After four rounds of fierce win-or-go-home competition under the North Texas sun, the quest that began nearly a year ago and peaked with 32 teams per age group gathering at FC Dallas’ Toyota Soccer Center over the past week has reached its finale.

The inaugural MLS NEXT season concludes on Friday and Saturday with four championship finals, eight surviving academy teams vying for the title of being MLS NEXT Cup’s first-ever winners. It’s a rare opportunity, both for team glory and individual talents to show that they have what it takes to continue along the path toward a professional career.

All four matches will be streamed live here on MLSsoccer.com. Here’s a rundown of what awaits.

Under-15s: Philadelphia Union vs. Real Salt Lake

WATCH ON MLSSOCCER.COM OR APP ON: Friday, 7:05 PM ET

It's safe to call this a clash of MLS academy royalty, considering the clubs’ deep commitment to growing their own. But like nearly everything else about the new league’s launch amid unprecedented challenges, little about their respective marches to this point has been straightforward or predictable.

With the COVID-19 pandemic imposing a patchwork quilt of limitations across the continent, some MLS NEXT teams played as many as 13 league matches over the past few months, others as few as two. Real Salt Lake’s U-15s were on the lean end of that spectrum, so it was tough to predict that they'd reel off 16 goals across four matches in Frisco.

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Rugged, pacey striker Axel Kei has feasted, scoring in a 3-0 first-round dispatch of Orlando City, then bagging a hat trick in a 5-3 barnburner win over Los Angeles-based club Total Futbal Academy. RSL goalkeeper Fernando Delgado played the hero in a dramatic penalty-kick shootout triumph over Sockers FC Chicago in the quarterfinals.

RSL then vanquished the San Jose Earthquakes in Wednesday’s semifinal as Kei set up Jude Wellings for the opener before netting one of his own via a fine solo effort created by some sharp counterpressing. From there, Angel Montesinos’ 72nd-minute finish capped a 3-0 victory. Now they must face a lavishly talented Philadelphia squad that went undefeated in league play with a +21 goal differential in just eight games.

That said, the Union haven’t exactly done things the easy way in Texas. An opening 2-0 defeat of the Portland Timbers was followed by a comeback from 1-0 down via a Luke Zielinski goal that forced the LA Galaxy to penalty kicks, where Matt Routzahn kept a cool head to bang home the winner.

A scoreless draw in the quarterfinals against Austin FC led to another shootoout, and goalkeeper Andrew Rick made an impressive three stops before Routzahn again converted the advancement-clinching spot-kick. Then coach Ryan Richter and his colleagues raised some eyebrows with the deployment of a sort-of secret weapon in the semifinals against the New England Revolution.

Attacker Bajung Darboe, 14, is one of the most highly-rated prospects in the United States and his 2020 arrival from Minnesota United (he also spent time in Chicago Fire FC’s system) was a coup for Philadelphia. The Wisconsinite played up in older age groups all season, however, including in Frisco, before he was added to the U-15s’ lineup against the Revs.

Darboe promptly dominated the proceedings with a gorgeous free kick as followed by a swivel-hipped, left-footed golazo to pace a 2-0 win. Assuming he stays in the XI on Friday, RSL will have their hands full.

U-16s: Weston FC (Fla.) vs. Tampa Bay United

WATCH ON MLSSOCCER.COM OR APP ON: Friday, 9:35 PM ET

Some might expect less from the teams that arrived at this event from academies outside MLS, but this matchup demonstrates the flaws in that outlook.

Weston, a club that counts Union captain Alejandro Bedoya and Columbus Crew homegrown Aidan Morris among their alums, is an established youth power on the south Florida landscape; TBU are partners with ambitious USL Championship side Tampa Bay Rowdies. And these two dominated the MLS NEXT U-16 Southeast Division in regular-season play; in fact, only one side in the entire U-16 league racked up a better points-per-game rate than Weston’s 2.71.

Showcasing technique and rhythm beyond their years, Weston defeated Michigan Wolves 2-0, San Antonio FC 2-1 and Albion SC 3-1 to set up a semifinal clash with New Jersey powerhouse Players Development Academy. After age-group leading scorer Chase Vazquez opened the scoring for coach Chris Nurse’s squad, PDA equalized late to send the clash to penalties, where Vazquez calmly netted the fifth spot-kick to secure a 4-3 shootout win.

Tampa Bay maneuvered past Indiana Fire Academy, Real Colorado and Phoenix Rising in the early rounds, then needed a 90th-minute penalty kick conversion by star Oliver Blake to draw level with Pennsylvania’s FC Delco in the semis.

Goalkeeper Phillip Falcon had already made four big saves over the 90-plus minutes and he stepped up again in PKs, denying three of Delco’s efforts before Isaiah Wilson nailed the decider. Falcon will surely be tested again by Vazquez & Co. on Friday.

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U-17s: PDA (N.J.) vs. Orlando City SC

WATCH ON MLSSOCCER.COM OR APP ON: Saturday, 7:05 PM ET

Though league results show that they’re a force to be reckoned with, PDA’s U-17s have earned the title of giant-killers with their run to the MLS NEXT Cup final. The Jersey boys knocked off mighty FC Dallas on their own turf in a 4-3 quarterfinal classic, twice rallying from one-goal deficits as creator Christopher Olney Jr., playing up in age, and goalie Rafael Ponce de Leon led the way.

The Seattle Sounders loomed in the semifinals, and PDA mustered a stunning late comeback after Oscar Rincon-Rodriguez pushed the Rave Green in front early in the second half. First Evan Gomillion bundled home from close range after a corner-kick delivery sparked havoc in the Sounders’ penalty box with some 10 minutes to go.

Then a poorly-placed back pass handed PDA’s Colin Griffith a breakaway. After Seattle ‘keeper Wyatt Nelson tripped him, Mustapha Sowe calmly rifled home the resulting penalty to deliver.

Now PDA will tangle with an Orlando City side that eased past New England, outlasted Minnesota's Shattuck-St. Mary's via PK shootout and held off the LA Galaxy before defeating Sacramento Republic in the semis.

Ethan Subachan scored one and assisted on another in the young Lions’ handling of a lively Sacramento outfit, but former FCD prospect Gonzalo Agustoni-Chagas has been a playmaking revelation throughout. Agustoni-Chagas worked hard against the ball, then defied an incredibly acute angle to conjure up this viral golazo in the 2-1 win over the Galaxy:

U-19s: Solar SC (Tx.) vs. Chicago Fire FC

WATCH ON MLSSOCCER.COM OR APP ON: Saturday, 9:35 PM ET

This tournament’s host club is hardly the only repository of young talent in the soccer-mad Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

For decades, longstanding heavyweights Solar SC have produced both strong teams and future professionals. Their current U-19 group, working under United Soccer Coaches 2019 youth coach of the year Adrian Solca, knocked off LAFC – by a head-turning 5-1 scoreline – and Sacramento Republic to reach this final. Connor Lisenbee scored twice in the semis.

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The Fire’s kids have ridden one of the bracket’s most prolific offenses to get here, piling up six goals against Beachside SC (Conn.) in the opening round and five on Real Colorado in Thursday’s semifinal rout. Missael Rodríguez bagged a brace in a 3-0 quarterfinal win over Sporting Kansas City, then grabbed a hat trick in the semis alongside strikes from Sergio Oregel and Noeh Hernández.

It’s a welcome sight for Chicago faithful, as sporting director Georg Heitz’s move to reinvigorate their academy appears to be paying dividends. Now they’ll aim to underline that trend by capturing some hardware against a local team in Frisco.

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