MLS NEXT Pro Invitational

What they're saying: Reflections from the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Invitational

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - For the second year running, MLS NEXT Pro’s Invitational series brought worldly experience to the United States. 

The international aspect of soccer is what many fans love most about the game, and MLS NEXT Pro is well on its way to forging its name into the global lexicon. This year, Hoffenheim and Crystal Palace of the German Bundesliga and English Premier League respectively, deployed youth squads to square off against a combination of MLS NEXT Pro’s Colorado Rapids 2, Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, and of course, hosts Real Monarchs

Lovingly nestled in the valley of the Oquirrh mountain range, the serene scenes of Zions Bank Real Academy in suburban Herriman offer a high-altitude environment ideal for any team working its way to optimum fitness. The facility offers grass and turf fields, a 5,000-capacity stadium, and all the off-field essentials needed for players to thrive when they come through the doors. 

Both European visitors also got a taste of MLS life, appearing once each at Real Salk Lake's America First Field - one of the iconic venues on the North American soccer map. 

As the MLS NEXT Pro regular season rages on, the native North American sides were able to treat the competition as a learning opportunity ahead of their respective playoff pushes. Whether that meant tuning up tactics, working new players into the fold, or otherwise. The Invitational is a friendly environment with the added carrot of bragging rights against teams you’re unlikely to see again soon.

But for those counting, TSG Hoffenheim U23 took the spoils with a perfect two-for-two record and didn’t concede a single goal during their visit.

Let’s start there. Here is a closer look at the last impressions each head coach walked away from the Invitational with:

The Hoffenheim visitors enjoyed a perfect record result-wise with 1-0 wins over Colorado Rapids 2 and Real Monarchs respectively.

Head coach Vincent Wagner obviously enjoyed plenty of what he saw from his men on the field but was also taking in the scenes of the Monarchs' robust facilities and as well as the gameplay innovations that MLS NEXT Pro has introduced to the world.

In addition to enjoying watching shootouts at the end of tie games (who doesn't?), Wagner also recognized efficiencies with MLS NEXT Pro's Timed Substitution and Off-Field Treatment rules as items European leagues could also benefit from. Going as far as to say the off-field treatment aspect would be "a very good rule for European football."

The experience was also fruitful for the South Londoners. Crystal Palace U21 head coach Darren Powell enjoyed the test of playing against sides in midseason form and attributed it as a wonderful way for his men to get match-fit for their upcoming eight-month campaign. 

A 2-1 loss to Real Monarchs and a 1-1 tie with Whitecaps FC 2 go on the record as MLS NEXT Pro getting the better of the Palace U21s, but the goal wasn't to come into Utah and sweep the series. It was squarely on the fitness aspect and Powell walked away satisfied with how his team accomplished their goal. 

In addition to recommending the MLS NEXT Pro Invitational as an endeavor any team should consider taking, Powell's lasting impression was positive when he assessed the caliber of opponent the North American contingent offered.

The top-ranked Western Conference side in MLS NEXT Pro was served a rare dish of defeat by the Germans. 

Colorado Rapids 2 marched into the Invitational boasting a 12W-1L-5 T record and deployed a mixed squad in their 1-0 loss to the Hoffenheim U23 group. Rapids 2 were bested by a 48th-minute concession from Hoffenheim's Abdoul Camara, but it was just one blip in what turned out to be a nervy contest where they were visibly out-sized by the visitors. 

In the end, Rapids 2 boss Erick Bushey was able to set the result aside and focus on the most important part of his group's participation. 

"It's a different level of pressure." He shared.  "Even the fact that it's a German side that we don't see every day, more than just the players running at us. And then ultimately, we started a fairly young group today, for them to get that experience and see how they weigh up to their counterparts in Europe, for me, that carries great value."

First-year head coach Ricardo Clark enjoyed shaking up the schedule a bit. WFC2’s 1-1 tie with the Crystal Palace U21s got a little chippy at times, which is another area of experience his players wouldn't be getting elsewhere. Just like the play on the field, the cultural norms of discipline and mental clashes vary from one country to another.  

All that aside, WFC2's Lowell Wright notched what's likely to be one of the most memorable goals in his young career and walked away with the confidence of being able to put one past the next generation of EPL stars. 

Ultimately, Whitecaps FC 2 was good enough to protect a 1-1 tie after CPFC 21s used an equalizer from Chimaechi Eze (younger brother of first-team superstar Eberechi) in a match that racked up a total of six yellow cards. 

"This is a great opportunity to play a European opponent, someone who we're not used to seeing on a regular basis within the league," said Clark. "And that exposure is valuable in their development. So, we approached the game very seriously and very competitively, and I was proud of our group and how we showed that on the field. It was a very good game to be part of for me and for the group,"

And of course, the gracious hosts.

Real Monarchs and the Real Salt Lake organization left quite an impression on this year's European visitors. They notched a win over the Crystal Palace U21s and fell to the Hoffenheim U23s in a 1-0 loss that had to be cut short due to a weather delay that impeded the visitor's travel schedule.

In his second year of hosting the Invitational, Monarchs' head coach Jamison Olave stood impressed with how his men fared against the international visitors and hopes it leads to gaining the confidence needed to unlock a new level to aid them in their playoff push in the MLS NEXT Pro regular season.