5 Canadians to watch ahead of the start of 2023 MLS Next Pro season
As the 2023 MLS season forges on, the next generation of talent is set to begin an adventure of their own this weekend.
After a strong debut season in 2022, MLS’s second league, MLS Next Pro, is back for 2023, armed with new teams, new players and some new rules.
It promises to be a big year, too, as teams look to take advantage of this developmental pathway that the creation of this league has opened up, creating a clearer path to the first team for youngsters, be it those who came through the academy, or some who have come from elsewhere.
In particular, it should also open the door for more Canadians to make the jump to MLS, creating more opportunities for them to get chances with MLS teams. That was proven in 2022, as the likes of Mo Farsi (Columbus Crew), Jacen Russell-Rowe (Columbus Crew), Kyle Hiebert (St.Louis City), Kobe Franklin (Toronto FC) and Ali Ahmed (Vancouver Whitecaps) are just a few examples of Canadians who leveraged strong performances in the league into MLS deals.
Therefore, ahead of the start of the 2023 MLS Next Pro season, here’s a look at a few Canadians who will look to follow a similar path, joining the ever-growing list of Canadians who are cutting their teeth at the MLS level on a regular basis.
Antoine Coupland (Vancouver Whitecaps):
A big advantage of MLS Next Pro? It gives teams the ability to take punts on players who certainly have the potential to crack the first team, while not burning a first-team contract spot, or risking introducing a player to too much, too soon.
And last year, the Whitecaps showed that they’re not shy in making those punts, using their MLS Next Pro team to give shots to all sorts of Canadians, ranging from Easton Ongaro to Lowell Wright, and many in between.
This year, that’s been no exception, as they’ve retained the likes of Wright, and have gone after a mix of intriguing names to add around him, including Levonte Johnson, Malcolm Johnston and Gloire Amanda.
Yet, the most intriguing name of them all may be one that quietly slipped under the radar beneath all of those moves - the arrival of Antoine Coupland.
A name that many CPL fans might recognize, as the 19-year-old played 18 games for Atlético Ottawa as a teenager in 2020 and 2021, he then headed out to Croatia to join top-flight side HNK Rijeka, where he played 23 games in their U19 system.
GOAL 🔴⚪🔵— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) July 12, 2021
"Watch me, rookie... 😤"
Viti Martinez, looking for service from Antoine Coupland in an earlier effort, returns the favour properly at the last to help give @AtletiOttawa a 2-0 win over @CPLCavalryFC#CanPL POST-GAME | 🔴 https://t.co/hishXepRT3 pic.twitter.com/1UlofF6LWm
But having aged out of that level, he is set to soon sign for the Whitecaps' second team, per a source, after trialling for the team this preseason. There, he’s shone, picking up a couple of goal involvements, and overall just looking very lively in his stints.
Because of that, it’s expected that he will play a big role for WFC II this season, helping bring a lot of the Whitecaps' dangerous attacking options into games at that #10 role. Plus, having scored nine goals in 23 games at the Rijeka U19 level, as well as 2 goals for Ottawa, he’s a bit of a dual-attacking threat, one that can hurt teams with his ability to both score and create.
Especially given his young age, he feels like someone who could very well make the jump up to the first team with a strong season, making him a name to watch on a loaded Vancouver side, one that was already fun to watch in 2022.
Noble Okello (New England Revolution):
Sometimes, all you need in this sport is a second chance, and Okello will look to get that over in New England, where he recently joined their second team ahead of the MLS Next Pro season.
After coming through the Toronto FC academy, the 22-year-old saw his option get declined this past offseason, forcing him to find a new club after over a decade with his hometown team, one where he made 30 appearances for the first team and 45 appearances for the second team.
Great run and finish from the 21 y/o Noble Okello to score his 1st goal with TFC’s 1st team in 2021— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) September 23, 2021
He’s been good when given the opportunity for #TFCLive, and he continued that tonight
Nice to see him get rewarded for that here#CanChamp #CanMNTpic.twitter.com/riKFk30dH4
Despite that setback, however, Okello had no shortage of suitors this offseason, allowing him to quickly land on his feet again. It took a while to do so, as he first trialled with Inter Miami, then trialled with the LA Galaxy, but then New England came calling, allowing him to sign ahead of the new season.
There, the 6’5” midfielder will look to showcase the potential that had many salivating over his time with TFC.
Able to cover a lot of ground in the middle of the park, and solid on the ball for his size, he’s got the attributes to be a dominant midfielder, but he just needs to put everything together. If not, a shift to centre back could also make a lot of sense, which is also something to monitor.
