Analysis / Breaking News / Philadelphia Union II

Union Academy finishes MLS NEXT Flex tournament

Photo @ @phlunionacademy

The 2024 MLS NEXT Fest tournament has completed play, and while the Union Academy U16s and U15s maximized their successes, the U17s did not. Each age group’s 64 qualified teams were seeded into 16 groups of four. The 16 group winners, including the two younger Union sides, automatically qualified for their age group’s 2024 championship playoff.

The MLS NEXT Flex tournament provides 16 of each age group’s 32 championship playoff participants. The other halves of each age group come from the league’s season-long divisional standings. We suspect but cannot confirm that the average points per game statistic plays a role since different divisions in different parts of the continent play different numbers of games.

For 2024 the championship playoff in each age group is a 32-team single elimination tournament. It is currently unknown if the championship playoff will begin with a group stage.

  • The Union U17s finished second in their Flex group, so they must qualify through the divisional standings.
  • The Union U16s won their MLS NEXT Flex group with three consecutive shutouts and became one of the 32 teams that will compete for the U16 championship from June 15th to the 23rd in Nashville, TN.
  • The Union U15s won their group and became one of the 32 U15 teams already known to be bound for Nashville.
A brief explanatory glossary

 Major League Soccer chose labels whose first-glance similarities can easily confuse unpracticed observers. For official, more complexly detailed explanations, click here.

“MLS NEXT” is the amateur nationwide youth league system in which every Major League Soccer organization is required to field a full slate of teams once they have developed them according to their club philosophies. Philadelphia Union Academy teams participate at every available level except the oldest, the U19s, usually selecting its professional prospects before the U19 stage has been reached.

“GA Cup” is a youth tournament in which all MLS academies participate. These days its invitations are accepted by many prominent international youth sides. At the U17 level the Union Academy won in 2013, and more recently consecutively in 2023 and 2024. GA stands for Generation Adidas.

“MLS NEXT Flex” is the tournament into which the particular season’s top 64 MLS NEXT teams are seeded. Its results provide an alternative pathway besides the eight divisional tables for qualification into MLS NEXT Cup (see immediately below).

“MLS NEXT Cup” is the annual playoff tournament among the best teams of a particular season in the specific age group that crowns that group’s champion.

“BRACKETS” & “SHOWCASES” – Since the most fundamental purpose of MLS NEXT is to provide its players with competitive game minutes, that half a single-elimination tournament’s teams go home after a round one loss wastes opportunity. Various “non-championship” brackets and showcases provide game minutes to those teams that have left the single-elimination championship itself or did not otherwise have opportunities to compete. U13 and U14 sides play in showcases, for example.

“MLS,” “MLS NEXT Pro,” & “NCAA” are the primary beneficiaries of MLS NEXT’s player development. The various tournaments have always provided them scouting opportunities. Nowadays the college roster fluidity that stems from the NCAA’s transfer portal enhances their importance.  A previously unanticipated roster hole for the following September that emerges only in May can be scouted and filled in June.

2024 MLS NEXT Flex

Qualifying for MLS NEXT Cup is the remaining focus for each of the three oldest Union Academy teams. All three compete in their respective Mid-Atlantic Divisions of MLS NEXT and according to the Philadelphia Union website all three Mid-Atlantic Divisions have 2-3 league games left. We expect the Academy has put its best foot forward in all three attempts to reach MLS NEXT Cup.

We do not know what Union Academy players suited up for which Union sides during MLS NEXT Flex since only scores are available. “Playing up” is a developmental tool the Academy uses quite often. Its opposite, “playing down” from an older side by those eligible to a younger one, would be the corresponding strategy to strengthen a younger team.

Playing down has already been used once this year, albeit not in a formal tournament. After the U17 side won the GA Cup, at least a few of its birth year 2007 players flew to Spain and joined the remainder of the U16s’ tour there. We have no idea whether anyone played down during FLEX.

These ten were eligible to do so. They are the birth year 2007 or younger players eligible for U16 competition this year.  PSP’s own eyes have have seen each one practice (*), dress, or play for Philadelphia Union II this year.

Henry Berstein* DM Gavin Atkinson* GK
Zach Mastrodimos M/OB Annise Saidi S
Diego Rocio S/ Kellen LeBlanc RM
Andrew Craig* D Jamir Johnson S
Neil Pierre CB Cavan Sullivan AM

All save Craig, who was hurt, played in the 2024 U17 GA Cup final draw-and-penalty-kick-shootout win against LA Galaxy. We do not know specifically who joined the Spanish tour afterwards, nor do we know how many did so.

The U16s were in the tightest of the three divisional races. and may have needed help. Historically, the pressures of “must win” situations have been considered excellent teaching and/or evaluation opportunities by Philadelphia Union’s technical staff.


Here are each of the three teams’ 2024 MLS NEXT Flex specifics.

Union U17s

In the Mid-Atlantic Division prior to MLS NEXT Flex (13 games played with three to go), New York Red Bull and Philadelphia Union, the top two sides, were head and shoulders ahead of the rest. Pragmatically, they seem virtually assured to qualify for MLS NEXT Cup, although we have never seen any qualification criteria. Seeding for the all championship brackets still remain uncertain.

Here is the U17 Flex game schedule and results.

Day Date Tap Opponent Result
Sat 11-May   9:00 AM Weston FC D 1-1 (PK W 3-1)
Sun 12-May 11:00 AM San Jose Earthquakes D 1-1 (PK L 4-2)
Tue 14-Mat   8:30 AM Santa Barbara SC W 3-1

Union U16s

For the Union, its U16 team exists for the first time ever in 2024.

There was no U16 competition in the GA Cup this year. Perhaps to compensate partially, earlier this spring the U16s toured Spain for about four weeks. Games began March 26 and ended April 18, totalling 17 matches in 24 days. They opened with a run of eight games in a tournament in which they reached the final. Then they barnstormed the final nine friendlies. Overall, they won nine, lost six, and drew two.

In their MLS NEXT division standings they lay second among a tightly bunched top three.  By winning their group they made their age group’s championship playoff and in one sense render their last three league games moot.

Here is the U16s Flex game schedule and results.

Day Date Tap Opponent Result
Fri 10-May   5:00  pm Tampa Bay United W 4-0
Sat 11-May   1:00  PM FC Bay Area Surf W 2-0
Mon 13-May   3:00  PM FC Westchester W 2-0

Union U15s

In the GA Cup the U15s group performance did not advance them into the championship bracket. They played seven total games, winning three, losing two outright, and losing both penalty kick shootouts after their two draws. In MLS NEXT Flex they improved their performance, winning their group and qualifying for MLS NEXT Cup

Here is the U15 Flex game schedule and results.

Day Date Tap Opponent Result
Sat 11-May   5:00  PM FC United W 5-0
Sun 12-May   5:00  PM Tampa Bay United W 2-0
Tue 14-May   1:00  PM Intercontinental FA W 2-1

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