The 2021-22 MLS NEXT season draws to a close this weekend, with the Playoffs and Showcase set to begin on June 25 in Frisco, Texas.
Thirty-two teams in the four oldest age groups will play a knockout tournament to decide the four winners. Teams qualified for the Cup portion of the competition via regular-season standings, or at the MLS NEXT Flex tournament.
Expect to see some unpredictable results as teams battle for postseason honors.
Here are some of the teams and players to watch, broken down by age group.
The youngest age group features plenty of talent, but could also see several upsets given the varying levels of development from teams around the country.
- LAFC: Featuring a long list of talent that’s earned recent youth national team call-ups, LAFC are one of the favorites. There’s quality up front in Dempsey Resich and James Arteaga, while Kyrome Lumsden and DeCarlo Guerra add steel to the middle. First-round opponent Portland Timbers knocked them out of the Generation adidas Cup earlier in the year, making for an intriguing opening game.
- Breakers FC: An excellent squad in this age group, the California team knows how to keep the ball and has matched some of the best teams around the nation in MLS NEXT play.
- Weston FC: There’s a substantial amount of talent in South Florida, so much so that a club like Weston can excel even in the same region as Inter Miami. An opening-round matchup against Atlanta United provides a tough test.
Players to Know
- Noah Santos, Portland Timbers: One of the stars of Portland’s run to the Generation adidas Cup crown, the forward looks to back that up here in Texas.
- Zackory Campagnolo, Orlando City SC: A good goalkeeper can make the difference, and Campagnolo’s presence offers security at the back and US youth national team experience.
- Peyton Miller, New England Revolution: The goal-scoring standout bagged 25 goals on the season, giving the Revolution ample attacking thrust.
While pro academies are limited in this age group, the quality is not. With 2005 and 2007 the birth years for U-17 and U-15 teams respectively, it’s a bit of a gap year – but with plenty of opportunity for teams and players to shine.
- Atlanta United: One of the few MLS academy sides to field a team at this age group, Atlanta United have been a dominant force in MLS NEXT. That may not mean anything in knockout games, but they are surely one of the contenders.
- BW Gottschee: The New York club amassed a 16W-2L-1D ledger in MLS NEXT play, putting that impressive record on the line in the postseason.
- Strikers FC: Southern California is a hotbed of talent, and the Irvine-based club is another storied side in youth soccer. Keep an eye on Marcus Lee, one of several talented players on the roster.
Players to Know
- Cole Mrowka, Sockers FC: An attacking midfielder for the Chicagoland club, Mrokwa has nearly 30 goals in MLS NEXT play.
- Javier Hernandez, Total Futbol Academy: With seven goals in three games at MLS NEXT Flex, Hernandez is a big part of TFA’s progress to this stage of the season.
- Roka Tsunehara, De Anza Force: In 33 games between Surf Cup and MLS matches this season, he leads the team in goals with 24.
US youth national team prospects are ample here, and this age group is likely to feature a handful of players already signed to Homegrown contracts.
- LAFC: Like the younger age group, LAFC have the talent and depth to put together a deep run.
- San Jose Earthquakes: Cruz Medina is likely to turn out here, anchoring a top team that has the pedigree and potential to play deep into the tournament.
- New York City FC: An opening-round matchup between FC Dallas and New York City FC offers one of the top games to watch. NYCFC edged an earlier encounter at the MLS NEXT Flex competition in Maryland.
Players to Know
- Micah Burton, Austin FC: There are several US U-17 YNT prospects to watch in this age group, including Burton. The versatile attacker can play as a 10, 9 or on the wing.
- Stuart Hawkins, Seattle Sounders FC: Another US youth national team prospect, Hawkins back-stopped Seattle’s Generation adidas Cup triumph earlier this year.
- Tyler Hall, Inter Miami CF: Hall has partnered Hawkins in central defense with the US U-17 squad, and will look to lead a talented Inter Miami group deep.
The oldest age group can be a bit of a wildcard. For those playing college soccer, it’s a last hurrah. For those heading to college this year, sometimes summer class prevents players from competing. Either way, it should serve up some scintillating soccer.
- Sacramento Republic FC: The USL Championship side has enjoyed a high level of success across all its teams, and the oldest age group looks more than capable of winning it all.
- FC Dallas: FCD are aggressive with promoting players, so there could be a handful of academy talent playing up at this competition. Still, the talent is at a good enough level to go deep in the tournament.
- Bethesda SC: The Maryland side is one of the most storied in the country and features a roster full of future Division I talent.
Players to Know
- Alex Umana, Sporting Kansas City: Headed to Yale in the fall, Umana is a relentless, hard-working forward that leads the lines for Sporting KC’s oldest age group.
- Danny Ittycheria, PDA: Assuming the future Princeton winger makes the trip, he is one of several quality players set to compete at the oldest age group. He has the capacity and ability to make a difference at this level.
- CJ Coppola, Minnesota United: The striker was one of the most coveted recruits for the class of 2022 and will look to end his club career on a high before heading to Saint Louis University.