I spoke informally to a few executives and players from the USL to get a sense of opinions about MLS NEXT Pro. Within their circles, it isn’t seen as a true competitor for the league – at least not right now.
Nearly all of the clubs in MLS NEXT Pro are developmental affiliates, with Rochester New York FC as the lone exception. Rochester was one of the USL’s longest-standing markets, but the Rhinos were on hiatus before the Jamie Vardy-led revival. People around USL don’t view that as a huge loss, especially given the Rhinos’ struggles. The “outsider” status of the new ownership means that defections aren’t necessarily on the horizon.
Atlanta United 2, LA Galaxy II, Loudoun United, and New York Red Bulls II are moving over next season and follow a few Championship and League One affiliates in doing so, but figures within the USL have long anticipated those exits. Those teams were invaluable in stabilizing the league at the height of the NASL rivalry, but the USL is more stable now than it was then. A player I spoke to was bullish about the effect of those exits on the USL’s quality of play.
League One is a different question. Some executives worried about clubs jumping over or being crowded out within their markets and the new league creates extra competition for attracting expansion franchises. Still, the USL puts out a better television product and in-game experience, which matters to prospective owners.
On the pitch, my sources were adamant that MLS NEXT Pro isn’t a major factor in luring personnel away from the USL. USL players tend to see MLS NEXT Pro as especially youth-centered. There are exceptions: Josh Yaro and Wan Kuzain were high-end USL players that joined St. Louis City SC 2, albeit with the motivation of potentially making their MLS expansion roster. Nathan Fogaca, a double-digit scorer for San Antonio in 2021, also came up in multiple discussions after spurning a return to San Antonio in USL to join Portland Timbers 2 in MLS NEXT Pro. Fogaca has now reportedly signed a deal with the Timbers’ first team.
That said, the new USL CBA and the comparatively lacking protections offered by MLS NEXT Pro – not to mention the baseline salary gap – mean that the USL isn’t feeling a ton of pressure.