In 2020, Major Soccer League stepped in when U.S. Soccer ended its Boys Development Academy and launched MLS Next, a national youth league comprised of its clubs' academy teams plus more than 100 amateur clubs. MLS's expansion into the American soccer landscape increases further in 2022 with the launch of MLS Next Pro, a Division III league that in its first season will feature 20 MLS-affiliate teams (including St. Louis, which enters MLS in 2023) and one independent team, Rochester.
The other MLS eight clubs will add affiliate teams in 2023 when more independent clubs are expected to enter. Charles Altchek, who joined the MLS commissioner's office in 2014 and most recently served as MLS's senior vice president of league growth and operations, is now the MLS Next Pro President. We spoke with Altchek about his soccer background -- he captained Harvard and was invited to the 2007 MLS Player Combine -- and what to expect from the new league.
SOCCER AMERICA: What was your early soccer experience?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: I grew up in the New York area playing AYSO and then travel soccer up and down the East Coast. I played for FC Westchester and joined ODP during my last few years of high school. And then was very fortunate that John Kerr gave me an opportunity to play for him in Harvard.
Soccer was really a big part of my childhood, whether it was here or when I was visiting France, where half my family lives. My mom's Parisian, but I have family all over France. When I was 12, France hosted the 1998 World Cup. I remember watching the games with my parents and having lots of fun. I had posters of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and all those guys in my room. I have great memories of growing up with the game and being around the game.
SA: Did you remember much about the U.S. performance at the 1998 World Cup?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We don't talk about that.
SA: Did your dad have a soccer background?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: My dad knew nothing about soccer. The only time I can remember him playing was once, with me and my younger brother in the backyard. And my dad ended up breaking his ankle. It was the first and only time he ever tried to play soccer.
SA: You ended up having a successful career at Harvard, including serving as captain ...
CHARLES ALTCHEK: I had a tremendous and in many ways transformational experience playing college soccer. I learned so many lessons both on and off the field about being part of a team, about leadership, about commitment, the value of hard work. All of those components came together for me while balancing my academic pursuits and trying as hard as I could to win. I was so proud to represent Harvard on the field. It was really a special time in my life. I learned so much about myself and what's important to me through the sport. I've dedicated my career to this sport. The game has given me a lot, and now I'm in a position to give back. I'm really thankful for that.
SA: What attributes of soccer inspired you to make it such a major part of your life and also a career?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Soccer's the world's game and it brings together all of these different cultures, languages, styles, ethnicities. You get to play with players from different areas and international places. That's what's so beautiful about the sport: It brings together all this diversity of thought, of play, of background. For any young person that's really impactful. And it certainly was for me.
It's also the ultimate team sport. Even the most talented individuals, whether it's Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, need a strong team around them. And it's more than just about having really good players around you. It's about having a plan, having a vision, and being aligned in terms of your mission.
In my experience, it's the teams that communicate with each other effectively, transparently and in support of one another that are successful.
Soccer provides such a great platform to enrich the lives of so many people, whether they're players, fans, those who work in and around the game, or the communities in which the teams play. It provides this vehicle for positivity and for happiness in so many ways that's really special and unique. It brings together people from all walks of life who are passionate about the sport or about their city. And they express that through their fandom for the sport.
SA: You were among the 58 college seniors invited to the 2007 MLS Player Combine, at which MLS clubs scouted ahead of the draft. (Other attendees included Brad Evans, Robbie Findley and Tally Hall.) ...
CHARLES ALTCHEK: I was somewhat surprised to get invited. Even though I had had some success in the field, the Ivy league certainly wasn't considered to be the top, top level at that time. It was a great experience for me. I was very grateful to be invited to the combine. It was great to meet a bunch of players who ended up having awesome careers in Major League Soccer and in other places. But I quickly realized that I was in going to be more successful with a path that was off the field. I didn't get drafted. I didn't get invited to any preseasons, so the decision was made for me to a certain extent. I went on a different path, but always with an eye toward getting back into the game where I could be a productive part of the sport. I've been lucky to have found that path and pursue it, and work hard towards it.SA: Your first job was outside of sports ...
CHARLES ALTCHEK: I had done a few internships on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs while I was still in school. Coming out of school, I thought that it would be helpful for me no matter where I ended up to have a strong foundation, go through a training program, similar to the preseasons we used to go through in college -- a well-organized "preseason training" by the bank for first-year analysts. I worked in the fixed income division. It was an interesting time, from 2007 to 2009, to live through the financial crisis and be in the thick of it on a trading desk at Goldman Sachs.
I learned a lot about how the markets operate and how the world works. I saw the good and the bad. It really helped me develop a solid foundation from which to build on, and a lot of those learnings I have taken as I've progressed in my career. And the network that I developed through those years on Wall Street was very important, and I still rely on a lot of those relationships today as I've worked on different projects and different opportunities here at the MLS league office.