No matter where he plays, though, one thing is for sure - he should do very well at this level given his experience, which should then hopefully lead to a first-team deal, helping him get his MLS dream back on track.
Isaiah Johnston (Nashville SC):
A former CPL standout, Johnston is looking to follow the Mo Farsi route with his intriguing move to MLS Next Pro, as he made the intriguing decision to join Huntsville City this offseason, becoming Nashville SC’s second team’s first-ever signing.
After three seasons with York United, where he made 53 appearances in all competitions, it’s a high-upside move for the 21-year-old, who has the chance to prove himself in a brand-new environment, as Nashville elected to not have an MLS Next Pro side last year.
That’s exciting, as Johnston was one of the best prospects in the CPL across his time in the league, scoring four goals and adding five assists in all competitions, proving to be a good creative dual-threat in midfield.
Plus, most interestingly, he brings a bit of bite to his game, as shown by his 20 yellow cards, an average of one nearly every three games. Of course, that’ll be something that he’ll have to reign in as he gets older, as it also led to a few suspensions, but that shows a fire not often seen from creative players, further showing Johnston’s unique package as a player.
Therefore, look for Johnston to really use those skills in this first MLS Next Pro season. Able to play anywhere in the middle from defensive midfielder to striker, with his best role likely being as more of a #8/#10, he’ll need to be a key face for this new Huntsville side, who will be playing catch-up versus those who had a team last year.
From there, Johnston will look to make that jump up to MLS, showing why he’s been a highly-regarded prospect for a few years now.
Nassim Mekidèche (Sporting KC):
Another former CPLer on this list, Mekidèche wasn’t in the league for a long time, but he still left a mark in his half-season with Valour at the end of 2022.
Brought in to shore up the team’s centre back depth, he ended up quickly impressing on the field, playing 10 games as the team mounted a late playoff push, one that ended up falling just short.
As a result, SKC moved quickly to try and bring him in this offseason, granting him a trial with the first team, before signing him to a second-team deal back in January.
Because of that, it’s expected that the 22-year-old plays a big role for SKC II this year, where he’s expected to be a big leader after his experience with Valour, as well as in Algeria and Tunisia, where he also has a further 10 appearances across the top flights of both of those leagues.
Also eligible to play for Algeria, he’s also someone to watch from a Canadian perspective, as it’s no secret that the team is always looking to add to their centre back ranks. And in Mekidèche, there’s certainly a prospect John Herdman will be intrigued about, as he’s good on the ball, but also brings a bit of an edge defensively, and is good in the air, not looking out of place on a Valour team known for their defensive ability.
Therefore, look for him to try and make that jump up to the MLS level, following in the path of someone like recent CanMNT call-up Kyle Hiebert, who was actually a few years older than Mekidèche when he joined MLS Next Pro last year.
Adam Pearlman (Toronto FC):
Yet, while a lot of the names on this list might be heading to MLS Next Pro for second or third chances, it’s important to remember that it’s also a league that will aim to provide opportunities to young promising prospects out of teams academies.
Adam Pearlman is a perfect example of that, as at just 17 years of age, he’s looking to have a big season for TFC II this year.
An academy graduate who has been at the club for over seven years, he quickly became a name to watch last year, as he played 22 games for TFC II in their debut MLS Next Pro season, as they made a surprise run to the final four.
Despite being one of the younger players in the league, and playing in one of the toughest positions, centre back, he did not look out of place, which is a big credit to him.
Mbongue (Priso’s younger bro) wins MOTM with a brace but this one was all about Kobe Franklin - clearly a cut above at this level, and Adam Pearlman making his pro debut after just turning 17. Pearlman’s positioning, poise, and distribution at CB was phenomenal #CanMNT #TFCLive https://t.co/NOAOcRnAyi— 🅵🆁🅰🆃🅴🆂 (@CratesOfFrates) April 10, 2022
As a result, he was able to earn some looks at the youth level for Canada, making their U20 squad as a practice player, quickly throwing him on the radar of many, especially given the aforementioned need for centre backs at the Canadian senior team level.
Because of that, keep an eye on him in 2023. In his second pro season, he’ll look to really take a big step forward, as he tries to ink a first-team deal.
Having earned a call-up to the first team last year, he’s already on their radar, especially at his young age, but he’ll look to make that jump sooner rather than later. And given what he’s shown so far, you’d certainly back him in that quest, as he tries to become the latest TFC II player to sign for their first team.