by Paul Kennedy

MLS Next Pro, the new MLS league at the Division III pro level, will launch in 2022 with 21 teams:

Colorado (Rapids 2)
Columbus (Columbus Crew 2)
**Dallas (North Texas SC)
Houston (Houston Dynamo 2)
*Kansas City (Sporting KC II)
**Miami (Fort Lauderdale CF)
Minnesota (MNUFC2)
**New England (New England Revolution II)
Philadelphia (Philadelphia Union 2)
Rochester NY FC
*Salt Lake (Real Monarchs)
San Jose
*Seattle (Tacoma Defiance)
St. Louis
**Toronto (Toronto FC II)
*Played in 2021 USL Championship. *Played in 2021 USL League One.

The 21 teams include 19 teams affiliated with MLS teams, a team entered by 2023 MLS expansion team St. Louis City SC and the league's first independent team, Rochester NY FC (the former Rhinos co-owned by England international Jamie Vardy and David and Wendy Dworkin, who owned the Rhinos when they most recently played in the USL).

Eight other MLS clubs will field MLS Next Pro teams in 2023 -- Atlanta United, Austin FC, Charlotte FC, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Nashville SC and New York Red Bulls -- leaving CF Montreal as the only MLS club that has not yet committed to the league. Atlanta United, D.C. United, LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls will again field teams in the USL Championship in 2022.

Leadership. Charles Altchek, MLS's senior vice president of league growth and operations at Major League Soccer, will be the MLS Next Pro president. Altchek, who formerly worked in MLS commissioner Don Garber's office, has been leading the MLS Next Pro project.

Ali Curtis returns to MLS to served as MLS Next Pro's senior vice president of competition and operations. He most recently served as Toronto FC's general manager.

Evolution. The priority for MLS second teams has changed through the years.

MLS operated a reserve league as recently as 2014 -- and it was just that, a league providing opportunities for reserves needing playing time or starters coming back from injuries.

The first MLS-operated club to play in USL Pro was LA Galaxy II in 2014. By 2020, 14 MLS clubs operated teams in the USL Championship or USL League One. These teams included reserves needing playing time, young players signed to their first pro contracts and other players seeking to advance their pro careers.

The 2016 New York Red Bulls included a pair of future national team players: 17-year-old Tyler Adams (signed to a USL pro contract) and Aaron Long (playing with his fifth USL team).

Teams were allowed to play academy players with amateur status, and they started to be fast-tracked into second teams, where they played bigger roles.

The success the Philadelphia Union has had with developing Homegrown players began when they started to stock Bethlehem Steel with teenagers such as Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson, both now members of the U.S. national team.