Expectations for Union II’s 2023 MLS NEXT Pro schedule and roster

Photo: Ben Ross

It is time to focus on the 2023 versions of MLS NEXT Pro and league member Philadelphia Union II. In-market preseason practice began yesterday.

Because the Union first team will play extra games in 2023’s regular season — at least five and possibly as many as 20 — they may well reduce the number of their players available for second-team game minutes, especially in the attack.

First, we assemble what is known and can be expected about 2023’s league. Then we address Union II specifically.

MLS NEXT Pro in 2023

Illustrating the league’s “proof” of its division III level professional youth development concept, as of January 11 the league says twenty-two 2022 MLS NEXT Pro players have signed MLS contracts going into the 2023 season. Chris Donovan is the Union’s exemplar.

There will be 28 MLS NEXT Pro teams for 2023. Rochester remains independent while the other 27 are MLS professional youth development sides. MLS parents 28 and 29 will not have teams in the 2023 league.

D.C. United, Loudoun United’s parent, has a contract with Loudoun County, VA that requires them to place a division II professional side in the stadium the county built for their use. Hence Loudoun United will not join MLS NEXT Pro.  Press members have written that D. C. could start a division III side somewhere in the Baltimore area, but not for 2023.

Montreal also has an existing professional youth player development side, probably in a lower league in Quebec,  and will likewise not join MLS NEXT Pro in 2023.

Three other MLS-affiliated professional youth development sides that played in the United Soccer League’s Championship last year will join the league. The three, New York Red Bull II, Atlanta United 2, and Los Angeles Galaxy II, will be joined by four brand-new professional youth development teams. The new four are being created by Austin (Austin FC II), Nashville (Huntsville City FC), Los Angeles FC (name not yet announced), and Charlotte FC (name not yet announced).

2023’s MLS expansion side St Louis City placed its professional youth development side in MLS NEXT Pro last year. They were western conference champions, and lost to Columbus Crew 2 in the championship final 4-1.

We chart the 28 2023 teams into an unofficial but geographically probable conference alignment. The new additions are boldfaced.

  Eastern Conference Western Conference
  Northeast Central Frontier Pacific
1 Charlotte Atlanta Austin LA FC
2 New England Chicago Colorado LA Galaxy
3 New York City Cincinnati Houston Portland
4 New York RB Columbus Kansas Ciy Tacoma
5 Philadelphia Huntsville Minnesota Salt Lake
6 Rochester* Miami North Texas San Jose
7 Toronto Orlando St. Louis Vancouver

North Texas is Dallas’s affiliate and Tacoma is Seattle’s.

2023’s game schedule expectation

We assume there will be no inter-conference play.

Even though there are seven more teams, since each club most likely nets ownership monetary outgo rather than income, we do not believe 2023 will substantially increase the season’s total number of games.  Last year all MLS NEXT Pro teams played 24 games each.

The simplest schedule would be that conference members play home and away conference-wide. That would create 26 games for each team balanced equally home and away.

Although, MLS NEXT Pro sides are now able to begin practicing, the parameters of the season for which they are preparing are not yet known.

Union II

Several of the 2022 Union II technical staff were seen on the practice pitch today, although none have been officially announced yet.

Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner commented at the end of last season about increasing tactical flexibility. The head coach’s  remark on the opening day of first-team preseason that they were thin at center back, and the corresponding absence of a similar remark about the midfield, reinforces the tactical flexibility probability. Starting three center backs in a 3-4-1-2 — our roster composition influenced estimate of the flexibility — would suggest carrying six CBs rather than only the four associated with a 4-4-2. And the formation change would create a simple way to rest captain Alejandro Bedoya who turns 36 April 29th.

We do not yet know when Union II’s season begins. Last year Union II’s 24 games began Sunday, March 27th. The corresponding 2023 date is Sunday, March 26th, the day after the first team hosts Orlando at Subaru Park.

Here is our current Union II roster estimate. The three vertical columns are the three game-day roster sources. Ages — rounded up or down to the nearest tenth — are as of January 11th.

First team Union II Pros Academy
Goal Keepers (3)
Matt Freese 24.4 Brooks Thompson 20.6
Holden Trent 23.5
Left Backs (2)
Anton Sorenson 20.0 Luke Martelli 17.6
Left Center Backs (2)
Gino Portella 21.8 Devin Stopek 18.0
Right Center Backs (3)
Abasa Aremeyaw 19.4 Nathan Nkanji 21.4
Right Backs (2)
Frank Westfield 17.1
Noe Uwimana 17.9
Defensive Midfielders (3)
Jesus Bueno 23.7 Boubacar Diallo 20.1 Logan Oliver 17.7
Central Midfielders (3)
Jeremy Rafanello 22.7 Stefan Stojanovic 21.9 Anthony Ramirez 17.1
Strikers (5)
Chris Donovan 22.4 Jose Riasco 18.9 Luciano Sanchez 17.9
Nelson Pierre 17.8 Marcello Mazzola 18.0

If Luciano Snachez was at practice earlier today we did not recognize him. But we understand he was there.

