MLS NEXT Cup 2023: Favorites, players to watch at this year's tournament


This year’s MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs and Showcase are set to kick off this weekend in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas (with the finals to be played at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas). Under-15 and Under-16 teams will get proceedings underway on Saturday, June 17, with the two older age groups beginning the day after.

The knockout format has earned plaudits and proven successful in the league’s first couple of years, and another exciting finale to the 2022-23 season is now set to begin.

To preview this year’s competition, one team from each quadrant of their respective bracket is highlighted below.


Philadelphia Union

After coming within a penalty kick shootout of winning the Generation adidas Cup, the Union’s Under-15 team looks to rectify that loss with a strong showing in Dallas. Cavan Sullivan – who has played up with the U-17 team of late – is the name close observers will know; he’s one of several impressive prospects on the team.

The spine is formidable, even beyond Sullivan. Center back Andrei Chirila, midfielder Kellan LeBlanc and attackers Jamir Johnson and Anisse Saidi have all been in the US U-15 national team camp over the past year. Big hurdles are on the horizon, including the first matchup against Baltimore Armour. Top seed LAFC are a potential foe in the quarterfinals, while FC Delco and LA Galaxy are strong sides as well.

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls looked like a team on course for a trophy at the Generation adidas Cup. Deploying the classic Red Bull soccer style, they beat Chelsea and were a handful for any team they faced. While the team came up short, the talent is there – whether that's Tanner Rosborough or Julian Hall, who both fly forward and cause trouble with or without the ball. Gil de Souza is a classy operator in the midfield, and recent homegrown signing Aidan Stokes provides a top shot-stopper between the posts.

An MLS-heavy quadrant awaits: five of the seven teams they could face are from league academies. The Red Bulls open the Round of 16 against St. Louis Scott Gallagher.

Southern Soccer Academy

Based out of Marietta, Georgia, Southern Soccer Academy enjoyed an excellent regular season in MLS NEXT play: a record of 16W-1L-2D, which included wins against MLS foes Atlanta United and Charlotte FC. Key players include Kedwin Flores, who received a call-up to the US U-15 national team last year, and Zander Grant. Several tough tests loom after an opener against CF Montréal, including Generation adidas Cup-winners Austin FC, the talented Real Salt Lake and Sockers FC squads, plus the Chicago Fire and Atlanta United.

Strikers FC

A talented, high-scoring squad, the strong Southern California side is consistently among the top teams in the league. This trip to Texas is a chance to reinforce that, and there are sure to be goals galore. Roberts Jacobs leads the line, as the US U-15 national teamer is one the best from the age group. He's flanked by plenty of talent that can join him in creating problems, including Oliver Ba, Matthew Wahl and Tate McDonnell. A Round of 32 match against D.C. United kicks things off in a quadrant that features New York City FC, Real Colorado, BW Gottschee and the Portland Timbers.


FC United

A talented attacking duo leads FC United, a team from the Chicago area. Antonio Delgado and Kamil Kowalczyk have combined to score 47 goals between them, and both marksmen will be key. Goalkeeper Kayne Rizvanovich provides a quality shot-stopper behind a back line that can be stingy.

Their draw hasn’t been kind though. They’ll need to best top-seed Strikers FC just to reach the semifinals. Even the opening match, against Kalonji Soccer Academy, could provide the recipe for an upset.

FC Dallas

Several of FCD’s best '07s are set to play with the Under-16 team, as the U-17s didn’t qualify for MLS NEXT Cup. That includes attacking midfielder Caleb Swann (previously with Solar SC) – a skillful creator that helps things tick – and US youth national team veteran Michael Cortellessa. Tough matchups loom in the bracket, including a talented Tampa Bay United squad, and the quadrant’s highest seed, St. Louis CITY SC.


While the MLS Academy is obviously strong at just about any age group, this team could have the best shot at a title. The U-16 team features players with US youth experience, including midfielder Matias Wanchope. Talented attackers include Dempsey Resich, James Lane and Charlie Rosenthal. First up in the tournament is a game against Bethesda SC, and it’s not an easy corner of the bracket. Atlanta United, Weston FC, New York SC and Real Colorado will all have a say as things get going in Texas.

