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Philadelphia Union II to join 20 other teams in new MLS third division league in 2022

MLS announced the name of the new league — MLS Next Pro — and the competition format on Monday

Philadelphia Union II will be returning to an official league schedule in 2022 as one of 21 teams in the new third division professional league MLS has named MLS Next Pro.

The Union’s second team has been participating in a kind of dry run for the new lower division league playing several squads from other MLS teams over the last few months. The friendlies were not announced and were closed to media.

The league will kick off in March with teams playing a 24-game schedule. Eight teams will make the playoffs to compete for a cup in September.

Philadelphia’s eastern rivals will include the lone independent team coming online in the first season: Rochester NY FC. The club is a rebirth of the old Rochester Rhinos team and boasts Premier League striker Jamie Vardy as part of its ownership group.

Other teams in the east include second teams for Chicago Fire, FC Cincinnati, Columbus Crew, Inter Miami, New England Revolution, New York City FC, Orlando City SC and Toronto FC. The west will feature second teams for Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, St. Louis SC and Vancouver Whitecaps.

That leaves teams from Atlanta United, Charlotte FC, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Nashville SC and New York Red Bulls expected to join in 2023. Atlanta United, D.C. United, LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls all had teams competing in the USL Championship in 2021.

MLS launched MLS Next in 2020 out of the ashes of the shuttered U.S. Soccer Development Academy. They see this new league — which has received provisional sanctioning from U.S. Soccer as a third division league along with USL League One and NISA — as a way to bridge the gap between their academy league and the first division.

Union 2 was initially launched as Bethlehem Steel FC in 2015 and played in the second division USL from 2016-2020. The club was rebranded as Philadelphia Union II in 2019. A press release for the new MLS league published on the Philadelphia Union website Monday refers to the team as Philadelphia Union II so it doesn’t appear that the Union will be pursuing a different team name or brand for the new league.

Details about how pro contracts will be structured and roster rules for the new league were not included in the announcement. USL Championship required a minimum of 12 players to be signed to professional USL contracts, which at times led to some moves being made by the club to meet roster compliance guidelines. Playing in a second division league also involved a number of other requirements that limited the team’s ability to find a suitable venue to continue playing in the Lehigh Valley.