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What will Union 2 roster look like for inaugural MLS Next Pro season?

Details are emerging about how rosters will be constructed for new MLS third division league

Shivant Krishnan

There’s still plenty of unknowns surrounding the new MLS third division league that was finally officially announced on Monday but some details have emerged this week about how the rosters will be handled.

Sources have indicated that game day rosters for league games — there are 24 slated for 2022 — will have a requirement of 13 players on paid contracts and that the maximum number of unsigned academy players permitted to be on the field at the same time will be five. There is also talk of a maximum number of players age 23 and over being set at 3.

This will ensure that there is a level of professionalism to the third division league and won’t just be an extension of the amateur MLS Next academy league. It also signals the league’s intention to make it more than just another reserve league they abandon in a couple years.

USL Championship required a minimum of 12 players signed to USL contracts on a roster. It’s not yet clear whether the new MLS third division league will include players on first team contracts in that 13 number.

This will leave the Union more flexibility to get minutes for players on first team contracts while also allowing for a number of players to be signed to second team development contracts, similar to the ones we’ve seen for players like Jack McGlynn, Nathan Harriel, Cole Turner and others who were first signed to USL contracts before being added to the first team roster the following year. Cory Burke and Olivier Mbaizo are both success stories from players who were brought in from the international market initially on second team developmental contracts/loans.

Here’s a positional look at some options head coach Marlon LeBlanc might be looking at to augment future signings when the inaugural season of the new league kicks off in March.

Goalkeepers

Barring a trade or sale of Matt Freese, the Union will have Andre Blake, Freese and Joe Bendik back in 2022. That leaves an opportunity for Andrew Rick, the next rising star keeper in the academy to get pro minutes under his belt. Other keepers include Damian Alguera, a recent addition to the Union 2 group and U15 keeper Gavin Atkinson. Owen Moore and Ian Turnbull have been playing for the Union Development Squad this season and are both committed to college teams for the fall.

Defenders

Homegrown Brandan Craig will likely be wearing the armband and leading the defense for Union 2 in the new league and homegrown left back Anton Sorenson will be a candidate for minutes in the new league. Offseason moves from the first team will determine how much Nathan Harriel would be available to play at this level. Some other current academy players who could make the jump into the Union 2 back line include CB/RB Francis Westfield, RB Noe Uwimana, LB Lucas Martelli and center backs Gavin Wetzel and Daniel Krueger. Cole Turner could also see some time at center back.

One question mark is Gino Portello, a 20-year-old Italian center back who has been on the payroll but who was never announced as a signing and has been mostly spotted training to the side when he’s been with Union 2 and the first team in training this season. He’s not currently listed on the Union 2 roster but was on the Union’s salary list released by the MLSPA.

Midfielders

With Cole Turner getting his option exercised by the first team you’d expect to see him getting more time with Union 2. A quartet of players committed to college programs for the fall should also get chances in Jackson Gilman, Jack Jasinski, Anthony Ramirez and Ian Abbey. Diego Lopez, CJ Olney, Luke Zielinski, Marcello Mazzola, Logan Oliver and Alex Perez are all academy options.

Forwards

Shanyder Borgelin was the lone previously signed Union 2 player who stayed with the club during their run of friendlies this year. Selmir Miscic was loaned to North Carolina FC for the final year of his contract and everyone else from the 2020 USL Championship team who didn’t earn first team deals was released. It’s hard to say whether Borgelin will be back or not since he’s been signed since the 2019 season. Bajung Darboe, who is a prime candidate for signing a professional deal for 2022, Nelson Pierre, Marcos Zambrano and Gael Medrano give the Union a solid front line that could be augmented by a signing or two from outside the organization via the MLS U-22 initiative or through a second team contract.

Miscellaneous

One consistent feature of the Union’s second teams over the years is that they’ve brought a ton of players in to trial and signed a number of guys they wanted to get a longer and closer look at. That likely won’t change with the new league but the ability to use first team players to meet the 13 requirement will add a level of flexibility they didn’t have in USL. They could sign/loan in 5-6 players from the international or domestic market to second team contracts, sign 3-4 additional players from the academy to first team contracts for 2022 and be in pretty good shape for fielding an 18 each week.

What the competition level will look like from week to week remains to be seen. While the Union have done an admirable job of utilizing their second team to bridge the development gap between the academy teams and the first team, a lot of other teams in MLS still have plenty of catching up to do. It will be interesting to see how rosters across the league are constructed and where the Union might be able to continue to find advantages through their recruiting and scouting efforts and their play on the field. As in the USL Championship the goal won’t be to get results or win trophies (eight of the 21 teams will play for a cup in September) but to use the new league as a launching pad for the next wave of homegrown players.