by Mike Woitalla
In 2007, a talented young Southern Californian — who would go on to earn 29 U.S. caps and played pro ball through 2022 — debuted in the Mexico's Liga MX. My question then was why he wasn't signed by an MLS club.
"MLS right now does not really have a system to take care of youngsters like Michael Orozco," said Hugo Salcedo, a 1972 U.S. Olympian who in 2007 represented Orozco. "Within one year, he made it to the top team at San Luis."
The LA Galaxy, MLS champion in 2005, appreciated Orozco's talent but couldn't provide a player like him — high potential but not ready for first-team ball — a calendar of competitive games. In Mexico, Orozco came aboard with San Luis II and his reserve team play impressed first-team head coach Raúl Arias enough to field Orozco in Liga MX shortly after his 20th birthday. Orozco went on to play more than for 300 games in Mexico, a season (2010) for the Philadelphia Union, and in 2021 he captained USL Championship title winner with Orange County SC.
MLS launched in 1996 and began taking steps to pave paths for young players into the league. Project-40, a joint venture with U.S. Soccer, offered educational stipends to players forgoing college or leaving early. In 1998-2000, Project-40 fielded a USL A-League team. Players not set to see MLS action would be sent airline tickets to convene for the Project-40 games. The likes of Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra played with the Project-40 team before becoming MLS starters, U.S. internationals, and signing abroad. It was an innovated approach, albeit with a limited reach and challenging logistics.
Project-40, sponsored by Nike, which became Generation adidas in 2006, also incentivized clubs to sign young Americans by not counting their acquisitions against the clubs' salary caps.
Ahead of MLS's 2006 season, Commissioner Don Garber promised an increased youth development push: "We've been doing a lot of work on stadiums — a lot work of bricks and mortar — now we need to do more with flesh and blood, with the game itself."
In 2007, MLS announced its Youth Development Initiative, which required its clubs to field at least two youth teams, in the U-16 and U-18 age groups. That coincided with the launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, providing a league for the MLS academy teams with the nation's top amateur youth clubs. In 2008, MLS created the Homegrown Player Rule, allowing clubs to sign their academy players, bypassing the draft.
By 2012, Garber said the then 19-team MLS's investment in youth development was about $20 million a year. In 2015, MLS's 20 clubs were reported to have spent $40 million on player development in year. The challenge remained providing young players pro-environment competition beyond training sessions, i.e. the kind of reserve league play common around the world. (MLS did run reserve leagues in 2005-2014, but that provided only 9 to 12 games a year.)
Major progress came in 2014, when MLS clubs started fielding second teams in USL Pro (now USL Championship). Among the beneficiaries were Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union II) and Tyler Adams (Red Bulls II).
MLS made a profound move into youth soccer in 2020 when U.S. Soccer folded the Development Academy and MLS filled the void with MLS Next. In 2022 came the final piece of the pipeline with launch of the third division developmental league, MLS Next Pro. Season 1 comprised of 20 MLS affiliated teams plus the independent Rochester Rochester New York FC.
The first MLS Next Pro season ended with Columbus Crew II beating St. Louis City II in the final, 4-1. Four Columbus players have signed first-team contracts, including Mohamed Farsi, who's started all for Crew games this season.
Among the St. Louis City2 players now on first-team contracts are defender Kyle Hiebert, a regular with St. Louis City who already has a gamewinner under his belt, and 17-year-old Miguel Perez, who's seen action in each St. Louis game so far and has one start.
In total, 36 players, including eight teenagers, who spent time in MLS Next Pro last season have been signed to first-team programs.
Among the scores of MLS club academy teenagers who got MLS Next Pro playing time was Benjamin Cremaschi as 17-year-old. Cremaschi signed an Inter Miami first-team contract after the season. Inter Miami also promoted Shanyder Borgelin and Harvey Neville.
New in 2023
• Seven more MLS affiliates came on board: Atlanta United 2, Austin FC II, Crown Legacy FC (Charlotte FC), Huntsville City FC (Nashville SC), LA Galaxy II, LAFC 2 and New York Red Bulls II. (Unaffiliated Rochester did not return).
• The 27 teams compete in two conferences with two divisions: 14 in Western and 13 in Eastern.
• The playoffs will comprise of seven teams from each conference (14 total). The two division champions and the five clubs with the next highest points will advance. Each conference's No. 1 seed (most points) earns a bye into the conference semifinals.
Seeds No. 2 and 3 choose their conference quarterfinal opponent and host. (One of two teams must be the other division champion). The two remaining teams that are not selected will play each other, with the higher seeded team hosting.
For the conference semifinals, the No. 1 seed will choose its opponent from the remaining two lowest seeded teams and host the match. The second highest seed will host the remaining team.
The conference finals and MLS Next Pro Cup (the final) will be hosted by the higher seed.
• The Timed Substitution Rule has been introduced. If a player takes more than 10 seconds to leave the field when he is substituted, the replacement player will only be able to enter after a 60-second holding period, leaving the offending team playing a man down for a minimum of one minute.
The two rules introduced in the middle of the 2022 season will remain in place:
The "off-field treatment rule" requires a player who remains on the ground for longer than 15 seconds to be evaluated by a medical crew and assisted off the field. While play continues, the player will be treated on the sidelines by medical staff and must remain off the field for three minutes.
The red-card suspension policy, in which a player who receives a red card will serve the one-game suspension against that same opponent when they meet again. The new rule also applies to ejections for second yellows. (If the two teams don't meet again, he sits out the next game.)
• Broadcasting. The majority of regular-season games, plus playoffs matches and MLS Next Pro Cup, will be available to watch live and on-demand on MLS Season Pass on the Apple TV app. The rest will stream live on mlsnextpro.com.