After an incredible inaugural season, MLS NEXT Pro is back and gearing up for its second campaign.
With seven new teams joining the league in 2023 and significant changes to the playoff format, fans can expect this season to have plenty of drama, thrilling moments, and exciting storylines.
Let's look at how each team in the Western Conference's Pacific Division is shaping up and what coaches and players will look to make history when they try to lay claim to the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
Head Coach: Erik Bushey
Venue: University of Denver
Record last year: Ninth place in Western Conference, 7W-11L-6T (31 points, 4 SOW, 2 SOL)
Notable Offseason News: Reinforcements Arrive
Last year Colorado Rapids 2 struggled with finding consistency on both sides of the field throughout the season and eventually finished towards the bottom of the Western Conference.
In 2023 Rapids 2 will be without some standouts from last year as Darren Yapi has continued his development and has moved up to the first team. Unfortunately, last year's leading scorer Yaya Toure is out with an ACL injury but may see some time with the second team while working his way back to the first squad.
These developments leave a big gap offensively where Rapids 2 have done a great job bringing proven and exciting talent in Marlon Vargas and Rémi Cabral.
Vargas was part of the MLS NEXT Pro Best IX last year and will open up a lot of space in the final third with the attention he'll attract from defenses.
23-year-old Rémi Cabral, signed from LA Galaxy II in February, will look to create havoc and chances from the wing.
Head Coach: Benny Feilhaber
Venue: Rock Chalk Park
Record last year: Eighth place in Western Conference, 9W-12L-3T (31 Points, 1 SOW, 2 SOL)
Notable Offseason News: SKCII Revamp Frontline
Benny Feilhaber's side showed signs of becoming a decent squad last season but landed in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference when it was all set and done.
SKCII lost some key contributors from last year in Rauf Salifu (6 goals, one assist in 17 games) and Collin Fernandez (4 goals, three assists in 20 appearances) but have shored up offensively with some new signings.
20-year-old winger Amadou Traore was brought in from French side Bordeaux where he scored seven goals in 37 league matches for Bordeaux II while also making 20 appearances in Ligue 1.
Honduran international Yesion Mejia brings a wealth of experience, making over 100 appearances for club and country and most recently played for Honduran first-division club Real Espana.
Head Coach: Brett Uttley
Venue: Parmer Field at St. David’s Performance Center
Record last year: N/A
Notable Offseason News: Adds assistant coaches with USYNT, USL experience; acquires players from Europe, Mexico, and more
Brett Uttley will have a good mixture of coaching experience on his staff, with Dennis Sanchez and Jason Grubb both signing with Austin FC II in early January. Sanchez arrived in Austin after spending the 2022 season as the First Assistant Coach of USL Championship side Charleston Battery. He also previously served as Academy Director and Head Coach of Sacramento Republic, and as Academy General Manager at Columbus Crew.
Grubb makes the short move from Houston to Austin after serving as the Dynamo's Head of Academy Goalkeeping and Dynamo 2's Goalkeeping Coach. He also worked as Goalkeeping Coach for the U.S. Under-20 Men's National Team since 2021, where he helped the program win the Concacaf Under-20 Championship in 2022.
On the player side, Austin FC II added 16 faces to the team in hopes of kicking the door down in 2023. Among the new faces are several international signings, including PSV's Cheick Toure, Bobosi Byaruhanga from MFK Vyskov, David Rodriguez from Atletico San Luis, and more.
Head Coach: Kenny Bundy
Venue: Aveva Stadium
Record last year: Third in Western Conference, 14W-5L-5T (49 points, 2 SOW, 5 SOL)
Notable Offseason News: Kenny Bundy Returns
While leading Dynamo 2 to a great season last year, Kenny Bundy stepped away from the team in September to step in as interim head coach of Houston Dynamo FC.
After receiving a contract extension, Bundy returns to build off a solid inaugural campaign in MLS NEXT Pro in 2022. Dynamo 2 was able to clinch a playoff spot while also overseeing the development of players that would go on to feature for Houston's first team, like Beto Avila and Micael.
The team from Houston made their home turf their fortress in 2022, going unbeaten at home with a 10-0-1 (WLD) record. Dynamo 2 also finished the season tied for the fewest goals conceded in the league with 22, and at home Bundy's men only allowed four goals in 11 matches.
Head Coach: Javier Cano
Venue: Choctaw Stadium
Record last year: 4th place in the Western Conference, 13W-6L-5T (46 Points, 2 SOW, 3 SOL)
Notable Offseason News: Who will step up after Kamungo's and Mulato's departure?
Now that MLS NEXT Pro Best XI player Bernard Kamungo and Colombian forward Jose Mulato have left North Texas SC to join FC Dallas' first-team, it's up to new incoming head coach Javier Cano to find a way to incorporate new talent to get his squad back to the postseason in 2023.
Key figures from last year's squad remain as Hope Avayevu (5 goals, nine assists in 23 games) will continue with NTX in 2023 and will be relied upon to be the creative engine of the team. Homegrown goalkeeper Antonio Carrera will also be back between the sticks and has continued to gain international experience after being called to the U.S. Under-20 Men's Youth National Team.
Some new players to watch for are defenders Manuel Caicedo ( loan from Cortuluá F.C.), Henri Marinho dos Santos (loan from Palmeiras), and 16-year-old midfielder Diego García.
Head Coach: Cameron Knowles
Venue: National Sports Center
Record last year: Sixth place in Western Conference, 9W-10L-8T (36 points, 4 SOW, 1 SOL)
Notable Offseason News: Aziel Jackson traded to St. Louis CITY2
One of the biggest news in MLS NEXT Pro during the offseason was the trade of MLS NEXT Pro Best XI player Aziel Jackson to Frontier Division rival CITY2. Jackson earned himself a spot among the league's best primarily due to his offensive prowess and league-leading 70 key passes.
Now head coach Cameron Knowles will be tasked to find someone who can replace Jackson's contributions to the team, and Jesse Khan may be that player.
The 18-year-old two-way midfielder was signed to MNUFC2 in December of 2022 but missed much last season due to injuries and national team duties. Khan participated in the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship with Trinidad and Tobago's National Team, scoring once during the group stage.
Head Coach: Bobby Murphy
Record last year: First in Western Conference, 15W-6L- 3T (49 points, 1 SOW, 2 SOL)
Notable Offseason News: Can CITY2 return to the MLS NEXT Pro Cup?
After winning the Western Conference Final last year, CITY2 will bring in some new faces to replace the six players promoted to the CITY's first-team roster over the offseason.
MLS SuperDraft selection John Klein and Former Queens Park Rangers midfielder Faysal Bettache will join the core of returning players Ezra Armstrong, Wan Kuzain, AJ Palazzolo, Dida Armstrong, and Sergio Rivas.
"We are looking forward to fielding a younger but competitive team this season," said CITY2 head coach Bobby Murphy. "We have a good group of exciting young talent on the roster across the board, and our coaching staff is filled with excellent people whose main priority is helping the players become the best they can be. We want to continue developing and providing opportunities for players to learn the club's soccer philosophy, and hopefully, we can see more players make the transition to the first team."