complete their academy to pro player pathway. Prior to the birth of Next Pro, many MLS clubs placed their second teams in USL or had an affiliate USL club where they would send older academy players and players on the edge of their first team squad.
With the formation of MLS Next Pro, all but one MLS club have severed ties to USL. D.C. United is the only remaining MLS club with an affiliate in USL — Loudoun United. Montreal is the only MLS club without a second team, so 27 of the 29 MLS clubs have established a reserve team in MLS Next Pro.
In this article I will analyze how the league has developed from league one to league two, the different ways it's being used by clubs and the challenges it faces.
Some helpful context
To understand why MLS implemented MLS Next Pro you have to first understand the youth development landscape in the United States. The availability and relevance of college soccer makes the United States soccer landscape different than other leading soccer nations.
Soccer has been a sport predominately for middle/upper class families and families with roots from soccer dominate nations. For many young people and their families, soccer provides a pathway to higher education. Most of the best college soccer programs are also top level academic institutions. This means that many soccer players view college soccer as one of their best options once they graduate high school at around 17 or 18 years old.
The best soccer academies and soccer leagues in the United States are at their most competitive at the U17 level. Because college soccer is still a viable path for good soccer players, very few top level soccer players are playing in academies at the U18/U19 level, therefore the quality drops significantly from U17 to U19.
When a youth soccer player with the ambition to play professionally turns 18, they have many options to choose from: college soccer, staying in a U.S. academy, signing an academy or professional contract in another country, signing a professional contract in another domestic league like USL, and now signing a professional contract in MLS Next Pro.
One of the big reasons why MLS Next Pro was implemented to try and keep promising U19 talent within the MLS player pathway with the hopes of strengthening their youth prospect pipeline and keeping talent from going in alternate directions.
How are clubs using MLS Next Pro?
There are some commonalities in how clubs are using Next Pro across the league, but there are also some distinct differences in strategy. I took a look at the top 11 players, by minutes, from each MLS Next Pro side to get a sense of how the league and level is being leveraged. The most common pathways for players to MLS Next Pro include: U19, U18 and U17 players that are continuing their academy pathway, younger homegrown/first team players struggling to get minutes in MLS, prospects from academies abroad, recent college graduates and journeymen players from lower level leagues across the world.
Academy driven approach
Deeper and more ambitious academies are using MLS Next Pro as a direct extension of their younger academy players in the system, giving them exposure to a more professional environment with the hope of a future first team contract. It's no surprise that many of my top rated MLS academies
are using MLS Next Pro as a direct extension of their U17 program.
Example clubs: Colorado, LAFC, LA Galaxy, Miami, New England, NYCFC, Philadelphia, RBNY, Orlando, RSL, San Jose
First team reserves
Clubs with deeper rosters with younger first team players that are struggling to get MLS minutes are using Next Pro to get the end of their first team minutes.
Example clubs: Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, New England, Orlando, RSL, San Jose
Prospects from other academies
Other clubs are using MLS Next Pro to bring in younger players from outside of their academy systems either from outside of the United States or under appreciated players from within the United States. They are using MLS Next Pro to get a better look at these players within their system to see if they might be first team material down the road. These are not considered top prospects, but more under the radar prospects that these clubs have identified.
Example clubs: Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Minnesota, RBNY, Portland, St. Louis
Many clubs are filling their rosters and their starting eleven's with recent college graduates and Superdraft picks that were not good enough to make a MLS or USL first teams. Ideally this roster filling tactic becomes less prominent over the next five to ten years.
Example clubs: Chicago, Kansas City, Nashville, Seattle, St. Louis
None of the clubs are using Next Pro primarily for 25 years an older journeymen, but clubs are filling rosters with these types of players and some are playing them more than they should. Ideally this roster filling tactic gets phased out over the next five to ten years.
So what's the level, really?
The level from game to game has a pretty wide delta depending on who is playing in each game. There is a ton of rotation depending on what first team players and academy players are available. At it's best, Next Pro looks similar to a high level USL League One game or low end USL game and at it's worst it probably does not look as good as a top end ACC soccer game.
The United States does not have the volume of talent to maintain good levels across USL, MLS Next Pro and top level college programs. If Next Pro wants to become the premier option for U19 talent that isn't ready for MLS, I believe they will need to focus on a few strategies.
Increase MLS Next Pro salaries
One immediate thing that Next Pro can do is offer more compelling salaries to sway players away from USL, clubs abroad and lessen the opportunity cost of going to college.
Next Pro to MLS success stories
More players are signing hybrid contracts that are one year Next Pro deals that turn into homegrown deals with the first team. This has been a successful strategy in retaining U17 tier 2
talent within their clubs. If we start to see more success stories where Next Pro players get integrated properly into the first team and given opportunities, more players will believe that this is a viable path.
More domestic movement
Clubs need to continue to look at U19, U18 and U17 talent that has MLS potential, but are not being prioritized by their clubs. If MLS enables more player movement and clubs prioritize it, they can ensure that talent stays within the MLS system instead of going to USL or leagues abroad.
Lean into overseas markets
I believe the best long-term approach to making MLS Next Pro more competitive is by investing in scouting departments that focus on overseas talent pools.
MLS Next Pro will struggle to recruit top talent from the more common talent regions, but if they can attract under the radar talent from South America, Central America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe — MLS Next Pro can become a more competitive and compelling U21 youth league.