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Ranking all 29 MLS academies, picking each team's top prospect

Who has the best academy in MLS? And who has the worst?

16 min read
Design: Peyton Gallaher

While we’re in the middle of the season in Major League Soccer, MLS youth teams have already reached the end of their season.

Competing in MLS NEXT, a league-run youth league, MLS Academy teams are in the process of trying to develop and forge talents for the next level. Now at the end of the academy season, we’re at a perfect juncture to assess where each MLS team stacks up against the others when it comes to youth development.

Enter: Backheeled’s MLS Academy Rankings.

These rankings are, of course, very subjective. Without the resources to fly around the country and observe each academy on a day-to-day basis, it’s difficult to really grasp how the different academies are supported and valued around the league. But there are still ways to evaluate: watching youth teams, examining how many teams are offered, and looking at the prospect depth and talent available.

The introduction of MLS NEXT Pro in 2022 was done in an attempt to create a more straightforward pathway. Like any professional organization without much history behind it, NEXT Pro’s quality of play is still a work in progress; close observers of the game note that top Division I men’s soccer programs offer a better standard on the field, though there are major contrasts in terms of schedule length.

For this exercise, the entire picture has been taken into account: history of prospect production, current talent pool, how successful the organizations are at moving players to the professional level, and last but not least, national team development. Along with that, we’ve highlighted the top domestic prospect for each team (signed or unsigned) that is U-20 eligible – born in 2003 or earlier.

Let’s get to it.

29. Minnesota United FC

The combination of a smaller population to draw from and a start-stop approach to an academy setup has left Minnesota with work to do. Things have improved over the past year, though the team is still waiting on a contribution from a Homegrown signing. Defender Devin Padelford recently became just the second academy graduate to see the field when he came off the bench against Toronto on June 3.

Top Prospect: Carlos Leatherman – An outside back slated to join Saint Louis University later this year, Leatherman’s been a key player for the Loons Academy and played in MNUFC 2 games this season. He has the tools and ability to be an effective MLS outside back, though playing a couple of seasons of college soccer should help develop those skills.

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