A total of 21 teams will compete in the inaugural season, set to start in March of 2022. NYCFC will field a team in the Eastern Conference, and compete against familiar rivals such as New England, Philadelphia, and Toronto. The New Jersey Red Bulls are set to join MLS NEXT Pro in 2023.
NYCFC will also compete against the Rochester NY FC, which is partially owned by Leicester City FC striker Jamie Vardy. Rochester is currently the only team in MLS NEXT Pro not affiliated with an MLS organization, but other independent clubs are expected to join as the league expands.
Vardy’s involvement in MLS NEXT Pro is highly symbolic. The league will not only cultivate young talent, it will give playing time to professionals who aged out of youth teams but could earn a spot on an MLS squad. That was the career path of Vardy, who was playing in the fifth-tier of English soccer in 2012 at the age of 25. Later that year he joined Leicester City, then in the second division Championship. Vardy went on to become one of the most lethal strikers in the Premier League, scoring 147 goals for his club and helping them win the title in 2015.
While MLS NEXT Pro will function as a second-tier league to MLS, it will not have promotion and relegation. It further sidelines the United Soccer League, a professional league that has functioned something like a second-tier but isn’t affiliated with MLS. The two organizations have a strained relationship.
NYCFC will announce the name of its MLS NEXT Pro team at a later date.
As for Rochester’s name, the team was called Rochester Rhinos until August of this year. Founded as the Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1996, Rochester NY FC might now have a more respectable brand by the standards of international sport, but it gave up a delightful and unique name. Hopefully, Rochester’s supporters will keep the memory of the Three Rs alive.