Eastern Conference Grades thumbnail

The Eastern Conference was hotly contested all year and there were six teams fighting for the final three playoff positions by the time Decision Day came around.

Of course, Columbus Crew 2 was the dominant force in the conference and earned the inaugural championship title, but there were several fun stories in the East throughout the season, and six of the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Best XI were comprised of Eastern Conference players.

MLS NEXT Pro has put together final grades for each of the 10 teams in the East based on statistics, best moments, and areas of opportunity looking ahead.

Here is a closer look at the final team grades for the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Eastern Conference cast:

Grade - 9.8

Top Performers:

Jacen Russell-Rowe: 19 Appearances, 21 goals, MLS NEXT Pro MVP, Golden Boot winner, MLS NEXT Pro Best XI selection
Mohamed Farsi: 18 appearances, 10 assists, two goals, MLS NEXT Pro Best XI selection
Patrick Schulte: 18 appearances, seven clean sheets, MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeeper of the Year, MLS NEXT Pro Best XI selection

Outlook: It's hard to even mention Crew 2's rare imperfections in 2022, but they were not perfect by the grading rubric. They only lost three games and tied for best in goals allowed (22). That said, they were by far the toughest team in the inaugural cast and successfully elevated players to the Columbus Crew first team. The first team is what creates some questions for Crew 2 looking ahead. They obviously dominated the MLS NEXT Pro headlines all season, took the lion's share of the inaugural Best XI, and claimed the MLS NEXT Pro Cup in style, but can it be repeated? Needless to say, you know already know what you're getting if the changes are minimal - but let's assume there will be some shuffling.

With a first-team head coaching vacancy to address, you could see how it makes for some real questions about Crew 2 looking ahead. 2022 Coach of the Year Laurent Courtois certainly deserves consideration for the promotion, or possibly inheriting an interim role if duty calls. Players like Jacen Russell-Rowe and Mo Farsi have already gotten looks in MLS play. Will they be available next year? Let's say Courtois gets the call, how many Crew 2 players from the championship-winning squad would he bring with him, and how will the team look if even more 2022 starters are elevated than expected? There is no shortage of deserving candidates.

Grade - 9.3

Top Performers:

Paul Rothrock: 19 appearances, 7 goals, 5 assists
Hugo Mbongue: 17 appearances, 6 assists, 4 goals
Luka Gavran: 18 appearances, 9 wins, 5 clean sheets

Outlook: There was no better example of a team buy-in than Toronto FC II and they were very close to being the Eastern Conference representative in the MLS NEXT Pro Cup. After an up-and-down run to open the season, TFC II went on a two-month unbeaten streak across June and July. That run propelled it to the elite echelon of the East and the Young Reds protected their playoff spot once it was in their grasp.

Like many teams in MLS NEXT Pro - the questions for next year will be about who stays around. Beyond the top performers above, TFC II has a fantastic core of talent that should be in line for promotions come next year. The Toronto first team had no issue splashing the cash to sign the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Mark Anthony-Kaye, and others in 2022. That could very well create the need for some value signings looking ahead, and there are a number of worthy and realistic TFC II talents to choose from to help balance things out.

Grade - 8.4

Top Performers:

Chris Donovan: 21 appearances, 8 goals, 3 assists
Jesús Bueno: 12 appearances, 6 goals, 2 assists
Paxten Aaronson: 10 appearances, 5 goals, 3 assists

Outlook: Union II was put in an unenviable position down the stretch, and could make good use of more dedicated MLS NEXT Pro role players in the future. When all were present, Union II was one of the toughest outs in the field but suffered some undeniable inconsistency that produced a seven-game winless run from the end of May through July.

The Philadephia Union boasts one of, if not the best academies in all of American soccer. And by that measure, Union II should remain one of the most talented sides in the MLS NEXT Pro field for years to come. But, when head coach Marlon LeBlanc's options are reduced, especially in playoff time, the fluidity of the organization is something that proved to work against it in 2022.

When Union II squared off with TFC II in the Eastern Conference semifinal, impact players like Paxten Aaronson, Jesus Bueno, Nelson Pierre, and Matt Real were absent due to the Concacaf U-20 tournament and a Union first-team friendly against Liga MX side Pachuca. What would have happened if all or any were available? Union II was shorthanded in its biggest game of the season and that's something to avoid in the years to come.

GOAL: Stefan Stojanovic, Philadelphia Union II - 91st minute

Grade - 8.3

Top Performers:

Gibran Rayo: 23 appearances, 13 goals, 3 assists
Pedro Dolabella: 24 appearances, 5 goals, 5 assists, MLS NEXT Pro Best XI selection
Caíque: 24 appearances, 8 clean sheets (most in MLS NEXT Pro)

Outlook: The first-ever independent club in league history comes with advantages and disadvantages, and Rochester New York FC should be proud of landing in a playoff position. The franchise returned from a hiatus that began in 2017 and head coach Bruno Baltazar still managed to lead his side to remarkable U.S. Open Cup and league campaigns. The spine of the team is built well and if the stars return, RNY FC remains dangerous.

Squaring RNY FC's lack of first-year continuity and ultimate success is what leaves them in a bright spot looking ahead. With a year under its belt, RNY FC should be able to reduce the strain of its 2022 obstacles and fight for control of the Eastern Conference next year.