Breakers FC

Another top team in the Under-16 age group, Breakers FC possess strength in the collective with its '07 squad. A team that’s capable of dominating games with possession play, the quadrant’s top seed faces a battle to make a deep run. With a record of 27W-1L-2D, it’s been a dominant run in the Northwest Division. Central midfielder Ethan Martínez is a big key to the team’s success, as he can play calmly and quickly through pressure; Fernando Duarte-Domínguez is just as effective, while Yujin Kikuchi can play centrally or up front. Turning the team’s possession quality into chances (and finishing them) will be crucial.


Sockers FC

The top seed in the Under-17 age group isn’t an MLS side, but rather an extremely talented team from Chicago. With several future prominent Division I players on the roster, the quality is there to go on a deep run. There are several talented players that can create problems, whether it’s Matthew Zachemski, Daniel Baran, Dean Boltz. William Schroeder helps the team boss the midfield. An opening match against D.C. United pits the team against a pro academy side right away, and it’s a quadrant with difficult teams: PDA, San Jose Earthquakes, Barca Residency and Bethesda SC.

Philadelphia Union

The Union have shown to be a relentless winning machine at this age group, a trend that they’ll look to continue in Texas. It’s an extremely difficult corner of the bracket. Along with an opening match against Portland Timbers, a potential Round of 16 matchup would see them face either LA Galaxy or NYCFC. Philadelphia are drawn into the same quadrant as the Columbus Crew, generally viewed as one of the top teams in the country.

Real Colorado

Another youth club with extensive history, Real Colorado enter the tournament after securing a 10W-1L-4D record in the Frontier Division. They are battled-tested against pro academies, facing RSL, Colorado Rapids, Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo throughout the regular season. There’s a strong spine, including defender Grant Lund, midfielder Chris Haynes and Xander Sevian, the last of whom has a knack for scoring big goals. It will take some doing to push far into the tournament in a corner that features LAFC, St. Louis CITY SC, Austin FC and Boston Bolts.

Met Oval

The New York club feature ample talent, and secured a massive result at MLS NEXT Flex, winning their group thanks to a 1-0 win over LAFC. The team has the defensive chops to make a run here, with quality players at the back in the form of Dimas Van der Heide, Phineas Lonergan and Sam Davis. Forward Chris Sullivan leads the charge, while the creativity of Cyrus Klinenberg helps unlock opposing defenses. Met Oval aren't a high seed, but their results and talent suggest they could be a threat in Texas.


De Anza Force

While it’s impossible to pick against the team that’s earned the top seed, the Force face an extremely difficult pathway. De Anza dominated the Northwest Division, with a record of 23W-2L-2D in MLS NEXT play. Potential opponents look tricky, from the opener against FC Westchester, to the possibility of facing very good teams deeper in the bracket, like the New England Revolution, Strikers FC, Boston Bolts and PDA.

BW Gottschee

Looking for a dark horse? By seeding, BW Gottschee fit the bill. But it’s a team that can’t be overlooked, particularly in the oldest age group. Goalkeeper Charlie DeMarco is a US/Venezuelan youth international who can keep his side in games with a strong performance between the posts. Opening up against a very dangerous Seacoast United attack will certainly prove to be a handful when things kick off Sunday.

Barca Residency Academy

The Arizona-based team have shown the ability to not only send players to top Division I programs, but also to pro teams in the US and beyond. Joel Torbic and Efe Aror control the midfield, helping to set the table or feed attackers such as Darian Castillo and Yahir González. Tough challenges could be in store, as potential opposition in the bracket includes Toronto FC, Real Colorado, FC Dallas, Solar SC and Sockers.

FC Delco

Another storied youth club, FC Delco tend to find success in the postseason. Last year, Delco teams reached the U-17 and U-19 quarterfinals. Obviously, this age group is a bit different though no less talented. Kaio Reis leads the attack as the spearhead of a team that has quality up and down the field. The club dominated at MLS NEXT Flex, winning all three games. Their experience at previous competitions will be valuable as they look to go further in what will be the final run for many top players on the team.