MLS Next Pro 2023: Way Too Early Top 10
The second season of MLS Next Pro is almost here. Who are early contenders for the championship?
Welcome to the second season of MLS Next Pro. With preseason matches about to begin, it is a good time to discuss who the top teams will be in 2023.
Last year I posted my 2022 Way Too Early Top 10 on a different soccer site and on Twitter. I did this with far less roster information available at that time. Here were my 10 picks back then, and where they finished on the overall league table - St. Louis City SC 2 (2nd), Sporting KC 2 (15th), Rochester NYFC (9th), New England Revs II (13th), Columbus Crew 2 (1st, Champions), Inter Miami CF II (11th), North Texas SC (5th), Tacoma Defiance (3rd), Real Monarchs (19th), and Toronto FC II (7th).
Before we get to the top 10, we must first discuss…………
What’s new in 2023?
Seven teams will join MLS Next Pro this season, bringing the league total to 28 teams. Three of the 7 teams (Atlanta United FC 2, LA Galaxy II, and New York Red Bulls II) will be coming down from the USL Championship (Division 2).
Will MLS Next Pro be better in 2023?
The simple answer is yes and not simply because the league will have more teams in 2023. At this time last year, most MLS Next Pro teams were scrambling to put together managerial staff and rosters. Most teams didn’t even know where they would be playing their home matches.
So from a managerial and operational point of view, MLS Next Pro will have grown by leaps and bounds. The product on the field will also be improved but only slightly. The improvement on the field has more to do with many of the returning players having a full year of experience under their belt. Expect MLS Next Pro teams to field more balanced and competitive teams as a whole.
Just how strong is MLS Next Pro?
My opinion of the league in 2022 is that it was 2 steps behind rival Division 3 league, USL League One. In 2023, I believe MLS Next Pro has taken a step forward and are still a step behind USL League One. While I believe that the top 14 clubs in MLS Next Pro can go toe-to-toe with the 12 clubs in USL League One, I also believe that the bottom 14 clubs in MLS Next Pro can not. So the problem with MLS Next Pro is that there is a big drop off in quality from the top 14 teams to the bottom 14 teams.
The Top 10
The Top 10 will include 5 Eastern Conference teams and 5 Western Conference teams. Here are the Top 10, in no particular order.
Columbus Crew 2
Columbus 2 went with a win-at-all-costs approach in year 1 at the expense of player developement, and it worked out pretty good for the defending MLS Next Pro Champions. Crew 2 achieved this by going out and signing the best Division 3 talent they could get their hands on, a mix of players from USL League One (Division 3), USL Championship (Division 2), and the Canadian Premier League (Canada Division 1). It is no surprise then that Columbus Crew 2 finished with the #1 attack (62 goals scored) and #1 defense (22 goals allowed) in MLS Next Pro.
Ten players return for the defending champions, and early into the preseason, Crew 2 is signaling that they intend to repeat as champions. Crew 2 has already made two significant signings, both bringing ample Division 3 experiences, and both will slot into starting positions. The first signing is Stuart Ritche, who was a starter at Left Back for the Richmond Kickers (Division 3), and played in 27 matches last season (26 starts). The second signing, and the more significant of them, is Gibran Rayo. Rayo can play anywhere in the attacking third and arrives in Columbus from playoffs rivals Rochester NYFC where he led the team in scoring with 13 goals/3 assists in 23 matches played. Crew 2 were a dominant squad last season, and they intend to keep it that way in 2023.
Philadelphia Union 2
Union 2 return 8 players from last season’s playoffs squad and are backed by one of the best academies (if not the best) in MLS. That alone should earn them a spot in the top 10, but the Philadelphia Union 2 also have excellent management and an excellent scouting department.
There are 2 additions to the roster so far, and they will both be impact players. Juan Camilo Castillo is a Left Back who joins Union 2 after starting the last 2 seasons for New York Red Bulls II (Division 2). Pedro Alvarez is a Defensive Midfielder, who joins Union 2 from the Venezuelan top flight, where he played in 87 matches.
Last season, the Union 2 fielded a very young squad. Despite their youth and an approach that favors development over wins, the team still managed to make the playoffs. This year, it looks like the Union 2 are looking to be more than just playoff contenders.
New York City FC II
NYCFC II sees the return of 15 players from last season’s squad which finished 10th on the overall league table. The return of most of their squad and support from one of the best MLS academies means NYCFC II will be a solid playoff contender.