Grade - 8.0

Top Performers:

John Denis: 18 appearances, 14 Goals, 3 assists
Jonathan Jimenez: 19 appearances, 10 goals, 2 assists
El Mahdi Youssoufi: 16 appearances, 7 assists, 2 goals

Outlook: NYCFC II missed the playoffs by three points despite having the second-best goal tally in the East. Their +14 goal differential bested the majority of the conference's playoff teams, as well as their 35 goals allowed. So, what went wrong? Star striker John Denis missed critical games in the back end of the season presumably due to injury and the team only grabbed one win from its last nine games of the season.

It was simply a case of going cold when they could not afford to. But their overall body of work, especially if Denis returns to the fold, has all the makings of a team that has every right to be fighting for next year's championship if it can avoid the slippery slope at the end of the season.

Player Profile: John Denis

Grade - 7.9

Top Performers:

Shanyder Borgelin: 23 appearances, 14 goals, 3 assists
Romeo Beckham: 20 appearances, 10 assists, 2 goals
Sean Hundal: 21 appearances, 6 goals, 3 assists

Outlook: Inter Miami II, despite missing the playoff cut, was one of the most fun teams to watch all season. They were still alive on Decision Day and would have been the consensus dark horse candidate to make some noise in the playoffs had they inched over the line.

Romeo Beckham and Shanyder Borgelin were arguably the best one-two punch in the league, but Miami II's deficiency in the goals allowed department is what held them back in the long run. Inter Miami II finished at -9 and suffered lopsided losses (7-0 to NYCFC II, 6-0 to Orlando City B, and 5-0 to Crew 2) in 2022. In all, they missed the playoff line by just four points and if Darren Powell can get his side to minimize the mistakes next season, they should be a playoff candidate once again.

Grade - 7.2

Top Performers:

Jacob Jackson: 14 appearances, 5 clean sheets
Marcos Domingos Dias: 19 appearances, 6 goals, 1 assist
Ryan Lima: 22 appearances, 4 goals, 4 assists, Goal of the Year winner.

Outlook: The sad part of the Revs II season was having goalkeeper Jacob Jackson go down with a knee injury. The 22-year-old's surgery was successful, and he should be on the way back for a 2023 return. Prior to the injury, Jackson posted five clean sheets (record stands at eight, Jackson finished tied for third despite missing 10 games) and was primed to be a Best XI and Goalkeeper of the Year candidate.

Why are we placing so much emphasis on the young netminder? Because Revs II only won two games after his final performance on July 10 and won seven prior to it. Had Clint Peay's best-laid plans stayed intact, that's one area that almost certainly would've fared better for the New England-based group.

Outside of that, Revs II fans will be looking for more firepower next year. Marcos Domingos Dias led the team with six goals. There was a three-way tie on the team for assist leader at only four apiece. In all, Revs II's 27-goal tally was tied with FC Cincinnati for the lowest in the league. Next year, the mission should be to challenge one or two of Revs II's forwards to crack into double-digit territory on the scoresheet, and if accomplished, that would address the team's most glaring need.

Grade - 6.7

Top Performers:

Victor Bezerra: 16 appearances, 8 goals, 2 assists
Josh Penn: 20 appearances, 7 goals, 4 assists
Omari Glasgow: 15 appearances, 5 goals, 4 assists

Outlook: Chicago Fire FC II never quite had a signature trait in its foray into MLS NEXT Pro which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Netting out at 41 goals for and 44 against shows a team that wasn't overly lacking anything in particular when compared to the rest of the East, but one that simply got beaten more than it could have afforded to. One area head coach Ludovic Taillander can look to immediately improve upon is road performances, as their seven losses on the road marked the third-most in the East.

Chicago Fire II also dropped points from a winning position six times this season, with the most heartbreaking example being a 2-0 lead at halftime turning into a 4-2 loss to Crew 2. Maintaining control when they have it will also make for a better 2023.

Grade - 5.9

Top Performers:

Jack Lynn: 18 appearances, 15 goals, 4 assists, MLS NEXT Pro Best XI selection
Moises Tablante: 21 appearances, 6 goals, 4 assists
Javier Otero: 17 appearances, 4 clean sheets, 4 wins

Outlook: OCB's top performers were top-notch in the league. But Jack Lynn's scoring superpowers weren't enough to keep Orlando City B out of some dogfight games, and goalkeeper Javier Otero was put under some undue pressure that kept him out of the spotlight. If OCB could run it back, they could reasonably fare better than the six-win season they ended with based on talent alone.

One obvious area of opportunity to focus on is controlling what they can. OCB led the league with 79 yellow cards and eight red cards respectively. Improving the discipline game next season will be key in bringing OCB closer to the playoff pack.

Grade - 5.5

Top Performers:

Nicholas Markanich: 15 appearances, 4 goals, 4 assists
Arquimides Ordóñez:13 appearances, 4 goals, 1 assist
Harrison Robledo: 17 appearances, 1 goal, 1 assist, 88% passing rate

Outlook: It can only go up from here, right? FC Cincinnati joined MLS in 2019 and has had a bumpy road filled with turnover until its new regime took over this year. It should come as no surprise that a young and struggling team put all of its resources into the first team and FCC2 had to fall by the wayside in the pecking order. At times, FC Cincinnati 2 was strapped for depth. On one occasion, Marshall had to make do with a bench of three on an early-season trip to face Chicago Fire FC II.

Then the losses piled up and a handful of midseason signings weren't enough to right the ship. Head coach Tyrone Marshall is highly respected in the organization and will remain in charge come 2023. Marshall and company probably benefitted from some of the harsh lessons of FC Cincinnati 2's maiden voyage and should open doors with a better idea of the competitive demands of MLS NEXT Pro next season.

Coaches Corner; Father's Day Edition: FC Cincinnati 2's Tyrone Marshall