It's the dawn of a new era for youth development in Major League Soccer following Monday's official launch of MLS NEXT Pro, which will see 21 teams compete in the inaugural 2022 season.
The league gives aspiring young pros a platform to achieve their dream of playing at the first-team level, a completion of the pro pathway that Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin believes is years in the making.
"MLS NEXT Pro is a huge step forward for our league," Curtin said. "Every young player wants to reach their maximum potential, every young coach also wants to reach the highest level. At the moment, our league could be seen as a league that sells young players, which is a good thing. I think it's a stepping stone to when this league becomes one of the top leagues in the world – that's the direction I think it's going.
"But for right now, we are developing really good young players to not only dominate in our league and win championships but also ultimately to maybe move on to top clubs in Europe, which is something every young kid should aspire to do. To reach that top, top level."
In addition to the 21 inaugural clubs, eight MLS-affiliated teams are slated to join in 2023. Rochester NY FC has already signed on as the first independent pro club, while additional independent clubs will be introduced in 2023 and beyond.
"I believe, first and foremost, it's being a part of a club that has the entire pro player pathway," said Sporting Kansas City manager and sporting director Peter Vermes. "You have an academy, second team and a first team, so you're already in that structure and you have the opportunity to go all the way to the top. You need high-level competition to keep testing your abilities and MLS NEXT [Pro] provides that. And that competition only will continue to get stronger as time goes on."
Added Real Salt Lake interim coach Pablo Mastroeni: "Given where we're at as a league, I think the next move forward is really developing players and moving them abroad and continuing to backload the first-team roster."
Curtin said he believes MLS NEXT Pro is the next step in building on the foundation MLS already has in place, giving young players the best chance to succeed domestically or abroad.
"The future for this league, the future for soccer in this country continues to grow and MLS will be at the forefront of that," Curtin said. "I'm fully confident in that and I can't wait for this league to get started."
With MLS NEXT PRO games slated to begin in March 2022, clubs will be split into Eastern and Western conferences. Eight teams will qualify for the playoffs, culminating in a league champion.
Most of the MLS-affiliated teams have been competing in various USL leagues, with those like Kansas City, Philadelphia, Salt Lake and Seattle already finding success. Others like Cincinnati, Colorado and New York City will be breaking new ground.
"There are so many things that go into becoming a successful professional athlete that the sooner you're involved in the pathway, the better chance you have," Rapids head coach Robin Fraser.