Four different looks inside the development pipeline

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The view from inside the Union’s developmental pipeline changes often. Consider Rochester NY FC, Jesus Bueno,  Jim Curtin, and MLS NEXT Pro’s 2023 playoffs.

Rochester NY FC

Rochester NY FC folded this past Friday, March 10.

The league’s announcement used the phrase “cease operations” without further description. The club’s language is “Rochester NY Football Club will not participate in the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season.” (Here is the entire statement.)

Should there be another incarnation of professional soccer in the upper Mohawk valley, it should be called the Rochester Phoenix for having risen from the ashes twice.

Whether owners Dave and Wendy Dworkin and Jamie Vardy of Leicester City in England’s Premier League retain future rights to the franchise is not clear from the announcement. Back in 2018 such rights were explicitly and overtly retained when Rochester was described as remaining “in good standing” with the league when it ceased competing in USL Championship play and went “on hiatus.”

Rochester had been expected to play in the Northeast Division of MLS NEXT Pro’s Eastern Conference in 2023. The delay publishing MLS NEXT Pro’s 2023 game schedule is now explicable. (Writer’s note: That schedule was published the afternoon after the article went to the editors.)

Because Philadelphia Union II participates in the Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference the news directly affects them.

  • More or less 14 days before play is estimated to begin unofficially, all Rochester games have to be replaced as quickly and simply as possible.
  • There are now only six teams in the Northeast Division, not seven, and only 13 teams in the Eastern Conference, not 14.
  • There will be no independent members of the league in 2023.

Rochester had been the sole independent member of MLS NEXT Pro. Two future independents have been announced, Carolina Core of High Point, NC for 2024, and a team in Cleveland, OH for 2025. The significance of having independent teams in MLSNP remains unclear.

As an historical footnote back in 1999 Rochester NY FC’s immediate ancestor Rochester Rhinos were the last non-MLS winners of the Lamar Hunt U. S. Open Cup.

Jesus Bueno

The Philadelphia Union player development story of early 2023 is defensive midfielder Jesus Bueno. He is a Venezuelan who will turn 24 on April 15.

Bueno earned his first not-in-a-friendly first-team start March 7 in San Salvador against Alianza in the Concacaf Champions League, a 0-0 draw a week ago yesterday.

Last year Bueno ranked behind Richard Odada on the defensive midfielder depth chart, and was never trusted to play as a single six. Odada was the DM on September 24, 2022 in the short-handed friendly against Pachuca when Bueno started as a shuttling midfielder.

Bueno had started fourteen times for Philadelphia Union II within the “two 6s two 10s” midfield system deployed by Marlon LeBlanc, usually as one of the 10s. He scored six goals in 1,161 minutes, good for second on the team. He was an excellent MLS NEXT Pro player who did not always finish his full 90 minutes.

He now seems to rank ahead of Odada. He is trusted to be a single six, the most difficult player to find in the Tanner-Curtin 4-4-2 narrow diamond according to Union II head coach Marlon LeBlanc. The single six protects the center backs alone, and therefore allows deployment of  a second striker. Bueno acquitted himself well for 60 or so minutes in El Salvador before Jose Martinez replaced him.

Knowledgeable observers have said that he seemed like a different player when he arrived in Chester in January. It is easy to conclude that the challenge of Odada’s arrival last August coupled with 2023 being Bueno’s last guaranteed contract year motivated a significant off-season transformation. Pressure may again be creating a diamond.

Jim Curtin

The developmental pipeline is not only about players.

For the first time in his head coaching career Jim Curtin thinks he has a good quantity of top quality roster depth. Both the coach himself and we fans are going to learn how he will coach when he has a deep, game-trusted bench.

In the past he has shown strong loyalty to the players who have done well for him. Most of the time when he has had three games in a week, the first two matches have been played by every starter who has indicated he could go, and then the third match has seen rotation, usually only the minimum necessary.

That did not happen in El Salvador last week. And the lineup against Chicago Saturday night suggested it wouldn’t last night in Chester, either.

Atypically, Curtin had made eight changes to his regular starting lineup away against Alianza, and they produced the first Union clean sheet of the season. He telegraphed substantively doing something similar with his lineup Saturday night against Chicago.

When explaining what fans see at open practices in years past, Curtin has said that half an hour of all-out strenuous activity is part of the weekly practice rhythm. Jack McGlynn and Joaquin Torres getting the last 29 minutes against Chicago Saturday night was timed perfectly to be in rhythm for starts three days later against Alianza in Chester. And they did, with McGlynn going the full 90 and Torres 65.

