At the Seattle Sounders Annual Business Meeting, it was all but confirmed that the Tacoma Defiance would be departing the USL Championship for a new league. Monday, MLS revealed more details about the new league.
“MLS Next Pro” will start play in 2022 in the Division 3 level of US Soccer with 21 teams, both MLS-owned and independent. It won’t stay at 21 teams for long, as the league will expand quickly, with more MLS-affiliated teams joining in 2023 and additional independent teams are expected to join in the coming years, according to MLS. Charles Altchek was named league President while Ali Curtis will serve as Senior Vice President of Competition and Operations.
As the name implies, the league is designed as a bridge from MLS NEXT to MLS.
The first independent team to join MLS Next Pro will certainly recall memories from the turn of the century, as Rochester NY FC will join 20 other MLS sides in the inaugural season. Founded in 1996 as the Rochester Rhinos and rebranded this September, the team has an interesting history with MLS, as they were widely speculated to be on the cusp of joining the league through much of its first decade.
However, those plans never materialized and the Rhinos played through the lower divisions of US Soccer, before going on hiatus in 2017 as they attempted to sort through various financial and stadium issues. After securing an ownership group, they will make their return next year, co-owned by Premier League striker, and former England National Team star, Jamie Vardy of Leicester City F.C.
“We look forward to showcasing Rochester as a premier professional club and are excited to kick off that process by helping to launch the inaugural season of MLS NEXT Pro in 2022,” said Vardy. “Joining this league, full of opportunity for communities, fans, players and staff – on the pitch and off – is a tremendous point of pride for our club.”
In addition to Rochester NY FC, the following MLS clubs will compete in MLS NEXT Pro’s 2022 season: Chicago, Colorado, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Miami, Minnesota, New England, NYCFC, Orlando, Philadelphia, Portland, Salt Lake, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, Toronto, and Vancouver.
Eight additional MLS-affiliated teams are expected to join MLS NEXT Pro in 2023: Atlanta United, Austin FC, Charlotte FC, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Nashville SC, and New York Red Bulls. Only CF Montréal and Nashville SC were not listed among the MLS teams scheduled to have teams compete within the first two years. The league will kick off its inaugural season in March 2022, and its season will culminate in postseason action in September, with eight teams expected compete in a postseason tournament.
The full 2022 match schedule and competition details will be announced at a later date, per a release from MLS. The league is expected to compete in a 24-game regular season, though the exact format is not yet known. Additionally, all MLS sides are expected to eventually participate in the league.
The new venture marks the end of MLS’s nearly decade-long partnership with the USL, which was designed to provide MLS sides with consistent higher level competition than the Reserve League and help establish the USL as a second-division league. By most accounts that partnership was successful, but had also arguably outlived its usefulness.
The 2021 USL season saw 31 teams (13 MLS operated or affiliated) participate in four divisions and more expansion is expected in the coming years. In recent times, complaints about the partnership grew, particularly from fans of independent USL sides about the level of play from MLS-affiliated teams, as well as what they perceived as lacking atmosphere at home games. MLS affiliated sides frequently tallied the lowest attended games in the league. Still, the addition of MLS teams helped USL become the top second-division league in the USA, surpassing the NASL (legal issues notwithstanding).
The new league will allow MLS to fully control the development of their top players and more broadly, the format and growth of the league. That includes infrastructure, front office, broadcast rights and scheduling.
“You’re gonna play the teams on the West Coast probably a little bit more often,” Sounders General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey said. “One of the exciting things I think about that structure is you’re gonna have some open weekends where you can maybe play international competition. So maybe we’re headed down to Mexico and playing a couple of games there.”
According the Lagerwey, the name of the game at this level is youth development, so to the extent MLS can control and foster that development in their own ecosystem, it is likely to be a winning strategy.
“Every league in the world is trying to do this right, whether it’s the Bundesliga, EPL, France, all these days are trying to develop young players,” Lagerwey said, “Now the system is very much a global marketplace. And so there’s a real opportunity for some synergies and some some exchanges. You might see us and our top prospects in a kind of all star team to go play three or four games in front of your scouts from all over Europe or South America.”
Lagerwey said MLS operating their own league and setting its own rules will allow teams to be flexible in how they develop and showcase that talent, even as they compete locally.
“What I really like about this structure is we’re gonna have a season we’re gonna have a champion, I think it’s something we’re gonna be really competitive in,” Lagerwey said. “But we have these other opportunities now as well, where we can be nimble and we can be innovative, I think, and we can try to put our kids in the most dynamic competitions possible to further their development.”
From an optics standpoint, MLS fans who wanted to see how their young players were developing had the opportunity to watch every match through the USL partnership with ESPN plus. It is expected that MLS Next Pro will have some sort of streaming deal which will allow fans to follow along and watch games as they had become accustomed, which was a far cry from the MLS Reserve League, with uneven streams of matches played on training fields, if they were broadcast at all.
“I think every game is going to be streamed. Whether that’s kind of with ESPN plus specifically or not, I think that’s TBD,” Lagerwey said. “This is something where, again, one of the biggest things for us is that we make sure that our players are on all these scouting services, right? So we’re going to be darn sure that we have all of our games that are streamed...so that every scout in the world can watch archives just as we are watching all the time.
“It’s a really important point. But again, I think it’s going to be I don’t think the public is going to notice any difference in terms of how the Defiance is presented going forward.”