The inaugural MLS NEXT Pro campaign delivered several impressive seasons for many teams but also put several players in the limelight for the next chapter of their careers in 2023.
Jacen Russell-Rowe, Bernard Kamungo, and others were among the top players during the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro season, playing significant roles for their teams. Because of that, they, along with 11 others, inked deals with their respective MLS teams.
It wasn't only the attackers who stole the spotlight in 2022, as several defenders, midfielders, and goalkeepers also impressed throughout the year.
With several MLS franchises already beginning their roster reshuffling for 2023, here is a closer look at ten 2022 MLS NEXT Pro standouts to watch:
Jacen Russell-Rowe ended the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro campaign named MVP. While also earning a spot in the Best XI and winning the inaugural Golden Boot and Cup, setting the stage for an intriguing offseason for the Canadian forward.
Russell-Rowe scored 25 goals in league play this season, helping Laurent Courtois' squad run away with the league trophy, among several accolades. The 20-year-old earned a first-team contract with the Crew earlier this season before registering two assists in a 2-1 league win over Toronto FC.
With the Crew giving past opportunities to young players (Aidan Morris, Will Sands), Russell-Rowe could be the next to shine in the first-team fold next season.
FC Dallas has Jesus Ferreira, Alan Velasco, and Paul Arriola among its attacking options. However, 20-year-old Bernard Kamungo could be the next exciting talent in Nico Estevez's squad in 2023.
Kamungo led North Texas SC with 16 goals in 2022, helping his squad reach the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs. Kamungo's abilities in the final third helped him earn a first-team contract earlier this season, allowing him to become the next future star from FC Dallas.
Kamungo also became the all-time leading goalscorer in NTX's ranks this season, a significant achievement at his young age.
Player Profile: Bernard Kamungo
The Seattle Sounders' first-ever failure to miss the MLS Cup Playoffs could force significant changes in the squad this winter. Luckily for Brian Schmetzer, he has a promising attacking talent to add to the mix in 2023.
Vargas, 21, scored 13 goals and added six assists for Tacoma Defiance this season, including the playoffs, becoming one of the top dynamic attackers in the league. He is one of several youthful talents on the Defiance roster, including Reed Baker-Whiting and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez.
The Sounders still have several critical attackers on their roster, including Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris, and Nicolas Lodeiro. Still, Vargas, who was named the best XI of the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro season, could be among the next wave of players to force their way into the mix.
There weren't many midfielders more impactful than Romeo Beckham in MLS NEXT Pro this season.
The 20-year-old son of former European and MLS star David finished 2022 tied with Crew 2 fullback Mo Farsi for the most assists (10) in MLS NEXT Pro. Beckham's creativity and playmaking abilities helped Inter Miami II fight down to the wire for a playoff berth, falling just short on Decision Day.
Beckham is reportedly training with English club Brentford's B team to stay busy this offseason before a new possible opportunity with Inter Miami next spring. Although it may be challenging for the MLS club to keep Beckham in the United States, especially if European clubs come knocking.
Minnesota United II did not make the playoffs in 2022. Still, it didn't stop Aziel Jackson from delivering a standout campaign for Cameron Knowles' squad.
Jackson was MNUFC2's top attacking option, finishing the season with ten goals and seven assists in 23 appearances. The 20-year-old also led all players with 71 key passes, being one of the top consistent threats all season long, which helped him earn a spot in the Best XI.
A Minnesota United homegrown, Jackson has yet to debut in Major League Soccer. However, that could change soon, with Adrian Heath needing additional attacking depth in 2023.
GOAL: Aziel Jackson, MNUFC2 - 74th minute
Jacen Russell-Rowe and Mo Farsi garnered plenty of praise for Columbus Crew 2 in 2022. Still, Isaiah Parente also was key to the club's title-winning campaign.
Parente totaled eight goals and six assists for Crew 2, mainly used in the heart of Crew 2's midfield. The 22-year-old scored two of his eight goals during the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs, contributing significantly as Crew 2 finished the job.
A former three-year player at Wake Forest University, Parente has made six appearances for the Crew's first team in 2021. After improving his skills within MLS NEXT Pro, Parente could force his way into the new manager's roster next spring.
PK GOAL: Isaiah Parente, Columbus Crew 2 - 45th minute
Another Best XI selection, Kyle Heibert, logged the most minutes in MLS NEXT Pro this season, continuing an essential rise in the fullback's overall development.
Heibert played in all 27 matches for St Louis CITY2, totaling over 2,400 minutes, three goals, and a strong work rate in John Hackworth's backline. The 25-year-old's stellar campaign earned him a first-team contract with St Louis CITY SC, providing a significant opportunity to jump into Bradley Carnell's plans next spring.
St Louis CITY SC will seek leaders in 2023, and Heibert would be a great one to have in the first-team squad.
GOAL: Kyle Hiebert, St Louis CITY2 - 12th minute
The Philadelphia Union's academy is arguably one of the best within MLS. One of their latest homegrown talents could move up in 2023.
Fullback Anton Sorenson played a starring role for Philadelphia Union II this season, logging over 1,900 minutes in 22 appearances for Marlon LeBlanc's squad. The 19-year-old earned a homegrown contract earlier in the year and continued working with several other homegrown talents in MLS NEXT Pro.
The future of Union left-back Kai Wagner is uncertain. Should he return to Europe this winter, Sorenson could get a more prominent role in training camp alongside Nathan Harriel.
Houston Dynamo 2 delivered one of the best defensive units in 2022, with captain Talen Maples excelling as one of the leaders of the bunch.
Maples, one of three Best XI defenders, scored three goals in 23 league appearances for Dynamo Dos. He helped the Western Conference club finish the regular season tied with the fewest goals conceded. He also helped Dynamo Dos post ten shutouts this season, finishing as one of the best overall teams in the inaugural campaign.
With the Dynamo still seeking a new first-team head coach, the 23-year-old Maples could be one of several Dynamo Dos players to earn an opportunity in the 2023 training camp.
GOAL: Jon-Talen Maples, Houston Dynamo 2 - 54th minute
Toronto FC's failure to make the postseason, paired with Quentin Westberg's undetermined future, makes for an intriguing offseason of decisions.
Westberg's contract is set to expire with TFC this December, which could open the door to Luka Gavran moving to the first team. Gavran posted six clean sheets in 20 appearances for TFC II, finishing 2022 as one of the top goalkeepers this season. The 22-year-old and Goalie Wars contestant finished with the fourth-most saves this year (61), helping TFC II reach the inaugural playoffs.
TFC still has former U.S. men's national team goalkeeper Alex Bono on its roster. Still, Gavran's impressive campaign warrants an opportunity.
Goalie Wars Replay, Round 1: Alec Smir vs. Luka Gavran at MLS All-Star Skills Challenge