Mikael Uhre subbing off after an hour enabled him to have a 25 minute hard work episode off the bench Tuesday night.

In the roughest of comparisons to a major league baseball starting pitcher on a five day rotation, Uhre “threw a bullpen” in the yesterday’s game against Alianza, as McGlynn and Torres “threw bullpens” in the Chicago game Saturday night.

In a must win situation — Concacaf Champions League uses the away goals rule — Curtin did not make eight changes to his best XI. But he did make four, with two of them in the defensive line. Nathan Harriel played for Olivier Mbaizo at right back, and Damion Lowe played for Jack Elliott at left center back. Jack McGlynn replaced Leon Flach. And Joaquin Torres replaced Mikael Uhre for the first 65 minutes when the Dane flipped roles with the Argentine.

Curtin’s tough choice was Kai Wagner, tough not because Matt Real is not ready but because Wagner serves all free kicks, including Damion Lowe’s match-winner in first half stoppage time. Curtin forecast the choice’s difficulty in his press conference before the Chicago match.

2023 will be the next step in the Union head coach’s development as a roster handler, because now — at least much more closely than ever before in his Union coaching career — he has Eli Whitney’s historically celebrated interchangeable parts. Fifty-five or more games this season demands them.

MLS NEXT Pro playoffs

Within each conference, the two division champions and the five clubs with the next highest points (seven total) will advance to the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs.  Three rounds will be followed by MLS NEXT Pro Cup, taking place over four consecutive weeks, Friday, September 29 to sometime on the weekend of October 20-22.

In a completely “outside-the-box” change, during the first and second rounds the higher seeded team(s) will choose their opponent from among the other qualified teams.

Each conference’s points leader will bye directly to the conference semifinals, where it will choose its opponent from the surviving qualifiers.

In each conference’s first round, the two remaining highest points teams (one must be the other division champion) will choose one after the other from among the other four qualifiers. The two  teams not chosen will play at the home of the team with the higher number of points.

The new system incentivizes winning the conference even more than did Major League Soccer’s previous playoff system.

Being chosen could also insult and enrage the allegedly weaker opponent, inspiring it to super-human feats of resistance.

The only historical example of tournaments in which participants might have been able to choose their opponents in some instances might perhaps have been the armed but non-lethal combat of medieval jousting. Otherwise the choice idea seems without previous sporting precedent.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    Thanks for letting us know that the schedule has been released. The first game will likely test the depth since some of the players will likely play for the first team the night before given the international break.
    It looks like Union season ticket holders will only officially get 2 free games and a discount on the rest. Hopefully they’ll have the same issues as last season where they kept giving me every game for free 🙂
    It’s not usually considered a sport in the same sense as soccer, but in one of bridge’s major world championships (the card game, not the structure by Subaru Park) the format is a round robin among 22 teams with the top 8 qualifying for the knockout round. At that point, the top team gets to choose their quarterfinal opponent between the teams ranked 5-8, the second place team then chooses its opponent from the remaining 5-8 ranked teams and so forth. After those matches are set, but before the quarterfinals are played, the top team then chooses which quarterfinal winner will play against the winner of their match in the semis. So teams are able to try to match up against teams they did well against in the round robin.

    • In MLS should the International break be re-branded the “International Roster Thinning”?

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        This one is interesting to me. The league – any league really – doesn’t have to break for these windows (obviously). It might be in their interest to do so for all the obvious reasons, but I can also see a scenario in which MLS says, “We have revenue producing competitions we’d like to hold, international breaks be darned – which make us nothing and potentially get our players hurt or tired.”

      • Andy Muenz says:

        The top players still go to their national teams. It’s just another way the league makes fans pay for substandard games and randomizes their competition. How pissed off are we going to be if the Union don’t beat Orlando on the 25th because 3 starters aren’t there and then they end up in a tie again for the Shield after LAFC still wins their game and the Union have to go to LA to play for the Cup again?

  2. Is Odada still recovering from a knee injury?
    Also, it sounds like Jamie Vardy pulled out of the Rochester project at some point last year (something I was surprised to find out because it wasn’t publicized when it happened).
    I wonder if Marlon Leblanc is poised to take over as head coach if Jim gets pulled into the NT coaching pool? My guess is yes considering how much Union prioritize promoting from within.

    • Odada has not been listed on MLS’s Player Availability Report for any of the three MLS regular season games. Nor has he been mentioned as injured in any of the club’s game notes in advance of those matches. And for what it may be worth he remains listed as active and available on the Union’s roster on both the club’s website and the league’s.
      But only Jim Curtin can comment authoritatively, and he hasn’t been asked.

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