2022's inaugural MLS NEXT Pro season has provided many young players with the platform to take their games to the next level, and there’s been no shortage of that once again in 2023.
Kyle Hiebert, Mo Farsi, and Simon Becher are just three examples of players who made the most of their opportunity in the developmental league before establishing themselves in MLS this season. Several homegrown players have continued to work their way through the first half of the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season, using their opportunities to hopefully become first-team performers by the end of year.
Here is a closer look at 10 MLS homegrowns excelling in MLS NEXT Pro this season.
Colorado Rapids 2 have continued to own the top spot in MLS NEXT Pro and Oliver Larraz is one of the key reasons.
Larraz has registered three goals and five assists in 13 appearances (13 starts) for Erik Bushey’s squad, leading the team with 1,103 minutes played. The 21-year-old midfielder also leads the team in shots (34), shots on goal (16), key passes (21), and tackles completed (13).
While Yosuke Hanya has received plenty of recognition in the Rapids 2 attack, Larraz’s production has been just as important.
18-year-old Luke Brennan has made quite the impact with ATL UTD 2 in the Eastern Conference.
Brennan has totaled 1,156 minutes (third-most on roster), one goal, and two assists for Steve Cooke’s squad. His 20 tackles completed and 35 fouls drawn lead the ATL UTD 2 squad, showing just how impactful he is on both sides of the field.
Only Brennan and Kofi Twumasi have started in 14 of ATL UTD 2’s 15 league matches in 2023.
Note: Brennan is currently contracted with Atlanta United 2 and his homegrown contract status begins on January 1, 2024.
Valenzuela, 18, has three goals and one assist in MLS NEXT Pro this season, logging 846 minutes of action under Tyrone Marshall’s tutelage. The homegrown attacker has been a deadly threat in the final third, with his 41 fouls drawn ranked first on the roster.
FCC2 will hope for more from Valenzuela during the second half of the league season.
Defender Alex Freeman is not only a promising prospect not only in the Orlando City ranks, but also within the US youth national team circuit.
Freeman, 18, has been one of Martin Perelman’s key players in 2023, logging three goals and two assists in 12 appearances (12 starts). A 6-foot-2 defender, Freeman hasn’t been afraid to show off his shooting ability this season, scoring a brace against Huntsville City FC in March.
Freeman has also made five appearances with the US Under-19 men’s national team to date.
A talented Philadelphia Union homegrown waiting in the wings. Haven’t we seen that several times before?
Nelson Pierre is looking to become the latest gem out of the Union academy after a strong first half with Union II in 2023. Pierre’s three goals and three assists in 15 appearances (10 starts) are ranked among the top in each category for Marlon LeBlanc’s side.
Fred Emmings has continued to hold the No. 1 goalkeeper job for MNUFC2 during the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro campaign.
Emmings has made 31 saves and registered one clean sheet for Cameron Knowles’ squad, fighting off Alec Smir for the starting role. The 18-year-old was the first homegrown signing in Minnesota United history and will be striving to make it to the first team in the near future.
Similar to Freeman, Emmings has US youth national team experience as well.
Ricardo Clark has had a few dangerous goalscorers to call on in 2023 and Kamron Habibullah is certainly one of them.
Habibullah’s four goals rank second in the Whitecaps FC 2 scoring ranks this season, while his 21 fouls drawn are tied for the most in the squad. Born in Uzbekistan, the 19-year-old Habibullah is one of several top standouts for Whitecaps FC 2 as he continues to navigate through his first MLS NEXT Pro season.
Chicago Fire II’s defense has been led by the strong two-way abilities of 19-year-old Justin Reynolds.
Reynolds’ 922 minutes played ranks second in the Fire II squad, while he’s also chipped in one goal and one assist in 12 appearances (11 starts). A dynamic fullback, Reynolds has been consistent on the back end for Ludovic Talliander’s squad, helping them recently to a positive swing in form.
With the Fire first team struggling for consistency in MLS, Reynolds could receive an early opportunity before season’s end.
Sporting KC II has relied heavily on the goal-scoring abilities of Pau Vidal this season, but Ozzie Cisneros has also quietly enjoyed a positive year.
Cisneros has scored three times in 12 appearances (nine starts) in 2023, registering 16 key passes, and drawing 15 fouls as well. The 19-year-old attacking midfielder has only 777 minutes under his belt this season but overall has made his opportunities count in a growing role for Benny Feilhaber’s men.
A deep squad of midfielders in the New England Revolution squad has forced Esmir Bajraktarevic to earn opportunities in MLS NEXT Pro, but the 18-year-old isn’t shying away from the moment.
Bajraktarevic has scored five goals in six appearances (four starts) for Revs II, totaling 445 minutes so far in 2023. Although he is a promising talent in the Revs pipeline, Bajraktarevic has been up and down from the first and second teams.
On the international stage, Bajraktarevic is eligible for both the US men's national team and Bosnia-Herzegovina.