There may be one first division men’s soccer league in the United States, but there are plenty of lower tier ones.

On Dec. 6, Major League Soccer unveiled MLS NEXT Pro to the world. The 21-team league, which will sanctioned as a D3 Pro League in the U.S. Soccer pecking order of professional leagues.

The USL Championship, a D2 Pro League, will lose four teams to MLS NEXT Pro over the next two years – Sporting Kansas City in 2022 and the Red Bulls II, Atlanta United 2 and the LA Galaxy II in 2023.

The 21 clubs competing in MLS NEXT Pro’s inaugural season include 20 teams affiliated with MLS clubs and one independent club, Rochester NY FC.

In alphabetical order, here are the MLS clubs that will compete in MLS NEXT Pro in 2022:

Chicago, Cincinnati, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Miami, Minnesota, New England, New York City FC, Orlando, Philadelphia, Portland, Real Salt Lake, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, Toronto and Vancouver.

Eight additional MLS-affiliated teams will join MLS NEXT Pro in 2023, including Atlanta United, Austin FC, Charlotte FC, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Nashville SC and Red Bulls.

For years, the Rochester Rhinos had a dream of competing in MLS.

That never came true, but under a new name, the franchise will compete in a league with an MLS name. The team, founded in 1996, is owned by David and Wendy Dworkin and co-owned by Premier League striker and former English international Jamie Vardy of Leicester City.

“We are thrilled that Rochester NY FC will be the first independent club to join MLS NEXT Pro,” David and Wendy Dworkin said in a statement. “Rochester established itself as a winning club with the Rhinos, and we are pleased to add a new chapter in the city’s rich soccer history as Rochester NY FC.  We are excited to develop the future international stars of soccer, right here in our local community.  By joining this league, Rochester is on the cusp of the future and the evolving global game of soccer.”

Having an independent club in a league that has strong attachments to all of its franchise was a big leap for the team and the league and could make for some unusual bedfellows in the coming months and years.

But so far, so good.

“As far as telling us or dictating things, we obviously haven’t played a match yet, but thus far everything has been very collaborative,” David Dworkin told co-host Andrew Battisti on the Soccer is a Kick in the Grass radio show. “So that whenever we speak about anything … we’re different. There are 20 MLS teams, and we are the one independent team. So, there’s a great deal of respect for both our club and the league as a whole.

“There’s a lot of learning because they’re not accustomed to having someone in their league who hasn’t paid a fee to be an MLS team … It’s really been fascinating sitting where I am sort of watching things evolve. This is a different dynamic than they’re accustomed to. But fortunately, as much as they are a very big league, they can pivot, and they listen. If it’s anything like our discussions to date, I think it will continue to be very collaborative. I think they will continue to take suggestions from us and many things we suggested there they were implementing. Just simple things, you know, just simple things about an independent club and how things are different. But it’s been a wonderful, start so far.”

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at