It's hard to believe all the memories made in MLS NEXT Pro's maiden voyage into the globe's professional soccer scene in 2022.
In a brand new league with innovative and transformational rules, nobody quite knew how this would turn out. All involved would agree it's been an exciting inaugural season to be proud of.
From opening day in St Louis to crowning the champions in Columbus, 2022 was a year of firsts. It set a high standard of competition, development, growth, and, most importantly, the fun that only MLS NEXT Pro can create.
Here is a closer look at just some of the moments that stand as lasting memories from MLS NEXT Pro's inaugural season:
The league kicked off with the most fitting matchup possible on March 25.
St Louis CITY2 hosted RNY FC in front of over 6,000 people to christen MLS NEXT Pro's inaugural season and battled to a 2-0 victory. Little did we know then that the rare inter-conference matchup was one of the season's marquee games, as both were strong contenders in the eventual playoff race.
CITY2, of course, is rooted in a worthy and soccer-starved market that will kick off in MLS action next season. Rochester New York FC returned to action for the first time since 2017. The incredible night was a historic moment where it played under its brand-new moniker for the first time while representing the league's first-ever independent club.
Completing the Pathway
One primary objective for MLS NEXT Pro clubs is to complete their players' pathways from the academy to the first team. As the inaugural cast of MLS NEXT Pro players got to show their skills, it turned out some were closer to the dream than initially thought. The reward of a first-team contract is a life-changing moment, and 13 got to take that next step with their respective clubs in 2022.
Inter Miami II defender Noah Allen, Timbers2 forward Nathan Fogaça, and Dynamo 2 forward Beto Avila were the first three to earn first-team contracts and call-ups.
Fogaça proved to be an instant impact player, as his Timbers first-team debut produced an impressive brace for him to appear in 11 games for Gio Savarese in 2022.
We knew that the largely conference-heavy schedule set opponents up to play each other tight week in and week out, but how did MLS NEXT Pro fare against the European youth ranks? We found out over the summer in the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Invitational.
Real Monarchs, Colorado Rapids 2, and Toronto FC II played host to English Premier League 2's Chelsea and Wolverhampton's U-21 sides in Utah in June in the invitational that showcased terrific matches.
And as it turns out, the MLS NEXT Pro sides were up to the challenge and went unbeaten in all four matches.
MLS NEXT Pro Invitational Rewind
It is no secret that soccer fans love goalie wars and have been calling for it to be added to the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge lineup for years.
After a 21-year drought, MLS NEXT Pro brought it back this year in Minnesota. RNY FC's Caíque, TFC II's Luka Gavran, NYCFC II's Alex Rando, and MNUFC2's Alec Smir battled, with the hometown representative winning the war.
Alec Smir joined MLS All-Star Today after winning Goalie Wars
The league’s first Decision Day was jam-packed with drama.
The Western Conference contestants were set, but seeding remained determined, and Timbers2 got to play spoiler to Cascadian rival Tacoma Defiance with a 2-0 upset that helped hand St Louis CITY2 home-field advantage that paid off throughout the playoffs.
The East was a different beast altogether. Heading into the final match week, six teams were left fighting for the last three playoff spots, and Toronto FC II, Philadelphia Union II, and RNY FC prevailed to round out the inaugural playoff field.
ICYMI: MLS NEXT Pro Decision Day
Columbus Crew 2 garnered plenty of attention all season long, and it was for good reason. They were the most dominant team in the inaugural season and took a clean sweep in the league's individual award voting.
Striker Jacen Russell-Rowe earned the Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot honors.
Goalkeeper Patrick Schulte took home the Goalkeeper of the Year award.
Head Coach Laurent Courtois was the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Coach of the Year.
Four of the first-ever MLS NEXT Pro Best XI selections also went Crew 2's way.
In the individual highlights category, Crew 2 was kept off the board though.
2022's Goal of the Year went to New England Revolution II's Ryan Lima for his wicked left-footed laser from around 35 yards out.
North Texas SC netminder Antonio Carrera took home the Save of the Year for his effort against in-state rival Dynamo Dos in July. The 18-year-old was a big part of North Texas SC's success all season and stands as one of MLS NEXT Pro's most exciting up-and-comers to watch.
Playoffs, crowning the champions
Crew 2's historic trophy lift on October 8 was the reward for dominance we may never see again in MLS NEXT Pro. Apart from their admittedly "risky and taxing" style of play that was a treat to watch, Crew 2 fans were some of the most passionate on display all season long and repeatedly beat the team's expectations of setting a high standard of support in its very first season.
It made Columbus a fitting place to end the season and Crew 2 a worthy and suitable champion.
It was not a given, though, especially in the 11th hour of the Eastern Conference final. Crew 2 was against the ropes to Toronto FC II before Jordan Knight and Coleman Gannon rescued them from elimination in extra time.
In the West, St Louis CITY2 claimed the Western Conference Championship by stopping a Tacoma Defiance squad that was feared by all in multiple stretches of the season. CITY2 was calm when it mattered, but Tacoma prevailed in the wildest playoff game in the Western ranks.
In one of the most chaotic matches you've seen across the world of soccer this year, the Defiance undid a 2-0 deficit to Houston Dynamo 2 after the 84th minute. They kept it scoreless in extra time and advanced thanks to a shootout win.
In the end, following seven exciting playoff matches, it would be Crew 2 crown inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Champions. It is an accolade that will go down in the history books, and many are sure they'll hope to repeat it. 2023 will be just as intriguing and even more challenging for all the clubs with the arrival of new teams. The future is bright for MLS NEXT Pro, and we cannot wait to watch another season unfold again!