SA: After that you worked for the New York Mets in Business Development ...
CHARLES ALTCHEK: The Mets were working with Major League Soccer to launch the second team in New York. I joined the organization with that goal in mind and worked in a couple of different areas of the organization. That was my crash course in the professional sports business. For different reasons, the soccer project didn't pan out. I went back to school and while I was in business school here at Columbia, I worked for the Red Bulls. ... I had met Commissioner Don Garber and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott through my work with the Mets, and then reconnected with them when I was at the Red Bulls. I was fortunate that they were looking for someone to work in the commissioner's office. That was in the middle of 2014, which is when I started here at the league office.
SA: While at Columbia, did you encounter Sunil Gulati? (A senior lecturer in the economics department who at the time was also U.S. Soccer President, had been MLS Deputy Commissioner when the league launched in 1996, and is in the National Soccer Hall of Fame)?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: I was fortunate to take his class at Columbia and spend a lot of time with him there and in his office, getting his perspective and his advice. I count Sunil as a close friend and as a mentor. I have a lot of respect for him.
SA: I've heard students say that his classes are very popular at Columbia and he's an excellent lecturer ...
CHARLES ALTCHEK: That is all very accurate. He teaches a sports class and he has great guest lecturers and he gives great lectures. That's a separate program that he does with the business school aside from being a [senior lecturer] of economics. He creates a lot of opportunities for students to network with executives from around the industry. He's a great connector. And he really cares about his students. He really is a special guy.
SA: Can you describe what your work entailed in the MLS commissioner's office?CHARLES ALTCHEK: It was very much focused on our growth strategy around new teams, new stadiums, new owners, new investors. I've spent the majority of my time over the last number of years working on that front and working very closely with our new teams on all of their plans around building their organizations, building their stadiums, being sure that they were getting all of the support they needed from the league office. I've done many other things in the middle of that, but that's really been the highlight of what I've been doing here at the league office. I would say that the tagline for what I've done over the last number of years is really "grow the game," which set me up well for when earlier this year I was asked to lead the planning for the new league, MLS Next Pro. Because "grow the game" is what the new league is going be about as well. And then I was fortunate enough to be asked to be the president of the new league.
SA: MLS launched the youth league, MLS Next, what seemed like overnight to step in when U.S. Soccer ended its Development Academy in April 2020. Was MLS's quest to launch a lower-division MLS pro league something that had been in the works before that?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: The idea of having our own second league had been discussed and debated for years. What happened during the pandemic was that U.S. Soccer stepped out of the DA, so we had a short period of time to make a decision on MLS Next. So instead of having three meetings a year with our committees of owners who advise us and work with us on our strategies, we were meeting with them weekly over Zoom. During that dialogue we agreed that the time to launch our new [pro] league was now. And in the ramp up to, and with an eye towards the World Cup in 2026, the timing was perfect to launch MLS Next Pro. To continue our mission of growing the sport across the country and reach new markets, develop opportunities for players, for staff, for referees, for all those who want to break into the game to be part of our ecosystem. And to connect our academies with our first teams and complete that pro player pathway in a way that's integrated and connected.
SA: Was there a benefit to launching MLS Next ahead of the MLS Next Pro?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We've learned a lot as an enterprise in launching MLS Next in the timeframe that we launched it. We've taken many of those learnings and applied them to this project. What we've learned, as much as anything, is once we set our sights on something and all are moving in the same direction, we can accomplish anything. Launching a new league is not easy, but we have the full support and attention of Major League Soccer on MLS Next Pro to ensure that it is successful from every perspective.
We are very mindful of the fact that it's going to take time to achieve all of our goals. But one of the exciting things about MLS Next Pro is that it's a long-term project, and one that is going to evolve dramatically over the next number of years as we utilize it as a testing ground for ideas, both on and off the field, new technologies, new commercial concepts, new rules, competition rules, working with FIFA and IFAB to test new new ideas.
We really want this to be a laboratory for all different types of innovations. As we've done in Major League Soccer, we want be at the forefront of everything that's happening in soccer and continue to push all of the boundaries.
SA: What can you tell us about what the schedule will look like? Where teams will play?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: For next year, we've created a really compelling competition, very much in the mold of what we're doing with Major League Soccer. It starts at the end of March, a 24-game season, eight teams qualify for the playoffs. We'll have a championship where the higher seeded team will host through the playoffs. And then the higher seeded team will host the cup.
We're exploring ways to evolve that competition as early as 2023, thinking about different ways to integrate international competition. We're having conversations with other leagues and teams from around the world about creating different moments in the schedule where we can have international competition. We think international competitions with second teams around the world is going to be very important to what we're doing from a development perspective, from a competitive perspective, and over time potentially from a commercial perspective.
