MLS NEXT Pro Preview: 5 Defenders to Watch in 2024

Top 5 defenders

The 2024 MLS NEXT Pro season will not only feature some of the top up-and-coming forwards, midfielders, and goalkeepers, but also plenty of outstanding defenders ready to prove their talent at the professional level.

Let's take a closer look at the top five MLS NEXT Pro defenders to watch in 2024.

Sal Mazzaferro - Austin FC II

Austin FC II will certainly be one of the favorites to contend for MLS NEXT Pro Cup in 2024 with one of the league’s top defenders returning to the fold. Mazzaferro has already started to break into the first-team, earning a short-term callup for Austin FC's MLS match against Seattle Sounders FC.

Mazzaferro excelled for Brett Uttley’s squad last season, making 31 appearances and registering the fourth-most minutes played among defenders with 2,422. Mazzaferro partnered 2023 Best XI defender Joe Hafferty last season en route to lifting the league title.

Mazzaferro maintained a strong presence at the back, scoring more goals with three than yellow cards received, an odd and impressive statistic for a defender.

Hal Uderitz - Colorado Rapids 2

One of the league’s top defenders, Uderitz made the switch from Tacoma to Colorado this offseason.

His arrival offers Erik Bushey’s squad a major boost at the back. Uderitz’s production doubled from 2022 to 2023, a season in which he scored four goals and played more than 2,400 minutes.

Rapids 2 excelled offensively in 2023, leading the league in goals scored with 70. The addition of Udertiz should see to making the club's back line just as strong.

Michael Wentzel - St Louis CITY2

Wentzel, who played the most minutes of any MLS NEXT Pro players in 2023, returns to anchor St Louis CITY2's back line. He played 2,584 minutes for Bobby Murphy's squad, helping the team reach the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro playoffs.

The 21-year-old central defender will be a vital leader for CITY2 this season. He has started to break in to St Louis CITY's first-team plans, earning a short-term loan to the first-team ranks on March 2.

Julian Bravo - Crown Legacy FC

Bravo is moving from the west coast to the east coast for 2024. The 23-year-old played nearly 4,000 minutes last season for Timbers2 and joins Crown Legacy FC looking to contribute defensively. He scored two goals in 2023.

Crown Legacy FC thrived in 2023, leading the Eastern Conference. The club's offense excelled, with Iuri Tavares scoring 12 goals and Patrick Agyemang adding 10. Bravo will look to bolster a defense that allowed the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference in 2023.

Keesean Ferdinand - Timbers2

Ferdinand made positive strides individually in the 2023 season, and he returns to the fold hoping to bounce back from as season in which Timbers2 finished 10th in the Western Conference.

The 20-year-old Canadian made 28 appearances on the T2 back line in 2023. He notched three assists, completed 87% of passes, and made 87 clearances, tied for eighth among all MLS NEXT Pro players. 

Ferdinand continues to lead defensively for T2 after the departure of Bravo. Ferdinand began his career with CF Montreal, signing a Homegrown contract at 16 and becoming the club's youngest Homegrown signing.