For the first time ever, the MLS Next Pro regular season has been completed. The league, designed to promote the development of young players across the country, is already being considered a success in its first year. It’s allowed the MLS to recruit increasingly talented stars and give them time to improve before being brought to the first team (like Philadelphia Union striker Chris Donovan, for example).
However, while the regular season is over, the season itself is not. MLS Next Pro follows a playoff format, with the best teams in a conference advancing to the playoffs to crown a champion – just like the MLS. This is a great time to see which players can perform under pressure. After all, it is the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro playoffs. Without further ado, here is one player to watch on every MLS Next playoff team.
Rochester New York FC: GK Caíque, 25
Rochester are the only non-MLS reserve to be in the league, with Premier League legend Jamie Vardy recently becoming co-owner of the club. A foreign owner bringing new ideas to a league they don’t understand — it’s unheard of. Right, Gary Neville?
All jokes aside, Rochester have quite a good squad, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference. This is to be expected: they have no senior side to “provide” for so they don’t feel pressure to give young players playing time. Take goalkeeper Caíque: the 25-year-old is on loan from Vitória in Brazil. He’s arguably become the league’s best goalkeeper, leading MLS Next in clean sheets (8), second in saves (68), and with an impressive 70.1% save percentage.
It’s unlikely Caíque will want to stick around in MLS Next for long, but he has a great chance of moving on to a bigger team after this season thanks to some impressive performances. His immediate focus, though, will be on Rochester’s Eastern Conference Semifinal opponents, Columbus.
North Texas SC: F Bernard Kamungo, 20
North Texas FC finished fourth and took the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, with an impressive 46 points. They are — as the name suggests — the reserve team of FC Dallas, who have produced some of the finest players in American soccer recently.
One of the brightest talents currently at North Texas currently is not American, though. Bernard Kamungo has one of the best stories in the league — he was born in Tanzania, moved to the US at a young age, and has become a can’t miss-prospect (I recommend reading the full story on FC Dallas’s website).
This season Kamungo finished as the league’s second-highest goalscorer, finding the net 16 times. He also had six assists, almost a goal contribution a game. Kamungo made his MLS debut on September 18th, and will likely become a more important figure for the first team next season. North Texas SC play St. Louis City 2 in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Philadelphia Union 2: GK Matt Freese, 24
The Philadelphia Union have become synonymous with success in the MLS: quite a shock for this writer who still remembers the dark days of Raïs M’Bolhi and Freddy Adu. The Union have built themselves up using moneyball-esque signings and their youth academy, both strategies that benefit from having a reserve team.
In typical Union style, the team (which finished third in the Eastern conference) doesn’t have one clear star. It’s simply a good group of players who work well together. In addition, many of the “top” prospects like Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan often find themselves on the bench for the senior team, limiting their Union 2 chances.
Matt Freese may not be the best player on the team, nor the one with the most potential. However, this season his form has been hard to look past: Freese has more saves than all but four goalkeepers (59), a great save percentage (73.8%), and allows little more than a goal per game on average. If he was on almost any other team in the MLS, he’d be a starter. He’ll be big for the Union 2 against Toronto FC 2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Houston Dynamo 2: M Marcelo Palomino, 21
Houston Dynamo 2 are the reserve side for the Houston Dynamo, who are currently nearing the end of (another) shocking season. However, while things aren’t exactly rosy for the seniors, the reserves have something to cheer about: they finished third in the Western Conference of MLS Next.
Houston Dynamo 2 have about the same excitement level for goals as their senior side: only one playoff team (Rochester) scored fewer goals, while seven teams that didn’t make the playoffs scored more. Marcelo Palomino has been an exception: the former US youth international has seven goals this season, with an additional two assists.
Palomino has made a couple of appearances for the senior side of Houston over the years, although none this season (somewhat of a surprise, considering his impressive performances in MLS Next). With an expiring contract and no guarantee of game time, it’s quite possible that he leaves soon. Houston Dynamo face Tacoma Defiance in the Western Conference Semifinal.