Huntsville City FC (Nashville FC)
Stop me if you have heard this before………team goes out and signs the best Division 3 talent it can get its hands on, signing players from USL League One (Division 3), USL Championship (Division 2), and the Canadian Premier League (Canada Division 1). Clearly, Huntsville saw what Columbus Crew 2 did last season and decided that it was the correct approach. Huntsville will field what is essentially a U25 squad, and all 11 of their signings to date have experience playing in the USL Championship (Division 2). It may take a bit of time, but once this expansion team gels, look for Huntsville to become a title contender.
Crown Legacy FC (Charlotte FC)
There’s one thing you should know about MLS Next Pro — there is no salary cap, nor are there any spending restrictions of any kind. So it was only a matter of time before a team decided to take full advantage of the league financial rules.
To be fair, St. Louis City FC 2 did this last season, but that was done in preparation for this season’s launch of their first team in MLS. Charlotte FC has an existing senior roster, and spending $3 million on a player for the reserve squad is a bit different from what St. Louis City FC 2 did.
Petkovic is just one of 6 international additions to the roster (11 signings total), although none of the other 5 international additions are established pros. A team willing to spend significant amounts of money on their reserve squad is a team that should be taken seriously.
Tacoma Defiance (Seattle Sounders)
Seven player return from last year’s playoff squad which boasted the top attack (57 goals scored) in the Western Conference and the 3rd best defense (25 goals allowed) in the league. The team has added 8 new players to the roster, with most of them arriving from either the Seattle Sounders academy or college. The team did make 2 significant additions. Paul Rothrock (Striker) arrives to Tacoma after having started the past 2 seasons for playoff rivals Toronto FC II. The bigger signing is Frank Daroma, a Central Midfielder, who has started the past 2 seasons for the Las Vegas Lights (Division 2).
Tacoma has a solid looking roster, and the team gets a lot of access to young players from the senior roster. Look for Tacoma to remain one of the top teams in MLS Next Pro.
Houston Dynamo FC 2
Last season saw DynaDos deploy the most suffocating defense in MLS Next Pro, allowing a league low 22 goals on the way to the playoffs. Twelve players return from last year’s squad.
This is a well managed squad that just doesn’t beat themselves. This team has excellent set piece skills and are a great at counter attacking. Look for Dynamo 2, to e one of the best squads in the Western Conference.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
The Whitecaps 2 fielded what can only be described as a U19 squad in 2022. The team finished 7th place in the west and scored 40 goals, while allowing 40 goals to be scored. In 2023, Whitecaps 2 have 15 players returning from last season and have already added 1 major addition to their roster. That addition comes in the form of Lowell Wright (Striker, 7 goals/3 assists), who played 39 games last season for York United FC (Canada Division 1).
Whitecaps 2 will be better by simply being a more experienced club in 2023. Expect them to be playoff contenders this season.
Sporting Kansas City FC 2
Last season I picked Sporting KC FC 2 in my 2022 Way Too Early Top 10 picks, based on what looked like a solid roster build. While the team did have a solid roster, the team lacked attacking playmakers and struggled to a 15th place finish.
Nine players return from last season’s squad, and the team has gone out and signed 9 more players to their roster. Seven of the 9 players are players with pro experience at the Division 3 level or higher. The most significant addition to the roster is Ethan Bryant, an attacking midfielder who started 39 matches last season for the Richmond Kickers (Division 3).
Sporting KC FC 2 looks to have built a solid looking roster yet again. If the new additions can give the team much needed attacking bite, Sporting KC FC 2 will be a solid playoff contender.
North Texas SC (FC Dallas)
Last year North Texas SC fielded one of the best teams in MLS Next Pro and reached the playoffs, despite the little known fact that there was a near total disconnect from the senior team. Last season, the club relied solely on their signed roster players (and 3 senior roster year loans) and support from one of the top academies in MLS, giving only 2 matches of action to players loaned down from the senior roster. Pa-Modou Kah was replaced due to the disconnect between him and the FC Dallas manager (Nico Estevez).
New manager Javier Cano, along with FC Dallas management, have repeatedly stated that this season that there will be heavy movement of players between NTXSC and FC Dallas. The last time there was heavy movement of players between NTXSC and FC Dallas, the team would go on to become the inaugural USL League One (Division 3) Champions. North Texas SC should remain one of the top teams in MLS Next Pro.
It is my opinion that last season the Western Conference was far tougher than the Eastern Conference. This season, the strongest expansion teams have landed in the Eastern Conference, and I believe they have tipped the balance of power in favor of the Eastern Conference.
There’s still plenty of roster additions to be made around the league, so these teams may not all still be in my Top 10 come the final week of preseason.
I would finally like to add that, due to the high amount of weak teams in the league (about half the league), there’s a very real chance for mediocre teams to excel. A mediocre team with a soft schedule can win a lot of matches and make a run for the playoffs. So if your team is not included in this list, do not despair — sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.