Roster comments

We assume both 2023 Superdraft picks, Trent and Stojanovic, will play with Union II.  It is possible that they could be signed to the first team to finesse its current need for senior roster players.  As of January 13th they have only 15, not the required 18. They need 18 to avoid the penalty charge of one senior minimum roster salary per unoccupied slot. (That charge was roughly $ 80 K & change for 2022.)

We also assume that Portella will remain healthy and be signed to the first team. He, Trent and Stojanovic practiced with the first team the in-market training from Monday, January 9 through Friday, January 13, as did academy members Westfield, an amateur, and Pierre, a professional. We can confirm those five went to Clearwater with the first team on Martin Luther King Day.

First Teamers: Pending preseason developments, goalkeeper Matt Freese, center backs Gino Portella and Abasa Aremeyaw (currently injured), left back Anton Sorenson, and a defensive midfielder (probably Jesus Bueno), should be available to Union II with varying frequencies.

Freese successfully stayed game sharp last season using extensive Union II minutes. Continuing the pattern will be important because Andre Blake is expected to miss time for the Gold Cup this summer.

Portella and Aremeyaw need experience playing North American Soccer, since respectively they have next-to-none and none whatsoever.

Last year on the first-team defensive midfield depth chart Bueno was buried behind Jose Martinez and Richard Odada, and this year Andres Perea has been added to it. Last season Bueno played nary a minute as a single six at either professional level. Whoever the fourth first team defensive mid turns out to be, he would seem headed for Union II for his 2023 game minutes at that position.

Sorenson’s availability depends on Kai Wagner’s status. If as we have argued Wagner leaves at some point and is replaced, Sorenson would remain third at the position needing games. He easily could see time in Union II’s midfield if academy player Luke Martelli proves himself at left back. And should tactical flexibility occur, he seems well-suited to be a left wingback in a 3-4-1-2.

Chris Donovan and Jeremy Rafanello are not likely to be available to Union II with any frequency. The first-team’s expected game pace will require both, and Rafanello’s availability will be further truncated by the first-team’s lean midfield when playing a 4-4-2.

MLS NEXT professionals: The three defenders Thompson, Trent, and Nkanji, will step in whenever their first-team counterparts are unavailable. Defensive center mid Diallo will start. And the three attackers, Riasco, Pierre, and Stojanovic, will start as well.

Last season in goal Thompson was a capable backup for Freese, especially as the season progressed. Trent may push Thompson but must work hard in the weight room to add strength without losing quickness and speed. Trent’s presence enables Academy amateur Andrew Rick to get voluminous semi-pro and amateur development minutes lower down.

Nkanji will backup each first-team center back, an important role given Portella’s injury history.

Diallo will be the left vertex of coach LeBlanc’s double six double pivot. We anticipate that striker Stefan Stojanovic will start, either as one of the central mids in front of Diallo in the 4-4-2 or as the attacking mid behind the strikers in the 3-4-1-2. Jose Riasco and Nelson Pierre will start as the outright strikers. Riasco is currently away with the Venezuelan u-20s engaged in qualifiers

Academy: Four academy amateurs may start. Four others will provide bench support.

Westfield is certain to start at right back, and Martelli will get every opportunity to prove himself at left back. Oliver will join Diallo as the second double six when no first-teamer is available, and will provide capable midfield depth otherwise. Ramirez will probably join Stojanovic as the other starting central mid when in the 4-4-2.

Uwimana’s competence at right back will allow Westfield to back up  both the defensive and the central mids as he capably did last season. Stopek will be the fourth center back where his distribution skills will push Nkanji’s to develop. Sanchez and Mazzola will provide depth both at striker and in the midfield.

Trialists remain unannounced and unknown. At Union’s II level they have continued to exist, but none were in camp today. The organization is always looking, and players’ agents will be actively seeking 2023 opportunities.


  1. Gruncle Bob says:

    Appreciate the update, thanks!

  2. For those interested, Jose Riasco is away with the Venezuela U20s at the South American U20 Championship.
    All ten Conmebol countries have entered teams. If you search TRansfermarkt using the search term Venezuela U20 you should be able to get to the Venezuela roster.
    The tournament format is two stages of single round robin groups. The first stage ends Saturday, January 28th. the final stage ends February 12th.
    if you want to keep track of the event as it unfolds, the Wikipedia article “2023 South American U20 Championship” looks like it is set up to post records of results as the tournament develops.
    Venezuela’s first match is against Bolivia tomorrow, the 20th.

    • Riasco started and played 70 minutes. Venezuela lost to Bolivia 0-1.
      They next play on Tuesday the 24th at 5 PM ET, against Uruguay.

  3. The day after we publish, the drop down menu on the Union II portion of the website titled Technical Staff becomes populated.
    Marlon LeBlanc is now officially acknowledged as returning, along with everyone on the technical staff except the Scottish-accented assistant coach whose name currently escapes my memory.

  4. Marcos Zambrano, the U17 academy striker who left the Academy earlier this offseason has signed with Benfica according to reports on Twitter.
    The Union should get some degree of compensation.
    Here is the URL for the best article explaining the compensation system that I found last summer when I went looking.

  5. The Union’s two opponents in the group stage are now known.
    Tijuana placed 16th of 18 in the Liga MX combined table; and Queretaro, 18th of 18.
    First match will be July 21st, probably.

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