There's a lot of white space in all aspects of what we're doing and the competition itself is going to be something that we'll be exploring as to how to evolve it and test new ideas.
SA: Is there a possibility of MLS Next Pro games taking place before an MLS match?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Could you have a doubleheader with an MLS Next Pro game before or after the MLS game? Certainly you could have that. What is going to be so interesting is the evolution of what our MLS affiliated teams do from a venue perspective, and even from a market perspective over the next number of years. You're going to have a lot of moving around and testing and innovating from that perspective. I'm really excited to see where our second teams end up over time. I think some will play in their home markets and their home stadiums. Others will play in their home markets in the secondary stadiums, and then others will play in a secondary market in a secondary stadium.
That diversity of market, of venue, of fan experience is what's going to be exciting, because no two teams are really going to do it the same way. I think that applies to how teams are going to be building their rosters in terms of signing younger players, signing veteran players, signing players from their academy, bringing players down on loan from their MLS team. And then you have the independent teams. Our first independent team is in Rochester.
It's the diversity of all of those things that's going to be compelling for fans and for partners on the commercial side. And we're just getting started. We have 20 MLS affiliated teams coming in in 2022. We have Rochester coming in. So that's 21 teams next year. The rest of the MLS teams will come in 2023. And then the question is how many independent teams will start playing in 2023 and beyond. We're working on that now. We're having some really interesting conversations with groups that have reached out to us over the last number of months.
MLS Next Pro president Charles Altchek with MLS Next Pro SVP of Competition & Operations Ali Curtis (left).
SA: Can you describe what an MLS affiliate team's typical roster in MLS Next Pro will look like?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: Teams will have a combination: Players signed directly to the MLS Next Pro team. They will be able bring players up from their academy teams while maintaining their amateur status. As per the CBA, they'll be able to bring players down on loan from MLS first teams. So you'll see a combination of all of those things happening, and every team's going do it differently.
SA: There could be situations where a veteran players are working their way back from injury by appearing for the MLS Next Pro team?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: There's potential for that, and every other permutation you can think of, you're going to see it in this league.
SA: Will there be a foreign player limit or any age stipulations?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: The league is sanctioned by U.S. Soccer, the Canadian Soccer Association and Concacaf. We're being governed by those federations and that confederation. So we'll have a foreign player rule as per U.S. Soccer
From an age perspective, there are no requirements. It's not a U-23 league. Teams can have several older players to provide experience or otherwise. We're providing maximum flexibility to our teams to build and manage their rosters as they see fit for their overall strategy, and what they're looking to achieve across their club.
[Editor's note: Teams may carry more or fewer than 7 international players in the event an international player slot is traded. For example, Team A trades for an international player slot from Team B, thereby the number of international players that Team A may have is 8, whereas Team B's number is 6). International player slots, while tradable, must be for a specified period of time (i.e., a club may trade an international slot, but such slot must return to them in the future).]
SA: And academy players can play in MLS Next Pro without losing college eligibility?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We've worked with the NCAA to ensure that you can have players compete at this level while maintaining their eligibility.
SA: Will MLS NEXT Pro teams compete in the U.S. Open Cup?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: In 2022, Rochester, an independent team, and St. Louis City SC, the MLS Club that launches in 2023, will compete in the U.S. Open Cup. Going forward, only independent (non-affiliated) teams will compete in Open Cup.
SA: Seven of the 2022 MLS Next Pro teams played in the USL in 2021, and in recent years MLS teams' USL affiliates helped young MLS players advance. What makes MLS Next Pro preferable for MLS clubs to advance young players compared to USL-affiliate approach? What's the MLS-USL relationship like now?
CHARLES ALTCHEK: We've had a great relationship with USL for decades. We've had teams competing in their league for a number of years. We have teams competing in their leagues this year. We'll have teams competing in the USL Championship next year, before they make the move over. And we're going to continue to have a good relationship with the USL in the future. Our mission here is to continue to grow the sport of soccer in the U.S. and Canada and we're really focused on what we're doing with MLS Next Pro and completing our pro player pathway, controlling our own destiny from that perspective as it relates to managing the schedule, managing travel, managing the competition -- the basic blocking and tackling of running a soccer league. And we know how to do that very well.
While player development is certainly a component of our plan with MLS Next Pro, it's much more than a development league. As we add independent teams and grow the sport across the country, reaching new markets and creating new opportunities for those who want to break into the game, it's going continue to push the sport forward.
It's a vast country there's and there are many, many open markets where you don't yet have professional soccer. We're excited to engage with communities who want to explore bringing professional soccer to their city, to their fans. I'm looking forward to engaging in those discussions. That's a lot of what I've done here at Major League Soccer over the last number of years as it relates to our expansion plan. And I'm looking forward to continuing that work with MLS Next Pro.
Photos courtesy of MLS and Harvard Athletics