Toronto FC 2: M Paul Rothrock, 23
It’s been a rough year for Toronto, who — despite incredible spending — will not be in the playoffs for the second straight season. It’s a surprising dry patch for the Canadian club, who are one of the more successful clubs in MLS history. That hasn’t stopped them from developing talent, though.
I’ve preached plenty about the SuperDraft and NCAA soccer, and Paul Rothrock is a great example of the benefits. Toronto took a chance on the Seattle academy graduate in 2021, drafting Rothrock out of Georgetown in the third round of the draft. Rothrock has since become one of Toronto FC 2’s best players, with seven goals and five assists in 13 starts.
Rothrock has featured twice for Toronto’s senior side this season, although not since May. He, too, has an expiring contract and, with Toronto’s increased depth in attack it’s possible he’ll move on. Rothrock will look to impress as Toronto 2 face Philadelphia Union 2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.
Tacoma Defiance: M Marlon Vargas, 21
Tacoma Defiance (the reserve team of the Seattle Sounders) finished level on points with Houston Dynamo 2 and the Western Conference Champion, St. Louis City 2. However, they placed second in the conference despite superior goal differential because of wins — they have 14 to St. Louis’s 15.
Marlon Vargas has been as a top prospect for Seattle for a long time, debuting back in 2018 for Seattle Sounders 2 (now the Tacoma Defiance). However, this season Vargas really took off: he has twelve goals with six assists, having started only 19 games. The midfielder scored two braces during the season and is one of the best attacking players in the league.
Now 21 but without a senior appearance, it’s more than possible that Vargas moves on. He’s good enough to play for the senior side of an MLS team, or he could try his chances abroad. Vargas will look to display his attacking talent in the Western Conference Semifinal against Houston Dynamo 2.
Columbus Crew 2: F Jacen Russell-Rowe, 20
Columbus Crew 2 were, undoubtedly, the most dominant team during the MLS Next regular season. They led the league in points (55), points per game (2.29), wins (16), goals scored (62), goal differential (40), and conceded the joint-fewest goals all season (22). Oh, and they finished the season with a 9-0 win over rivals FC Cincinnati 2.
Columbus’s standout player was easily Jacen Russell-Rowe. The Toronto FC academy graduate scored an astonishing 21 goals on his way to becoming the league’s first ever Golden Boot winner. This included a four-goal tally on the final day of the season. Additionally, Russell-Rowe bagged four assists, contributing to a whopping 25 goals in 17 starts.
Russell-Rowe recently signed a first-team contract with Columbus and made his debut, playing five matches for the first team this season (including two assists against former club Toronto). Russell-Rowe is undoubtedly too good for MLS Next and will likely feature for the first team next year. Now, however, he — and Columbus — are eyeing the MLS Next Cup. First, they have to get by Rochester in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.
St. Louis City FC 2: D Akil Watts, 22
St. Louis City 2 aren’t even an MLS team yet, but they’re already making waves. The club (which plays its first season next year) have grabbed headlines with some excellent recruiting, signing Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Bürki among others. Their youth development has been strong, too.
A big move for this season was the signing of Akil Watts from Louisville City. Watts was seen as one of the best prospects in the US a couple years ago in the Timbers Academy, before signing for the reserves of RCD Mallorca in Spain in a big move. It didn’t pan out, though, and Watts returned to the US with Louisville, eventually joining St. Louis City FC.
In MLS Next, Watts has risen to another level. The right-back has six goals and seven assists, and has been one of St. Louis’s star players. This bodes well for his chances of playing with the St. Louis senior team next year, leading to the revival of his MLS career. Watts will look to further impress in St. Louis’s Western Conference Semifinal against North Texas SC.
While MLS Next Pro received mixed reactions when it was announced, it has proven to be successful. It’s giving more players chances to shine, gives clubs more freedom to develop and scout players, and results in some very interesting games. Hopefully, we’ll see more of the same in the playoffs.
Image Courtesy of Hayden Schiff from Cincinnati, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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