The inaugural MLS NEXT Pro season is kicking off this Friday with St. Louis CITY2 facing off against Rochester New York FC at Hermann Stadium (8 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. CT) in St. Louis live on mlsnextpro.com. This game signifies the beginning of a 24-game regular season for each of its 21 inaugural teams and the chance for a new generation of players to showcase their skills and achieve their dreams of making an MLS roster.

Before the opening kickoff, let’s review what players fans should keep an eye out for during the first-ever season of MLS NEXT Pro. As the season wears on we’ll make sure to continue to add the names of players that have stood out during the course of the year.

Jose Mulato Palacios | Forward

North Texas SC - 19 years old

In 2018, FC Dallas and European giant Bayern Munich announced a player development partnership that would offer players within their professional academies a pathway to soccer. Players such as Justin Che and Chris Richards have joined Bayern since the association began. That partnership seems to have paid dividends for FC Dallas as Jose Mulato Palacios has joined North Texas SC.

The 19-year-old Colombian forward joins North Texas SC after a stint in Bayern Munich’s World Squad where he wasn’t just part of their youth academy but got a chance to train with their first squad during 2021. If the forward from Santiago de Cali can continue to show the level of play that has attracted the likes of Bayern Munich, he’ll be taking MLS NEXT Pro by storm.

Alex Freeman | Defender

Orlando City B - 17 years old

A Fort Lauderdale native, Freeman was signed to a Homegrown contract with Orlando City SC in MLS, guaranteed through 2025 with a Club option in 2026. The 17-year-old has made 28 starts in 30 appearances for Orlando City’s U-17 Academy. Although listed as a defender on the Orlando City website, Freeman contributed immensely on the offensive side by scoring 8 goals and 15 assists on his way to winning the MLS NEXT Cup U-17 Championship in 2021.

Sota Kitahara | Midfielder

Tacoma Defiance - 19 years old

Raised in Edmonds, Washington, 30 minutes outside of Seattle, Sota Kitahara could join a list of Sounders Academy midfield prospects that have shined with Tacoma and moved up to the First Team. Players such as Danny Leyva, Josh Atencio, and most recently Obed Vargas have been able to contribute not only during the MLS season but in international tournaments such as the Concacaf Champions League.

The 19-year-old traveled overseas in 2021 and received valuable experience playing on loan for Austrian side FC Pinzgau Saalfelden where he made 17 appearances. Gifted on the ball and with the versatility to be deployed as a left or right back, Kitahara will be one to watch in the northwest.

Aidan Wolf | Midfielder

Columbus Crew 2 - 18 years old

The Ohio native could be in line to make some history with the Columbus Crew if he is able to make their first-team roster. Having been part of the Black & Gold youth system since 2017, Wolf could make Crew history by being the first player to participate in their Youth Academy, MLS NEXT Pro side, and first-team if he gets called up.

During the 2019 Generation adidas Cup, Wolf was recognized as one of the top 10 best players of the tournament, joining a list of players that includes Jonathan Gomez, who made the jump to Spain in 2021. Described as an attacking midfielder, the then 16-year-old scored 3 times and was lauded for his build-up play and ability to connect with teammates in the attack. Not bad for Columbus’ first-ever MLS NEXT Pro signing.

Nelson Pierre | Forward

Philadelphia Union II - 17 years old

Described by Union II coach Marlon LeBlanc as a player that possesses elite-level pace with ever-improving off-the-ball movement, Union fans should be excited to have Nelson Pierre as their future number 9. Growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Pierre joined the Philadelphia Academy in 2016. Since then, the 17-year-old has gone on to become an impressive striker prospect, showcasing his talent during the 2021 MLS NEXTU-17 competition by scoring 4 goals in 5 matches. More recently, Pierre caught the eye of the US Youth National Team scouts as he was invited to the USYNT Regional Identification Center Camp and may get further call-ups in the future.

Raymond Drai | Midfielder

Rochester New York FC - 18 years old

If you are new to Rochester soccer history, like me, you’d be delighted to find out that while this team has not been part of MLS, Rochester has had a huge impact on soccer in America. Originally founded in 1996 and called the Rochester Raging Rhinos, the club won several titles in US soccer’s lower divisions and in 1999 became the only non-MLS team to win the U.S Open Cup since the inaugural MLS season in 1996. Fast forward to 2021 and after a brief hiatus, Rochester soccer is back as the only independent franchise in MLS NEXT Pro and with England and Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy among its owners. 

Raymond Drai plays a left-winger and is the youngest player in the Rochester squad. Drai joined Orange County SC at the age of 16 and won the 2021 USL Championship totaling 9 appearances and 1 assist. Rochester Head Coach Bruno Baltazar describes Drai as a skillful and technical young winger with huge potential to get to the best leagues in the world.

Emiliano Brienza | Forward

Whitecaps FC 2 - 19 years old

A member of the Whitecaps Youth Academy since 2018, Brienza signed an MLS NEXT Pro contract and an MLS short-term agreement to be eligible to make his MLS debut during Vancouver’s 2022 opening day loss to Columbus. Born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Brienza and his family moved to Metro Vancouver in 2014 and participated with Canada during the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Typically a forward, Brienza can also drop down to the midfield and act as a playmaker. It may not be long before the Whitecaps call him back up more MLS minutes if he continues to develop.

Antonio Carrera | Goalkeeper

North Texas SC - 18 years old

Carrera recently signed a 3-year contract with club options that could keep him as part of the FC Dallas system until 2026. The Mexican-American keeper has spent all of his youth career representing the USA at various levels and was called up to the U-20 USMNT camp in January. FC Dallas will be loaning out Carrera to North Texas SC for the 2022 season but is eligible to be called up to the MLS side at any time.

Antonio’s older brother, Nico Carrera, made the jump to Germany after playing for North Texas SC in 2019. If Antonio continues to improve in 2022 it may not be long before he makes his own mark in the world of soccer.

Others to watch throughout the year:

Maximo Carrizo, midfielder, NYCFC II, 14 years old

Axel Kei, forward, Real Monarchs, 14 years old

The two players listed above are the youngest and second-youngest players ever to sign MLS contracts. Both are nursing injuries, but rest assured, there will be a lot of excitement when they make their MLS NEXT Pro debuts.