The 2023 MLS and MLS NEXT Pro seasons are coming into their final weeks and for many players, the opportunity to earn a larger role within the first team remains very much a possibility.
For many MLS clubs, the fight to get across the red line before Decision Day is still achievable. Teams such as FC Cincinnati, Philadelphia Union, and St. Louis CITY SC are sitting in a good position with just under two months of regular season action to go.
Several MLS NEXT Pro standouts have not only been key to their team’s seasons so far but could also be worthy of a first-team role over the final weeks of the MLS season. In addition, teams such as Toronto FC and Colorado Rapids could test young players with an eye toward closing out their seasons on a high note and building for next year.
Here is a closer look at several MLS NEXT Pro standouts we could see during the final weeks of the MLS regular season:
Myers currently leads the MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot race with 17 goals scored in 25 appearances for NYCFC II. The 22-year-old was one of the new faces in Matt Pilkington’s squad this offseason and is a promising talent within the club.
NYCFC is still trying to replace the production left by Taty Castellanos, and with nobody truly stepping up to the plate as of yet, Myers could have an opportunity to fill that void.
The Colorado Rapids have endured a frustrating MLS campaign to date, and the club has now parted ways with head coach Robin Fraser. Chris Little will be taking over on an interim basis and may well want to test young talent from the club's academy pipeline in the season's final weeks.
While many players have been key for Colorado Rapids 2 in 2023, Oliver Larraz might be the most important in terms of goal production. Larraz, 21, has registered eight goals and eight assists (tied for the MLS NEXT Pro lead) to date for Rapids 2, who have already clinched a playoff spot.
Larraz has only four senior appearances for the Rapids to date but could add to that total if Rapids 2 are willing to let him depart before the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs.
Not much has gone to plan for the Portland Timbers in 2023, and if they do want to get over the red line in the West, tightening up the backline is key.
Keesean Ferdinand has been one of the defensive leaders for Timbers2 in 2023, leading the team with 2,129 minutes and 35 defensive interceptions. He’s also been involved in 176 duels.
A former CF Montréal academy player, Ferdinand has also played in the Canadian Premier League, as well as with CF Montréal’s Under-23 side. Timbers2 are still fighting for a playoff spot in MLS NEXT Pro, which could hurt Ferdinand’s chances of jumping up to the first team.
However, he could be a key arrival for the Timbers if given the opportunity before the season’s end.
Atlanta United made a handful of summer signings from overseas to help in attack for their push towards the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, but they also have talent in their second team like Nick Firmino who could provide a boost.
Firmino has been one of the leading attacking stars in MLS NEXT Pro, contributing 15 goals and five assists for ATL UTD 2. Firmino still remains in the race for the MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot award, sitting two goals behind NYCFC II’s Matt Myers in that hunt.
The LA Galaxy will need everyone to perform at a high level if they want to make the playoffs, and the arrival of a young and thriving attacker could assist in that quest.
Aaron Bibout leads Galaxy II with 12 goals and five assists in 2023, becoming a key player in his debut season with the MLS NEXT Pro side. Bibout, 18, has endured a positive individual campaign for Galaxy II, who are needing a miracle to make the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs.
Greg Vanney has provided opportunities to young players before and Bibout’s productivity could be what gives him his first true chance in MLS.
Nashville SC has several creative players in its squad, but one more wouldn’t hurt ahead of a potential return to the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Kemy Amiche has been influential for Huntsville City FC in MLS NEXT Pro, leading the team with six assists while also adding eight goals in 24 appearances. A deadly attacking midfielder, the 22-year-old Amiche has formed a strong partnership with Azaad Liadi in the attack for Huntsville City FC, who have enjoyed a positive debut season.
Hany Mukhtar does a lot for Nashville SC in the final third, but Amiche could provide a new element with the postseason right around the corner.
West-leading St. Louis CITY SC have surpassed many expectations during their inaugural MLS season, with several of last season’s CITY2 standouts playing a key role. John Klein looks capable of following in those footsteps.
Klein leads CITY2 with 12 goals this season, which has helped keep them in the MLS NEXT Pro Playoff race. The 23-year-old enjoyed a positive collegiate career at Saint Louis University before playing for several developmental teams ahead of his signing with CITY2.
Beaudry, a US youth national team player, has made 14 starts for West-leading Rapids 2 this season in MLS NEXT Pro, registering three clean sheets this season to go along with 29 saves.
Minnesota United 2 has relied on Diogo Pacheco’s playmaking abilities over each of the last two seasons, but he looks ready for a jump to the big show.
Pacheco has scored 11 goals and registered nine assists in 44 career appearances in MLS NEXT Pro for MNUFC2, with eight goals and four assists coming in 2023. Cameron Knowles’ squad remains well in the playoff race, but so does the Loons' first team under Adrian Heath.
Kabunguchy, 25, played for MNUFC2 in 2022 before joining Orlando City during the offseason. A versatile center back, Kabunguchy has tied his career-high with four goals scored in 2023 for Orlando City B and has surpassed over 2,000 minutes this season.
His added experience could be an asset to Oscar Pareja’s backline with eight weeks to go.