For several years now we have been hearing rumors swirling about a developing MLS Reserve League. Jeff Reuter of The Athletic was the first to break the news of a new league in American soccer. At the time, the announcement of the new league felt imminent but based on COVID-related developments, the launch date for the new league was delayed to 2022.
Now, as the 2021 MLS season draws to a close, the league announced its natural NEXT (pun intended) step in redefining the professional player development landscape in the United States to better equip teams and domestically-developed talent to make a big financial splash overseas.
.@MLSNEXTPro will offer young players and experienced professionals the opportunity to develop & showcase their talents while competing for an MLS NEXT Pro championship.— Major League Soccer (@MLS) December 6, 2021
21 clubs will compete in MLS NEXT Pro's inaugural season, kicking off in March 2022. pic.twitter.com/ER3vMdtexX
MLS NEXT Pro will be the key development step between teams’ academies and their MLS sides. It will fulfill much of the same higher-tier development role that USL 2s teams were intended to achieve but without the messiness of having to play nice with another league. This new league will slot into the American 3rd Division alongside USL-League 1. Meanwhile, the USL has already constructed something very similar with their academies and 2s teams while integrating the second through the fourth tier of the American soccer pyramid.
MLS NEXT Pro will begin with 21 teams divided into Eastern and Western conferences that will play a 24-game regular season before the top-8 teams take part in a play-off. Like in the MLS NEXT academy league, independent clubs like Rochester NY FC (formerly known as the Rochester Rhinos) may join the competition. Expansion side St. Louis will also be joining ahead of their inaugural season in MLS. We are not yet certain whether admitted independent clubs will receive greater consideration in future league expansions or whether a 2nd tier MLS league is in the works but the league is positioning itself with plenty of vertical integration for future growth.
“MLS NEXT Pro will enhance the quality of all players, coaches, referees, and executives along the development pathway and it is an important step to the growth of the sport in North America leading up to the World Cup in 2026,” said Senior Vice President of Competition and Operations of MLS NEXT Pro Ali Curtis.
What will this mean for Atlanta United 2?
Atlanta United 2 will likely move laterally from its final USL Championship season in 2022 to its MLS NEXT Pro debut in 2023. The league will be made up of a combination of academy prospects, Homegrown players, and other “experienced professionals” who are likely MLS reserve players. We do not know the specific roster construction rules and whether players will be able to move freely between the MLS NEXT Pro team and the MLS team if they are not already on the 30-man roster so some club player identification strategies may be impacted. This may be why Atlanta United, along with several other clubs, have opted to defer their entrance into this league to 2023 to give League President Charles Altchek and Ali Curtis a chance to iron out the wrinkles.
The schedule will be a bit looser with fewer matches played over the season and a greater focus on regional competition. Some teams are even discussing friendlies against Mexican academies during gaps in the schedule. For fans who regularly stream Atlanta United 2 matches, the league is currently working to secure a similar deal for the upcoming season with games recorded and archived for scouts and fans alike.
Let us know what you think. How interested are you in this new league and would you stream or attend these matches?